April 01, 2020

Perspectives: My Brother, Dean Suagee

Mark Suagee

My brother, Dean Suagee, saw his vision early. He worked hard in school, putting physical abilities into wrestling and football, while his serious schoolwork led to high school valedictorian honors. He continued earning academic honors through college at the University of Arizona, and not until law school did he receive an average grade.

As his older brother, I was only generally aware of what he was doing. Then, in the summer of 1977, I was invited to work with him at the North Dakota Legal Services office as a clerk, serving members of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Dean was a staff attorney, and although I didn’t see much of him at work, I understood that even then he was focused on the vision of tribal leadership in the development of renewable energy projects.

After his death, I was able to look through his writing and work. Among his papers I found a history of Garrison Dam, the federal reclamation project responsible for flooding the reservation where we worked that summer. I also found a paper he produced for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, written as part of his responsibility as energy planner for the Eastern Band. Since his death, I have come to see these two examples as bookends within which the rest of his later work was created, spanning years of a productive life.

Our parents, J.T. and Ruth Suagee, encouraged the achievements of me, Dean, and our sister. Our mother, born to educated parents—her father a civil engineer and her mother a high school Latin teacher—was a kind person and gifted musician. Dad, who literally grew up at Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma before going on to college, became for my brother and me the essence of our Cherokee family and history. During Dean’s hospitalization, I had time to observe the long, distinguished face of my mother’s family and the Indian eyes of our father, aware that Dean’s mind inhabited a tribal world.

“Turtle’s War Party: An Indian Allegory on Environmental Justice,” one of many law review articles Dean wrote, symbolizes for me the deepest meaning of life for my brother. It was published in 1994 in the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation and begins with the tale of a turtle that leads an unsuccessful war party against the humans, after turning down offers of assistance from the wolf and the bear because of their differences and his own mistrust. Toward the end of the article, Dean acknowledged that the turtle in the allegory was himself, given that he tended to be slow, and, like the turtle, he was also not much at community organizing. The main point of the allegory was that tribal governments, in exercising their inherent sovereignty, are on safe ground when writing codes to protect their natural resources. The lesson of the turtle, though, was the importance of making wise decisions in choosing allies. Nothing was more important to Dean than our earth and his belief in, and concern for, the sovereignty of tribal governments in their Indian communities and in the traditions they live.

I rode with him on his last trip to Hualapai, the tribe he represented. The sky was clear driving north, and for the first time in my memory we talked of his work. He envisioned a book on renewable energy resources for use of the tribes of the nation. With my own retirement pending I offered help with the organization. I had no way of knowing then how little time he had left. I do know that he remained focused on his work, proud that he was contributing and optimistic he might have some impact on the work of tribal leaders and their attorneys. It bothered him that his health got in the way of those efforts. He was impatient when faced with both his own everyday obstacles and those faced by Indians and environmental lawyers, but he was driven to continue with the work.

He would want us all to join him on Turtle’s war party toward the reality of a respected earth on which we live.

Thank you, Dean.

Editorial Note: Mark Suagee is a retired attorney and older brother of longtime NR&E board member, Dean Suagee, who we honored in a tribute featured in NR&E’s Winter 2020 issue. Dean Suagee passed away on June 24, 2019, not July 9, as stated in our tribute. We sincerely apologize for the error.

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Mark Suagee