Native research trailblazer joins ranks of ASU's most prestigious scholars

Rebecca Tsosie was a young girl growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, an average student going through the motions of school with no plans to be the first person in her family to go to college. Then, an international incident centering on longstanding injustices toward American Indians fueled a passion that would change the trajectory of her life.

The American Indian Movement had seized and occupied Wounded Knee, S.D., alleging corruption by a tribal chairman, and protesting the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Indian peoples. Tsosie knew nothing of the incident until four AIM leaders came to a community Indian center near her home to talk about it.

“I was listening to their stories, and it was very powerful,” said Tsosie, who is of Yaqui descent. “I wanted to read more. I was really caught up in it, and I wanted to do all my school papers on it. I started to do better in school.”

So much better that she eventually enrolled in and excelled at UCLA and UCLA School of Law, clerked for an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, became a litigator, and then joined the faculty of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU in 1993. And now, she has been named an ASU Regents’ Professor, the top faculty award at the university.   

In her 20 years at ASU, Tsosie has been a rock for hundreds of Native and other law students, said Dean Douglas Sylvester.

“Rebecca takes her role as mentor and teacher very seriously, never turning away a student who may be homesick or struggling with a concept or a course,” Sylvester said. “She was instrumental in transforming our Indian Legal Program (ILP) into one of the nation’s best, and she helped create our excellent Master of Laws degree in Tribal Law, Policy and Government and our award-winning Indian Legal Clinic. And she’s done all this while continuing to be one of the world’s foremost scholars on Indian law and numerous other disciplines.

“Rebecca is the consummate Regents’ Professor, and we couldn’t be happier that she has received this well-deserved recognition,” he added.

As the author of more than 40 law review articles and book chapters, Tsosie’s work is widely cited, and she has contributed chapters to almost every leading volume on American Indian law published since 2001. She is co-author of the casebook, “American Indian Law: Native Nations and the Federal System.”

“It’s been my dream to be a Regents’ Professor,” said Tsosie, a Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and former executive director of the ILP. “I am incredibly honored.”

Tsosie credits others for enabling her to thrive, starting at the top. “I treasure President Crow’s visionary leadership and his commitment to open access to higher education,” she said. “It helps undergraduates to know that you don’t have to come from a private school background, that you can make it.”

Tsosie was an undergraduate at UCLA when her professors noticed her considerable critical thinking and writing skills. They asked Carole Goldberg, Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, to admit her into her Federal Indian Law course. Goldberg said yes.

“This was completely unprecedented, and has never happened since,” Goldberg said. “It was clear from the beginning that she could hold her own with law students. She was walking into advanced courses without any prior training in the legal case method, and she was capable of developing and advancing analyses and arguments.”  

In his letter supporting Tsosie’s Regents’ nomination, College of Law professor Jeffrie Murphy, himself a Regents’ Professor, said he has watched her transformation from “a young scholar of great promise into a mature scholar of international distinction.

“She is now truly a ‘star’ in the field of Indian law,” Murphy wrote. “Although she is a master of the relevant legal doctrines (both statutory and constitutional) in her area of expertise, her work is not merely doctrinal but is also informed by a rich and wide perspective.”

Interdisciplinary research has been a core commitment of Tsosie’s career. In 2011, she joined both the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability as a Senior Sustainability Scientist, and the philosophy faculty in the ASU School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Judge William C. Canby Jr., a College of Law founding faculty member and an ILP Advisory Board member, said she is an unusual combination of fearless academic and tenderhearted advisor.

“Rebecca makes it so clear how deep her feelings are for the students, how much she appreciates them, how well she knows them,” said Canby, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “You can see it goes both ways, too. The students respond to her.”

One of those students, Naomi White, met Tsosie in 2006 at the Pre-Law Summer Institute (PLSI) in Albuquerque, N.M. White already knew she wanted to go to law school; meeting Tsosie convinced her ASU was the place.

“She wanted the students to excel, but remain friendly, to work together toward a uniform goal, and to serve our communities,” said White, who graduated in 2010 and now is a prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community. “She wanted us to be exceptional Indian law practitioners, and she created an environment for us to thrive in.”

Doreen McPau, who graduated in 2001, said Tsosie has a sixth sense about making the most of students’ strengths, and is tenacious about helping them overcome weaknesses.

“She tells you you’re good enough, and you start to believe it at some point,” said McPaul, assistant attorney general for the Tohono O’odham Nation. “We had opportunities to go to the big firms, but she encouraged us to go back to the PLSI and give back to the program that gave us so much.”

Tsosie practices what she preaches, serving on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Supreme Court and the San Carlos Apache Court of Appeals. She teaches constitutional law, critical race theory, federal Indian law and property, and is a faculty fellow in the law school’s Center for Law and Global Affairs and an affiliate professor in ASU’s American Indian Studies Program.

Diane Humetewa, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, has watched Tsosie open doors for Native women in the law.

“Under her direction, the law school began taking this evolutionary approach to federal Indian law issues and developing their relationship with and relevancy to tribal governments,” said Humetewa, a law alumnus and ASU’s special advisor to the President for American Indian Affairs.

Tsosie is a pioneer in bringing international and comparative perspectives to thinking about domestic Indian law. She has traveled the world lecturing about climate change, forest management and environmental stewardship, governance of genomic research, American Indian political poetry, indigenous peace-making, cultural conflict and judicial reasoning, indigenous women and human rights law, and cultural sovereignty.

“At ASU, Rebecca is the face of Indian law and indigenous rights because of her prominence in the field,” Humetewa said.

McPaul said Tsosie is simply the most important professor many law students will ever have. “She’s an Indian law superhero. She just needs a cape."