July 09, 2020 Feature

Walking in Beauty in the Law

A former solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior describes how her growing sense of self has made her a better lawyer.

Hilary C. Tompkins

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As lawyers, we often assume a persona or style in our work to be an effective advocate on behalf of our client. I have been practicing for more than two decades, and over the years, I have changed my style based on who I was working for, what seemed to be effective, and, lastly, my sense of self. I have come to believe that the last category is the most important one. The more I developed a stronger sense of self, the better I became as a legal advocate. I have an unconventional background that at times made me feel unsure of who I was and where I was headed, but with the passage of time, it became a source of strength in my practice of law. This is my story.

To set the stage, it helps to understand a little bit about the Navajo Nation Bar Association, the organization that oversees the licensing of practitioners who appear before the Navajo Nation courts—the Nation’s vast judicial system that consists of 11 districts spanning three states (New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah) and a supreme court. The bar association administers a semiannual bar exam that contains questions about not only western Anglo law but also Navajo traditional law. Both tribal members and nonmembers are licensed in the Navajo courts, and I was fortunate to become a member back in 1992, shortly after I graduated from college. If you are an enrolled member of the Nation, you can take the bar exam and practice in the Navajo courts without a law degree in the position of a “tribal court advocate.” I served in that capacity, working for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. It was life changing and inspired me to attend law school.

For me, becoming a tribal court advocate was not just a good career move; it also helped fill a void I had in my life up to that time. A common refrain among Indian law practitioners is that the life of a Native American is more directly affected by federal law and policy than that of any other American citizen. My life was no exception. Some of you may have heard the stories about the relocation program during the 1950s that moved Native Americans from reservations to urban areas to obtain jobs in the hopes of integrating them into mainstream society, or the boarding school era when thousands of Native children were sent away to schools where they were assimilated and disconnected from their families and tribes. Another program in the 1960s and ’70s was the American Indian Adoption Project, where Native children were placed for adoption with non-Native families off the reservation. I am a product of this project.

I was born in Zuni, New Mexico, in the late 1960s to a Navajo mother and was placed in a foster home in Gallup for a few months before I was sent to my new family in the Midwest. My adoption paperwork shows the letters between the Department of the Interior and private adoption agencies making arrangements for my placement in a non-Native family. My family moved to southern New Jersey when I was a toddler, and that is where I grew up, right outside of Atlantic City. While I had loving parents and a typical suburban upbringing, it was nonetheless a very difficult experience for me. The short version is I felt like a fish out of water, with no one that looked like me and no family members who could understand what it felt like to be so different. I knew I was Navajo, and my parents did the best they could to give me information about my tribe, but that alone was not enough to give me a strong foundation and sense of pride in my Native identity. Luckily, I focused my energy on school and had the incredible good fortune to be accepted by Dartmouth College, which had a Native American student recruitment program based on its charter.

Illustration by Gaby D'Alessandro

Illustration by Gaby D'Alessandro

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