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Fighting for her people

ASU's Ferguson-Bohnee uses her legal prowess to advocate for her Louisiana tribe, and all Native Americans

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee

March 14, 2016

Justice is a continuing struggle, and constant vigilance is required to maintain it. This is especially true for indigenous people living on American Indian reservations.

That’s the viewpoint of Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of the Indian Legal Program in Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, who knows firsthand about the struggles of indigenous people. Her family grew up in southern Louisiana during the era of desegregation; as a result, Ferguson-Bohnee felt that her own people were minimized in the quest for equality.

“I like that the law can be used to provide for change and advocate for inclusion,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “Once you achieve certain rights, you have to work to protect those rights to ensure that you’re able to exercise them. I think until Natives have a more prominent role in society, if you’re not seen or heard or participating in the process, you can’t assume someone else is going to protect your rights.”

Protecting the rights of indigenous people is Ferguson-Bohnee’s passion, and it's a crucial component of an overall effort at ASU to be engaged with the needs of Native people. That includes fostering open communication and strengthening relationships between ASU and American Indian tribes, ensuring that Native American students receive appropriate support services and programming, and ultimately increasing the graduation rates of all American Indians. 

Her skill with the law is what sets Ferguson-Bohnee's work apart.

“What Patty does by opening up possibilities is allow young people to determine the future for themselves, futures they may not have had without legal representation," said Bryan BrayboyBrayboy is also a special adviser to university president Michael M. Crow on American Indian affairs., ASU President’s Professor and director of the Center of Indian Education. "For me, this is what’s crucial about how we work here at ASU. We not only think about it, but we also do it."

Ferguson-Bohnee has been doing her work for about 30 years, starting when she had an important realization about her own tribe, Pointe-au-Chien. It is not federally recognized and for years has been marginalized and ignored by the government. That sentiment was also felt on the local level.

“My cousins who attended the local public high school where our tribal members attended were not encouraged to continue their education. By the time I went to school, the district had to integrate. The principal would tell them, ‘Isn’t your dad a shrimper? You should just quit school,’ ” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “There wasn’t any real promotion of education.”   

It had been that way for years. Ferguson-Bohnee’s mother, Yvonne Billiot, attended school in Larose, Louisiana, before integration. Billiot had been cursed at, spat on and called derogatory names. She was also put through a geographic ordeal purposely designed to keep indigenous people at bay. In order to attend school, her mother had to cross the bayou in a boat, catch a ride to a local bar and take a bus from there.

Billiot could no longer take the discrimination and went to live with her aunt in east Baton Rouge for her senior year of school, but she didn’t finish. She did, however, get her GED. Billiot and her husband, Davis Ferguson, wanted a better educational opportunity for their daughter and bought a home in Zachary, Louisiana, 20 miles outside Baton Rouge.

That decision helped lead to the moment of Ferguson-Bohnee’s own intellectual awakening. It came during her junior year of high school when she says her life was forever changed by participating in an extracurricular mock trial during her junior year.

“I had never met an attorney in my life, and I had to play one in a worker’s compensation case,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “We were a team of four lawyers, and we had to conduct a trial, including the examination of witnesses and giving opening and closing statements. It was very eye-opening.”

So was her experience at Stanford University and later Columbia University, where Ferguson-Bohnee pursued her undergraduate and law degrees, respectively.

“Naturally, I began asking a lot of questions in my first year of college. ...” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “When I heard other Native students talking about what they were going to do once they graduated, I realized that I’m not here at college just for myself. I’m here for my people … I have a cause.”

“I’m excited each morning when I wake up that I can help tribal communities, my community and Indian people who need an advocate. I never thought I could have this sort of impact because I had always thought of myself as this little ol’ country gal.”
— Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of ASU's Indian Legal Program

After clerking for a federal judge in California and working in a private Scottsdale firm on Native American voting rights, she landed the job where she would have the most impact. In 2007, Ferguson-Bohnee took over as faculty director of ASU’s Indian Legal Clinic (ILC), which is part of the Indian Legal Program (ILP).  The program was established in 1988 and has grown into one of the most respected Indian law programs in the nation.

In addition to providing students with an opportunity to participate in real cases dealing with Native peoples and Indian issues, the ILC provides legal services to tribal governments and other Native governments and associations. The clinic works with tribal courts handling criminal prosecutions and defense actions, undertakes tribal development projects, represents individuals in civil actions, and works on federal policy affecting Native people, including writing amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals.

“We work on a lot of rights-based issues where people don’t have the kind of money to defend themselves,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “If we don’t provide that voice, the judges or justices may not consider it and they don’t see the full picture. As lawyers, we can use our skills to make a difference in the lives of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged. The law is so powerful … that’s what the students learn.”

And so are the tribes. Last month the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation created a $1.2 million endowment to benefit the ILP to support scholarships, grants and other programs for current and prospective Native American ASU law students. In the last year alone, the ILP has received close to $2 million in grants and gift money from various tribes, centers and research and analysis groups to increase the number of Native American law students and improve access to justice for Native people.

Ferguson-Bohnee continues to seek justice for the 700-member Pointe-au-Chien tribe. For almost 20 years she has been doing pro bono legal work on behalf of her tribe to receive federal recognition, which entitles them to rights regarding discrimination, education, child welfare, health and disasters, as well as having a seat at the table in discussions about their tribe or land.

“We had a number of sacred sites affected by the BP oil spill of 2010, triggering federal response actions. There was a consultation policy used by federal agencies to claim that they could only consult with federally recognized tribes,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “At first they included us but then later excluded us. I told them, ‘I don’t care what you call it, you will talk to me. The law doesn’t prevent you from talking to me.’ ”

Not being federally recognized also affected the tribe when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana gulf coast in 2005.

“After Katrina struck there were a number of tribes who were offered FEMA trailers who weren’t anywhere near the storm surge or the flooding like we were,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “Not having access to clean housing is very stressful on individuals and shows there’s no real support for us. That’s why it’s important to be included in those conversations so that all of us — including our children — can be represented.”

Ferguson-Bohnee said federal recognition can take decades and millions of dollars. Last August the regulations for federal recognition changed, and Ferguson-Bohnee said she’ll submit their petition in about two years. Even though the process is slow, she believes it will happen during her lifetime.

“I’m excited each morning when I wake up that I can help tribal communities, my community and Indian people who need an advocate,” Ferguson-Bohnee said. “I never thought I could have this sort of impact because I had always thought of myself as this little ol’ country gal.”

Top photo: Patty Ferguson-Bohnee (shown outside the Ross-Blakley Law Library on the Tempe campus March 2) has represented tribal clients in administrative, state, federal and tribal courts and is the director of ASU's Indian Legal Clinic. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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