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Students set sights on Indian law education


October 05, 2007

Three women who hope to shape the future of education in Indian law are the first to enter the thesis track of the master of laws (LL.M.) program in tribal policy, law and government at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

They include a member of the Navajo Nation, a member of the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico and a woman who grew up in Hawaii.

“These are tremendously talented, well-qualified young lawyers, who will pursue scholarly writing, be given the opportunity to teach, and to participate in the intellectual life of the College,” says Patricia White, the college’s dean. “This program provides training for young scholars who will enter the world of Indian law education.”

Kevin Gover, a professor in the Indian law program and former assistant secretary of the interior for Indian Affairs, praises the rich backgrounds of the candidates.

“Their interest in art, culture, and international affairs shows their devotion to new ideas and new perspectives,” Gover says. “Their diverse backgrounds, their obvious academic ability and their various experiences will bring a new atmosphere to the classroom, and to the law school as a whole. Young scholars like these will generate a new level of scholarship that transcends traditional legal scholarship and moves into a dynamic and transdisciplinary approach to Indian law and Indian policy.”

Kate Rosier, director of the Indian legal program, said the master’s degree candidates also will be an asset to the students getting their professional degree in law (J.D.).

“The LL.M. students will enrich the classroom and provide valuable information about their legal careers with the law students,” Rosier said. “
Wenona Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation, is one of the candidates. She was inspired to pursue a career in law after hearing stories of her great-grandfather being sent on a forced relocation march.

After graduating summa cum laude from Barrett, the Honors College with a bachelor’s degree in English, Benally completed her master’s in public policy along with her J.D. at Harvard University in 2006.

While at law school, she spent her breaks serving as an intern and visiting researcher at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, in Sydney, Australia.

Her mentor there, Larissa Behrendt, is a professor of law and aboriginal studies, director of the House of Learning and advocate of indigenous rights, a combination that appealed to Benally.

“From the first time I worked with her, I knew that was my passion,” Benally says.

After finishing at Harvard, Benally went to work in the Portland office of the Washington, D.C.-based firm, Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker, focusing on trust reform, health care and financial issues.

“I enjoyed the work, but I wanted to do more with public policy,” she says. “I wanted to get into academia and share what I’ve learned with other people. I’d love to teach a class on the topic.”

She plans to sharpen her analytical skills and increase her knowledge of Indian law issues by investigating the ways in which foundational principles of federal Indian law and tribal law in this country may be transformed to strengthen and advance the indigenous self-government rights agenda being pursued in countries such as Australia and Canada.

Breann Swann is the fourth generation of Puerto Rican, Japanese and Irish ancestors to grow up in Hawaii.

She began taking hula as a young girl, and over the years, her kumu hula (hula teacher) instilled in her an appreciation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

In third grade, she decided she wanted to be a lawyer. The combination has steered her to a career in native law.

Swann earned her bachelor’s degree in English from Yale University and a J.D. from the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law in 2004.

After graduation, she worked on labor and employment law in the Los Angeles office of Thelen, Reid, Brown, Raysman & Steiner, a national firm with large offices in New York and San Francisco.

“I was always interested in academia,” Swann says. “I was interested in the issues of constitutional rights and citizenship. My friends were surprised I practiced law for three years.”

She plans to research Native American tribal self-governance to continue her interests in analyzing the effects of colonization on indigenous communities.

“I’m interested in how rights are recognized, how sovereign nations interact with the federal government, and how it is different in Polynesia and Latin America,” she says.

She taught a hula class at Yale and continues working through her halau hula (hula school) to climb the three-step ladder to become a kumu herself.

“It is very difficult, with many requirements, including fluency in Hawaiian,” Swann says.

She has established a scholarship for gifted students at her elementary school that has paid for more than 15 children to attend summer arts programs, including one in art, one in drama and three in ukulele.

She is “wide open” about her future and thinks she may end up teaching in Latin America, where her boyfriend, who has a master’s degree in radical political philosophy and is working on a doctorate, could continue his research on indigenous revolutions.

Lynn Trujillo, whose roots are in the Taos, Acoma and Sandia pueblos in New Mexico, was enrolled and raised in the Sandia Pueblo. Her life is an amalgamation of art, religion and law.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in studio art (drawing, painting and sculpture) and religion from Dartmouth College.

“I love to paint,” Trujillo says. “When I think about how I approach issues and having perspectives, I think the combination of art and law makes sense,” she says. “When I’m working on a sculpture, I’m thinking three-dimensionally. There are components that feed into a bigger piece of work. I’m always thinking, ‘Where does this fit into my other work?’ Trying to push the envelope. Or with a painting, thinking about all the components that make up a really good painting and how it makes sense in that piece.

“In regard to law, you’re looking at different perspectives, coming up with certain solutions. I think it sort of fits for me. I feel I’m doing my best work and am happiest when I’m actively engaged in both areas.”

She said the study of religion helped her question the things she learned as a traditional native person raised as a Catholic, and she was fascinated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Judaism.

After college, she worked on the Committee on Indian Affairs for the U.S. Congress.

“Sitting in on hearings, seeing tribes come to Capitol Hill, then coming back home to Sandia, where we had a non-Indian lawyer representing our tribe, I said, ‘Where are the brown faces?’ ” she says. “I had never thought about going to law school, but I thought, ‘I can complain about it, or I can do something.’ I was the first person from my tribe to go to law school.”

She earned her J.D. at the University of New Mexico in May 2001, then worked with Gover at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C.

She then went on to serve as general counsel for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, a state office charged with the lead role in carrying on the state’s relations with the 23 tribes of New Mexico.

In 2004, she was asked to serve as her tribe’s first general counsel.

“I really enjoyed it,” she says. “It was an exciting time. I learned the most and grew the most as a lawyer, and a person.”

She was drawn to the LL.M. program because she wanted to do more work in policy.

“Policy shapes law, and law shapes policy,” she says. “If you just do one, you don’t get anywhere.”

Judy Nicholas, Judy.Nichols@asu.edu
(480)727-7895