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January 22, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

It Is Time to Recognize Native American Lawyers

by Amber Reano

Native Americans are typically invisible in the legal profession. Statistical data does not always include Native Americans. If Native Americans appear in the data, they are usually found in the other column next to the more statistically significant underrepresented groups on the bar graph.

The failure to see Native Americans in the data only exacerbates the lack of visibility in the legal profession. A 2015 study published by the National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) found that “Native Americans often feel invisible and share an overarching perspective that their experiences are not valid or real.” (Mary Smith, Introduction to Nat’l Native Am. Bar Ass’n, The Pursuit of Inclusion: An In-Depth Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Native American Attorneys in the Legal Profession (n.p., 2015).) It is easy to say “more needs to be done,” but one organization is doing something about it—the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaska Natives (PLSI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

The failure to see Native Americans in the data only exacerbates the lack of visibility in the legal profession.

The failure to see Native Americans in the data only exacerbates the lack of visibility in the legal profession.


The Need for More Native American Attorneys

A survey in the 1960s showed that there were fewer than 25 Native American attorneys in the United States and approximately 15 Native Americans in law school. To address these low numbers, in 1967, Professor Fred Hart at the University of New Mexico School of Law established the Special Scholarship program, which later became known as PLSI. The program brought together 20–30 Native law students from across the United States to learn the necessary skills for law school success.

PLSI’s original goal of producing successful Indian law students largely remains the same, so, too, is the need for more Native American representation in the legal profession beginning with law school itself. Sam Deloria, former director of the American Indian Law Center (AILC), identified inadequate administrative support as one significant barrier for Native American law students in both the admissions process and during law school. Unfortunately, even if Native American law students succeed with little to no administrative support, they may still drop out due to financial difficulties.

PLSI strives to overcome these barriers by supporting Native American law students before and throughout law school. By the end of the eight-week summer program, students will have completed midterms and finals, a legal memo, an appellate brief, and a moot court argument before a panel of three judges. In the process, they learn analytical skills, study skills, examination-taking skills, in-class skills, and time management. Students develop these skills through practice, feedback, and reinforcement. American Bar Association-approved law school faculty teach the courses and provide evaluations of each student’s performance.

More than 20 law schools recruit from PLSI with the understanding that PLSI students are more prepared for the rigors of law school. Most students come to PLSI with a law school admission letter in hand, but some have not been admitted. All can benefit from having access to the law schools that recruit from PLSI. Some law schools will condition admission on a student’s performance in PLSI because they trust the intensive program and rely on PLSI professors’ evaluations of students.

Upward Bound funded the first year of PLSI in 1967, then the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) took over PLSI’s funding. The financial relationship between PLSI and the federal government acknowledges the shift in federal policy from Indian children’s assimilation through boarding school to Tribal autonomy over education through the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Although PLSI has since maintained some funding from the BIA and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) despite some funding gaps in 1986 and 1987, the funding is on a year-to-year basis. PLSI is rarely fully funded and relies heavily on private donations to supplement any shortfalls in the budget each year.

Fifty-six years later, the legacy of PLSI is visually portrayed through class photos framed and hung along the AILC’s main corridor. Over 1,550 students have attended and graduated from the program since PLSI’s inception in 1967. Of those who finished PLSI and went to law school, approximately 90 percent successfully completed their first year and were eligible to return in their second year. This is an important measure of success because completing the first year and being eligible to return for the second year means that the student has the academic capability to make it through law school. If they drop out after this, it is usually for personal or financial reasons.

PLSI is the most successful Native American pre-law program in the nation. Many Native American lawyers and leaders have graduated from the program, including Deb Haaland (PLSI 2003, TA 2004), the first Native American U.S. secretary of the interior; Kevin Washburn (PLSI 1990), dean and professor of law at the University of Iowa College of Law; Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis (PLSI 1992), the first Native American woman to be appointed to the Washington Supreme Court; John Echohawk (PLSI 1967), executive director of the Native American Rights Fund and 2023 Thurgood Marshall Award recipient; the list goes on.

The personal impact of PLSI on the graduates themselves has been incredibly important for their success in the legal profession. Justice Montoya-Lewis emphasized that “PLSI changed my life—I had never been in a classroom of only Native students before. Not only did I learn the basics of how to survive law school, I made friends for life and gained confidence in my voice as a Native woman.” Former Congresswoman Debra Haaland recognized “law school was unlike any other educational institution I had experienced, and PLSI grounded me. Our close-knit family of Indian law students has turned into professionals across the country working every day to create opportunities for our people and lift up our Tribal Nations.”

Recent graduates share the same stories on personal impact. They also share the same reasons as Debra Haaland for choosing law as a career. They want to uplift their tribes and people by addressing the issues that affect Tribal sovereignty, resources, rights, and land. These are the same reasons that their predecessors gave for pursuing law in the 1960s. They seek justice for tribes. 

Current Needs and PLSI Successes

Even with the extraordinary success of the program, PLSI has no intention of settling there. The world has changed significantly since the program’s first cohort arrived at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and the needs of the program changed with it. PLSI understands this reality and is continuously expanding its programming to fit the needs of current Native Americans in the legal field.

Presently, increasing the number of Native American attorneys and judges remains a priority for PLSI. The ABA data from 2022 shows 1.3 million lawyers are active across the nation. Of those who are active lawyers, “one-half of 1% (0.5%) were Native American in 2022—nearly unchanged from 0.6% a decade earlier.” (ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2022, Lawyers by Race and Ethnicity, Am. Bar Ass’n (Sept. 15, 2023).) The federal, state, and Tribal benches are still overwhelmingly non-Native. Currently, there are only four active Native American judges who sit on the federal bench and only two Native American justices who sit on state supreme courts. There has never been a Native American federal circuit court judge appointed. Id. at 5.

The American justice system is a critical area of the legal profession, where Native American representation is lacking. Native Americans are subject to the American justice system but rarely see themselves represented on the decision-making side of it. Lawrence Baca, former deputy director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice, stresses the importance of “Indians and non-Indians alike that Native Americans are seen as a part of that system as lawyers and judges, as advocates and decision-makers alike.” (Lawrence Baca, Nat’l Native Am. Bar Ass’n, supra at 8.)

PLSI’s work in increasing the number of Native attorneys also extends to increasing the number of Native judges. Again, data on Native American judges and judicial clerks is sparse, but existing data shows a correlation between clerking for a judge and later becoming a judge. This does not mean all judicial clerks will go on to become judges, however, it is a pathway worth pursuing if the goal is to increase the number of Native American judges at all levels of the judiciary.

PLSI has seen notable success in expanding this pathway to the judiciary. In 2013, PLSI’s data showed only six judicial clerks since the first PLSI class graduated from law school in 1970. In response, PLSI established a judicial clerkship committee, published a judicial clerkship handbook, participated in the American Bar Association’s Judicial Clerkship Program, and now hosts panels and workshops on judicial clerkships. Since 2016, PLSI has seen 28 of its alumni accept judicial clerkships for 31 federal and state courts. In the upcoming 2024–25 clerkship year, five PLSI graduates will clerk on federal courts of appeal and two on state supreme courts.

Cutting a path for more Native judges is one of PLSI’s priorities, but the overall goal is to see more Native American lawyers in every area of the legal profession. While many PLSI students and alumni express the desire to work in Indian law and work for tribes, there is no requirement that PLSI graduates do so. The program encourages excellence in all legal and policy paths.

Moving Forward

The future of Indian lawyering is bright despite the constant fight to stay visible. While it is important to continue identifying the current needs of Native Americans in the legal profession, it is equally important to consult studies like the NNABA’s Pursuit of Inclusion, still the only study of its kind, and pre-law programs like PLSI to help lead the way for more Native American participation in the legal field.

Upon reflection about the future of PLSI, Danielle Her Many Horses, current AILC Board president, said it best: “We’ve done an amazing job of prepping law students for law school and we’re going to continue doing that. The main mission now is to keep looking for new opportunities to help Indian law students as they become Indian practitioners in these different spaces where we generally haven’t been.”

Indeed, the mission now is to see Native Americans represented in every field, at every table, and on every bench both with Tribal and non-Tribal issues.

Learn more about PLSI and how you can help here:

The author would like to thank Rodina Cave Parnall, executive director of the American Indian Law Center, Inc., for her help and guidance on this article.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Amber Reano

Second Year Law Student at the University of New Mexico School of Law

Amber Reano (Diné/Kewa Pueblo) is a second-year law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She graduated from PLSI in 2022 and held a teaching assistant position at PLSI in 2023. She holds a B.A. in Public Health from Brown University.