Join Us In Celebrating Native American Heritage Month
November is Native American Heritage Month. It’s also commonly referred to as American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. This month we celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native Americans. We also want to celebrate and pay tribute to the important contributions of Native people in the legal profession.
According to the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, Native American attorneys are represented proportionately to their presence in the general population. That means that less than one-half of 1% of all attorneys (0.4%) are Native American. But of that group, several have made significant contributions to the legal profession.
Here are just a few of the Native American legal heroes—both past and in modern times—who have made an indelible contribution to the law.
McDonald (1801–1831) was the first American Indian educated professionally as an attorney. In his 20s, he worked to prevent his tribe’s removal from its Mississippi homeland. While he wasn’t successful, his argument that America’s courts should enforce the promises embedded in the government’s Indian treaties set the framework for the future practice and application of federal Indian law.
McDonald was born the son of a white trader and a Choctaw mother. He was educated first in mission schools by Quakers, but then came to the attention of Thomas L. McKenney in 1818, who was then in charge of the Office of Indian Trade (the predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) in Washington, D.C.
McKenney said about McDonald that “there were qualities of both heart and head in this youth of rare excellence.” McDonald was brought on a clerk, and later McKenney encouraged him to become a lawyer. McKenney further said, “Such was his capacity, that in about one-half the time ordinarily occupied by the most talented young men of our race, he had gone the rounds of his studies and was qualified for the bar.”
In 1823, McDonald returned to Mississippi as the region’s major tribes were facing unprecedented pressure on their territories. Western politicians, such as Andrew Jackson, demanded that the treaties guaranteeing the tribes a place in the South be broken. These politicians said that the Indians should be moved to the west. In 1824, Choctaw tribal leaders Pushmataha and Puckshenubbe formed a delegation to travel Washington, D.C., to argue their case. They asked James McDonald to attend as a clerk and interpreter. However, Puckshenubbe died from a fall during the journey, and a few months later, Pushmataha was struck down with a sudden infection during the negotiations. As a result, McDonald found himself the unofficial leader of the Choctaw representatives. It was the first time that a tribal attorney would conduct tribal negotiations with the United States. McDonald was successful in getting a new treaty signed in 1825.
McDonald acknowledged the expanding power of the Americans, but stated that “we are not doomed to extinction.” And because the laws of the U.S. were “founded upon the principles of liberty and equality,” he wrote, “we are confident that our rights will be preserved.”
McDonald stressed that despite the fact that they weren’t citizens, Indians had “rights” that Congress and the judiciary should respect. This contention was the first volley in a legal battle that extends even to today.
Sloan (1863–1940) was the first Native person to open a Washington, D.C. law office.
He was raised on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska, but was sent to the Hampton Institute to be “civilized.” At one of the Indian Office’s first off-reservation boarding schools, he learned important life lessons seeing corrupt and unjust government officials operate unchecked at agencies across the United States.
He returned to the Omaha reservation in 1889 and faced the Indian Office’s authoritarian bureaucracy. Only two years earlier, Congress enacted the Dawes Severalty Act, which authorized the President to subdivide Native American tribal communal landholdings into allotments for Native American heads of families and individuals. Sloan applied for his allotment but was informed by the local Indian agent that he wasn’t eligible. He appealed but it was to no avail.
Sloan’s childhood friend recently graduated from law school and had returned to the community. Fueled by his treatment with the allotment process, he apprenticed himself to the friend and was admitted to the Nebraska bar in 1892. Sloan brought an action against the Indian Office for its denial of his allotment. The U.S. Supreme Court decided the case in his favor in 1904. Sloan was the first tribal member to argue a case before the Court. In the next few years, Sloan gained notoriety and was trying numerous cases in federal court. In addition, he started to develop a network of like-minded activists. In 1911, the young Native activists formed the Society of American Indians, of which Sloan was named chairman.
Sloan’s law practice grew, and he took on clients from a number of reservations. He also led investigations of the Crow, Blackfeet, White Earth, and Yankton reservations. Moreover, he counseled the Sioux Black Hills Council, the Grand Council of the Chippewa Indians, the Osages, and Native American organizations. Sloan was an ardent proponent of Indian citizenship and believed only American laws would protect Native people against arbitrary authority and economic exploitation.
Fast forward a few decades to this remarkable Cherokee leader in the legal profession: Leeds is the first American Indian woman to serve as dean of a law school at the University of Arkansas from 2011-2018. In addition, she’s served on seven tribal courts, including as chief justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, as well as a number of directorships at several law schools.
Raised in Muskogee, Oklahoma and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she earned an MBA from the University of Tennessee Executive MBA program, a Master of Laws degree from the University of Wisconsin, and her Juris Doctor degree from University of Tulsa. She also earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis.
Leeds is an experienced legal scholar in higher education law and American Indian Law, tribal governance, property, economic development, as well as Cherokee legal history.
A member of the Lumbee, Locklear was the first Native American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Solem v. Bartlett, 1984, “the court clarified the law with regard to the standard for disestablishment of Indian reservations in such a way that hopefully will be protective for reservations.” In her next case before the high court, Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, she persuaded the Supreme Court to adopt her theory that tribes have a federal common law right to sue for possession of tribal land taken in violation of federal law. The decision is the seminal case upon which all other land claim litigation has since been based.
Locklear has spent nearly 40 years in the practice of Native American law. She has worked for the Native American Rights Fund and Patton Boggs LLP, where she has defended Native American tribes with claims concerning treaty land, water rights, and tribal jurisdiction on reservations. She represented the Lumbee tribe in its pursuit of federal recognition from 1987 until 2010.
Locklear is an inspiration to other Native American women attorneys and has served as a mentor to other women lawyers.
As the National Congress of American Indians says, Native American Heritage Month is an ideal time to educate the general public about tribes, raise a general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and today, and how tribal citizens have worked to conquer these challenges.
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