September 14, 2020

The Obstacles of Being a Native Law Student: How Attorneys Can Help Overcome These Obstacles

Julia A. Giffin

The number of Native attorneys and law students has grown over the years. See Philip S. Deloria, The American Indian Law Center: An Informal History, 24 N. M. Law Rev. 285, 291 (1994); see also The Pursuit of Inclusion: An In-Depth Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Native American Attorneys in the Legal Profession, National Native American Bar Association (2015) at 10. This has led to increases in presence of Natives, Native culture, and Native issues at law schools. While law schools continue making efforts to improve their capacity for recruiting and supporting their Native students, major gaps remain in the diversity, inclusivity, and support of Native law students. The National Native American Law Students Association (National NALSA) released “The Petition for Diverse, Inclusive, and Supportive Law Schools” at the end of 2019, calling for law schools to take their efforts to a new level. Along with the petition, National NALSA developed a classification system to recognize “Native Friendly Law Schools” that are making genuine progress in meeting the ten standards presented in the petition. These standards include representation of Natives at all levels and providing the resources necessary for success, among many other important standards. In addition to a survey for current students and recent graduates to give input on success of their institutions. 

The Main Goals of the National NALSA Petition: Diversity, Inclusivity, and Support

The Main Goals of the National NALSA Petition: Diversity, Inclusivity, and Support

JGI/Jamie Grill // Getty Images

Origins of the Petition and Renewed Efforts to Ease the Obstacles Facing Native Law Students

While a board member of National NALSA during the 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 terms, I received input from Native students across the country about the many obstacles impeding their paths while at law school. The more I spoke with Native classmates, friends, and fellow National NALSA members, the more it became clear that these obstacles were not unique to one or two institutions. I quickly discovered that I was not the only one hearing about these issues from Native people. At the D.C. Federal Bar Association’s Indian Law Conference, where National NALSA convened for a series of meetings, we realized similar issues linger in the back of many National NALSA board members’ minds. We reached out to an amazing mentor and advocate, Congresswoman Deb Haaland. She suggested we draft a petition to demonstrate to law schools and the legal community the widespread nature of these challenges facing Native students, as well as how immense support exists to combat them. With this petition, our intention was to amplify our voices and those of our membership.

The Main Goals of the National NALSA Petition: Diversity, Inclusivity, and Support

The petition addresses a variety of issues with the mission of targeting the main obstacles Native law students face. The main goals of the petition are to increase diversity and inclusivity at law schools while also providing Native law students the support necessary to succeed.

Diversity
The diversity aspect of the petition focuses on three main components: representation within the faculty, student body, and curriculum. Representation within the student body is vital to ensure Native voices are present, but a representative faculty is also necessary to safeguard Native voices. Native faculty members are vital because they can truly relate to the issues unique to Native students and provide recognition and support for Native voices.

Representation through individuals is not enough, though. Law schools must also facilitate education and exposure to Indian and tribal legal systems and courts. Many Native students sit in a class where they are taught that there are two systems of government in the United States: federal and state. This erasure of tribes is not only damaging to Native students listening to it, but also does not properly equip law students for a legal career in a country where there are indeed three systems of government. Even those students who may never go into the practice of Indian Law are damaged by these teachings. Attorneys must be aware of the various government structures and jurisdiction within the United States and this form of teaching neglects to equip new attorneys with this knowledge.

Inclusivity
Inclusivity can take on a variety of forms and requires an ongoing effort to achieve. But the petition offers a few methods to ensure a minimum level of inclusivity. One main way for a law school to ensure inclusivity of Natives is to acknowledge the Nation(s) on whose ancestral land the school is located. Many Native students have expressed the feelings of being welcome when they witness their university acknowledge those Nations, even when it is not their Nation, as the act shows a respect for Native people as a whole as well as the Nation in question.

Another valuable strategy to ensure Natives feel included is to recognize and participate in events intended to highlight or honor Native peoples such as Indigenous Peoples’ Day (the Second Monday of October) and Native American History Month (November) and ceasing the celebration of those that are in opposition to Native Peoples such as Columbus Day. Lastly, an important way to ensure the inclusion of Natives is fostering positive communication institution wide. Native students cite instances where an administrator, professor, or fellow student says or does something, often without ill intention, that is hurtful and can make them feel unwelcome at the institution. Some examples of such interactions are asking a Native student what their blood quantum is or using stereotypes in addressing Native individuals and issues.

Support
In addition to other efforts, it is essential that Native students are supported financially and toward professional development while at law school. Some Native students have reported that law school support systems are not geared toward helping Native students in particular. Law schools can do better by equipping offices with resources on Federal Indian and Tribal Law post-graduation employment. Additionally, while many law schools currently provide information on federal, state, and administrative clerkships they should also have resources on tribal court clerkships and bar requirements for those students, Native and non-Native, interested in such positions.

Also, law schools must work to properly support Native students by maintaining an environment compatible with Native cultures. One way to accomplish this is the use of cultural competency programs that address Native cultures. While most schools currently have these programs, many do not discuss issues specific to Native individuals. Although these programs are crucial initial steps in providing support, institutions should have systems in place to address incidences of racial discrimination, bias, and microaggressions should they arise. Furthermore, law schools should also meet regularly with their local NALSA chapter or Native students to get feedback on their methods of diversity, inclusivity, and support.

How Practicing Attorneys Can Help to Overcome These Obstacles

There are several ways that current attorneys can aid law students in overcoming the obstacles faced by Native law students. One quick and nearly effortless way is to sign the petition and pass it on to others in your network and your alma mater to raise awareness.

Attorneys who are willing and able to devote a bit more time can help in ways that may have more tangible and direct impacts. Two primary examples of these efforts would be working with your alma mater and with your local NALSA chapter. Attorneys can reach out to alma maters to advocate for the important impact of meeting these standards not only on student’s time as law students but also their future success as attorneys. Meeting these standards will not only ensure that Native students experience fewer obstacles during law school but can equip all students with knowledge to help them be more successful attorneys. For example, providing more information on the tribal system of government and how it interacts with the other two systems will provide all students with the knowledge that this third system exists and the effects on jurisdiction should they encounter it in their practice.

Attorneys can directly help by reaching out to the local NALSA chapter and Native students. This can be your local chapter where you practice, your alma mater, or both. While attorneys often seem willing to help law students, it can be difficult/challenging for students to seek out these attorneys, especially those who will be allies to Native students. Some law schools do not provide the contact information for their alumni, to protect their privacy; this further complicates students’ efforts to conduct outreach. Native and ally attorneys can help to overcome this by proactively reaching out to chapters each year to offer their assistance. Everyone has different abilities so this can be anything from offering to be a resource if Native students have questions about their practice to offering to visit these schools to speak to students about an area of specialization—opening new doors Native students may otherwise have never considered stepping through.

View the petition  for Diverse, Inclusive and Supportive Law Schools

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Julia A. Giffin

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Julia A. Giffin is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe. She is a SEER Native American Resources Membership Vice Chair. Julia is currently studying for the New York Bar Exam after her recent graduation from Cornell Law School. While in law school, Julia was the Secretary of the National Native American Law Students Association and the President of the Cornell Native American Law Students. Prior to law school, Julia was a member of the Pre-Law Summer Institute’s class of 2017. Julia received her bachelor's degree from Whittier College where she double majored in Political Science and Philosophy.