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Mixing Tribal Traditions and US Law

Program gives native Americans access to one of the nation's most powerful professions

Like many new law school graduates, Valerie Davidson has grand career goals. But she's not heading for Wall Street or Washington - at least not yet.

She's going to work for her tribe, the Yup'ik nation in Alaska. But she wouldn't have had the opportunity, she says, unless she had attended a special summer program for native American students at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.

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"It was crazy ... but it was one of the best experiences of my life," she says in between hugs of congratulations from her fellow students and her family, who came from all the way from Bethel, Alaska, for her graduation.

For Ms. Davidson and thousands of native Americans like her, the program has been a revelation. For years, most tribes simply hired white lawyers to represent them, rather than try to understand the intricacies of a legal system so different from their own cultures. But as tribes have taken an increasingly active part in commerce, whether through casinos or oil exploration, the need for people who understand both Indian traditions and US law has grown.

Over the past 30 years, UNM's Pre-Law Summer Institute for native Americans has helped fill that void. During that time, the number of native American lawyers has swelled from 20 to more than 2,000 - and UNM has produced more of them than any other school in the country. The program has given an often-disenfranchised group access to one of the nation's most influential professions, while instilling in many Indians a greater faith in tribal courts and the people representing them to the outside world.

Basically, the UNM program gives native Americans a crash course in legal terms and logic to help them survive the crucial first semester of law school. "It's like a boot camp," says Davidson.

When they graduate, many of UNM's "legal warriors" head off for the reservations, where they serve as tribal attorneys or judges. Others work for law firms that represent tribes or federal or state government agencies that deal with Indian issues.

"Whenever I have a meeting with my senior staff, they are all graduates of that summer program," says Kevin Gover, director of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and member of the UNM class of 1981. "This school has played a profound role in the development of American Indian law. It has created the policy leadership of the Indian country."

A new respect

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On a local level, some judges have noted that tribal members who at one time might have been loath to trust tribal courts are now much more likely to use the legal system.

"All in all, people are coming in with more respect for the courts and expecting more fairness," says Lorena Ferguson, tribal judge at the pueblo of Canoncito, west of Albuquerque.

Up at the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in Dulce, N.M., Judge Melvin Stoof (a Rosebud Sioux from South Dakota who attended UNM's summer law program) says a typical day in his court would be familiar to any fan of "Perry Mason" or CourTV. The main differences come out once a verdict has been reached. Convicted drunk drivers usually spend a week in jail, then a much longer period in treatment. Juveniles involved in criminal mischief usually perform services for the victims. The tribe has even managed to keep the divorce rate low - only 30 percent, compared with 45 percent nationwide - by encouraging counseling.

"In most tribes, it's the woman who owns the property and the house," says Judge Stoof, seated in front of a wall of lawbooks. "So if a man walks out on his wife, he loses all his property and then on top of that he has to start paying child support. Some of these guys figure, 'Hey, it's cheaper to stay.'"

Such an approach may sound like common sense, but Stoof points out the cultural roots of his less-litigious society. Anglo culture tends to emphasize individual rights, property rights, and total victory, summed up neatly in a Bill of Rights. Indian laws spring from a culture that values harmony and cooperation over the desires of the individual.

Attractions of tribal law

Of course, the Indian law attracts more than just native American students, and law school professors point out that any lawyer practicing in the region from the desert Southwest to the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast - often called Indian country - will sooner or later handle a case involving a tribe.

Any litigation that involves state, federal, and tribal law is bound to be complex, but it was that very complexity that attracted Diane Cabrera.

A native of Saipan in the American territory of the Marianas Islands and a graduate of the UNM program, Ms. Cabrera says she plans to stay in New Mexico and work for a law firm that represents tribes. "I'd rather stay with the tribes, where the results are more immediate," she says.

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