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January 22, 2024

The National Native American Bar Association at 50: A Discussion with NNABA Presidents, Past and Present

Edited by Matthew Archer-Beck

The National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) turned 50 years old in 2023. NNABA celebrated this anniversary at its annual meeting on April 16, 2023, at the Sandia Resort in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The celebration included a dinner that recognized past NNABA leaders and included remarks from former NNABA President and current ABA President Mary L. Smith as well as Diane Humetewa, the first female Native American federal judge.

To commemorate this important anniversary, many NNABA presidents shared their thoughts on Native representation in the legal community, the importance of NNABA, and the future of NNABA and Natives in the profession. The following is a compilation of their responses to a few questions, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Why does a bar like NNABA matter?

Thomas Fredericks (first NNABA president, 1973–76; Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation): There was a real need for lawyers, especially when we started NNABA. You know, our philosophy was that Indians should run Indian affairs—and not just Indians in Washington, D.C. We needed Indians who had grown up on a reservation, who understood Indian culture, Indian government and governance, and how Indians wanted to progress.

When we started NNABA, we wanted to be real lawyers, not just Indians on display. We were movers and shakers, and so we wanted to have a real presence in the law. We wanted Indian law to be a real area of practice, and we wanted Tribal governments to flourish and have jurisdiction over our reservation lands. We also wanted to build a professional organization that could give us clout and one in which we could exchange ideas and help each other with different issues. And that’s why we needed a professional organization—so that we had a say when we talked to the American Bar Association or the Federal Bar Association or if we talked to the Department of the Interior or to Congress.

Lawrence Baca (1983–85, 1999–2000; Pawnee): A bar like NNABA matters because we’re the continuation of Native justice. We bring a different world viewpoint into the courtroom and into a negotiation setting. With so many laws that apply to Indian people, it’s incredibly important that we have Native lawyers. When you go into the court system, whether you’re the victim, whether you’re the defendant, you want to see somebody in the courtroom, somebody in the courthouse who looks like you. Sometimes people are not going to come forward and talk about their victimization unless it’s with someone who is themselves an American Indian. I worked on a case 30 years ago where the victim in the case didn’t know I was an American Indian. And then he saw a newspaper article about me, and he called me up and asked why didn’t you ever tell me you were an Indian? And I said because my being an Indian is not important to the legal analysis of your case. And he said, “Yes, it is—you’re being an Indian is everything. That’s why you understand—because you’re one of us.”

Arvo Mikkanen (1991–92, 1995–96; Kiowa/Comanche): I was the only student at my law school who was Native. And so, it was a very lonely place to be, not only because I didn’t have anybody I could relate to but also because my interest in the law was not to become a corporate lawyer, was not to become a Wall Street lawyer. My interest was very different, and so it was important to me to be able to communicate with other Native lawyers, to confer about cases that were happening, to be able to share information, and also to support one another in our career development.

I recall some of our other NNABA presidents going to Washington, going to the Justice Department, meeting with former Attorney General Janet Reno, meeting with other important officials, saying we need to have Native attorneys at the White House. We need to have Native attorneys in the Department of Justice. We need to have Native attorneys in the judiciary. And so all of those things early on we advocated for, and now it’s just an entirely different world because of those efforts made by those people decades ago.

Kalyn Free (1998–99; Choctaw): NNABA matters so much. I was so fortunate when I graduated from law school to be recruited to go to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), which is the creme de la creme of the legal profession, and that never would have happened had I not been recruited by NNABA attorneys. I went to the Federal Bar Association’s Indian Law Conference, and NNABA lawyers met there. I was scooped up by a couple of attorneys at the DOJ—Lawrence Baca and Gay Hume—and they said you need to apply to the DOJ. And so had NNABA not been there, I never would have had that opportunity and been recruited to do those things. Going to DOJ set the course of my career, and the contacts that I made through NNABA have helped me personally and professionally for the last 35-plus years that I’ve been a lawyer. People talk about the educational programs that we do, the CLE programs that we do. That is all very, very important. But the most important thing about NNABA is the collegiality, the camaraderie, and the contacts that you make that will help you professionally and personally throughout your entire career.

Kirke Kickingbird (1996–97, 2000–01; Kiowa): When I got out of law school, I think I knew seven Indian attorneys altogether. So, when Indian issues came up and there was interest to be protected for Tribal members or tribes, it felt like being one of the 300 Spartans against 100,000 Persians. But because of NNABA, it was a lot easier to communicate, to get advice about problems through the community. You could see who else had handled a similar problem and understand more about those cases and the arguments available.

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee (2011–13; Pointe-au-Chien): NNABA has really been a voice on many levels to represent Native people—to bring issues of Native lawyers to the forefront, to make sure that our voices are heard, that we’re participating, that our needs are respected, and that we are at the table and part of the conversation.

Linda Benally (2015–16; Navajo): It’s important to have a community in which you can associate—those who have interests that are similar to yours, experiences that are similar to yours, Tribal languages that are similar to yours, and with whom you can really work together to advance the Native American legal profession. I joined NNABA really for that purpose.

Robert Saunooke (2019–20; Eastern Band of Cherokee): What NNABA creates is an atmosphere of support and mentorship and a connection between the past and our future that allows us to prepare young lawyers to be more and expand our positions in the legal community. Without NNABA and what the founders began and what came afterward, Diane Humetewa wouldn’t be a federal judge because NNABA fought for those positions to be opened up and brought Native Americans to the table and made them part of the conversation. And that is only possible because we’re stronger together. So, NNABA provides an invaluable opportunity to expand and grow the Native American presence in the entire legal community, not just in one particular area like the government or a law firm, but in every part of a legal community.

Phil Brodeen (2022–23; Bois Forte Bank of Chippewa): When NNABA started 50 years ago, there were just a few Native attorneys. They really excelled, and now, thanks to that foothold, we’ve been advancing and advancing. I wish more people knew how widespread and how many of us there truly are. There are many Native attorneys out there doing good work in fields other than federal Indian law. I think the next step for us is to kick out more attorneys, Native attorneys, and kick them out into various industries so we can be thought leaders in all different areas of the law.

Makalika Naholawa’a (2023–24; Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian): We’re very lucky because we’ve had some incredible pathbreakers, many of them NNABA members and NNABA past board members and presidents, who I think students who now go to law school can look up to. But 50 years ago, we had never had a Native federal judge. We didn’t have Native law professors and deans the way that we have numerous examples today. And it was just a very different space. I hope that Native law students who enter the profession today find a community that embraces them, supports them, and helps them to navigate a profession that continues to be very difficult for Native people to survive and thrive in. But NNABA is a key part of what I think inspires hope for the future. In NNABA, I hope that rising students in the law find that immediately upon graduation they can be embraced by people through all different levels of the profession and in many different sectors that can support them in doing their very best in the law and doing what they can do to advance justice for their Tribal communities.

The National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) turned 50 years old in 2023.

The National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) turned 50 years old in 2023.

What has happened in the last 50 years for Native justice and Native lawyers?

Mikkanen: I would say definitely things are getting better. There’s no doubt about that. We have people who are knowledgeable; we essentially have warriors on the battlefields, in the courthouses. But if we look back at history, one thing that we always will see is when tribes become powerful, when tribes are able to exercise their rights, when tribes are able to take positions and become political powers, economic powers, that’s the time that we again become targets. We become targets of legislation. We become targets of others who view our rights as not being legitimate. We have to go on the defense. And I think in the next few years, it’s going to be very important for us to defend the things that we’ve gained.

Brodeen: In the last 50 years, I think we’ve had fits and starts of progress. I think as a general matter due to in large part attorneys, Native attorneys as well as organizations such as ours, we’ve been able to keep the ball rolling and make progress. That’s not to say that, you know, a Supreme Court decision won’t have negative implications or overturn law that we’ve relied upon. But I think one thing that we’ve been able to accomplish in the last 50 years is to really galvanize Indian law around the idea of Tribal sovereignty.

Benally: Fifty years or so ago in the 1970s, we had the first influx of Native American law students. Since then, we’ve seen an increase in lawyers, certainly still small in number, but much more than what we had 50 years ago. I think that we have seen a lot of progress in the Native American legal community, which has made a difference in terms of justice for Native American communities generally. So, it shows that the work that NNABA does is important.

What do you see as the future for NNABA and Natives in the legal profession?

Fredericks: NNABA has to stand up and take the role of a lawyer. I mean they have to help develop policies that give Indians more justice, that give Indians more progress in their social problems. They need to help them climb their way out of the problems that they’ve had being under the federal government for so many years and let Indians run Indian affairs. I also think it’s important that our people are part of the justice system. We need to have a Supreme Court justice. We need to have appellate court judges. We need more district court judges. We need Indians to fill all kinds of positions so that the system understands Indian law.

Ferguson-Bohnee: I think that NNABA should continue working on developing the profession, which means working to bridge that gap between law students and the profession and then working on professional development. We also have to continue to be the voice that is defending the sovereignty of Tribal nations because that is something that will continue to be an issue in the courts.

Saunooke: NNABA has to be present and has to keep fighting, training, helping attorneys be out there, educating them, and keeping us connected to our past. Because we will always be challenged every time we try to expand or protect our sovereignty. So, NNABA needs to be bigger and stronger. It needs to continue to capitalize on the foundation it’s already laid. We’ve had an incredible presence in the Coalitions of Bar Associations of Color and the Collaborative Bar Leadership Academy. We’ve been instrumental, especially in the last say 10 or 15 years, in assisting young lawyers, young Native lawyers who are coming out, to be connected, introducing them to other attorneys, and building that network which is so important as you move forward. We need more experienced Native attorneys to come in and participate and share their time, their experience, and their mentorship because a lot of us are getting older and we’re moving away, and we can’t count on John Echohawk forever.

Free: NNABA will certainly be around for another 50 years. We have more Indian attorneys today than we’ve ever had in the history of America, and that is only going to continue to grow. I see a bright future, and the reason is that we have so many Indian attorneys coming up through the ranks in all areas of practice. I think it’s so important that Indians not be pigeonholed. It is so important that we are seen in courtrooms, that we’re seen in boardrooms, and in so many facets of the profession.

Naholawa’a: Our Native communities have been here for thousands of years, since time immemorial. We will be here for thousands of years more, and so long as there are Native lawyers in this country, there should be NNABA. Our vision for the future is that Native American lawyers are thriving in all sectors of the law, at all levels of seniority, and that they are leading to ensure that justice is occurring and being realized in their communities. So, for all Native students rising up through law school right now, I want you to know that you are needed. It is important that you are here. We cannot wait to welcome you into this profession, and we hope that as you do, the NNABA will become your forever home.

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Matthew Archer-Beck

Senior Adjudication Counsel in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the General Counsel

Matthew Archer-Beck is senior adjudication counsel in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the General Counsel. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, he is president-elect of the National Native American Bar Association, vice chair of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice’s Native American Concerns Committee, Secretary of the ABA Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division, and 2024 ABA Law Day Chair.