How to Create Intentional Pathways for Native American Attorneys

native american attorneys

During the American Bar Association’s recent ABA Equity Summit, Torey Dolan, an attorney and scholar who focuses on Native American self-determination and political actualization, spoke on the slow growth of Native American attorneys in the law, especially in leadership positions.

“We just got here,” Dolan said of Native American attorneys finally securing seats at the table to weigh in on issues impacting the legal profession.

Dolan, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who serves on the Board of the National Native American Bar Association, was kind enough to speak to us about the experiences of Native Americans, specifically in law school and legal academics, as well as obstacles that can challenge their participation in our democracy.

Dolan is a William H. Hastie Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, which creates a pathway for diverse candidates to enter the legal academy. Her scholarship focuses on the intersection of Federal Indian Law and Election Law, specifically legal issues that arise around the administration of state and federal elections on Tribal lands.

In the ABA’s recent study “Excluded and Alone,” Native American women attorneys said they feel invisible and “relegated to footnotes.” Does that surprise you?

Native Americans are often left out of major studies, surveys, or reports that focus on the experience of racial and ethnic minorities.

In 2020, a report came out about the experiences of women of color in law school. However, the report’s data did not reflect the experiences of Native women due to a “low number of respondents” from our community.

This type of practice is common in law and other fields. It adds to the isolation that many Native attorneys feel by simply being the only Native in their class, their office, or their organization. It isolates us institutionally because when reports or policies are based on these reports, we are not included.

To move in a more inclusive direction where Native attorneys are visible, we need the broader legal community to include us from the start.

During the ABA Equity Summit, you said that Native American attorneys have “just arrived at the table.” What advancements have been made in terms of representation for Native American attorneys in the legal profession?

The Native American legal community is still relatively young compared to other legal communities. Some of my predecessors became the first attorneys in their families or even their Tribal Nations.

They went on to establish critical organizations such as the National Native American Bar Association or the National Native American Law Students Associations, along with non-profits, regional bar associations, or Indian Law programs at law schools or institutions of higher education.

With these institutions, Native American attorneys can work collaboratively to advance our shared interests and ensure that our voices are heard in the broader community.

In addition, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Native American Bar Association last year and released a report this year on the experiences of Native American women attorneys [“Excluded & Alone: Examining the Experiences of Native American Women in the Law and a Path Towards Equity”].

This report follows up on our 2015 report on the experiences of Native American attorneys [“The Pursuit of Inclusion: An In-Depth Exploration of the Experiences and Perspectives of Native American Attorneys in the Legal Profession”].

One of the issues respondents noted in “Excluded and Alone” was the lack of Native American professors in law school. How can law schools better recruit Native American professors?

Having Native American professors starts with recruiting Native American law students. While Native Americans make up 1.3% of the U.S. population, according to the American Bar Association we only make up 0.5% of all attorneys.

To have more Native American law professors, we need more Native American lawyers. Law schools should recruit Native American law students to increase this number.

This can be done by working with undergraduate institutions with Native American populations and recruiting from Tribal Colleges, Native-serving institutions, or local Tribal communities/Tribal communities that are Indigenous to the land the law school sits on.

As part of that recruitment, law schools should offer courses that are relevant to citizens of Tribal Nations, such as Federal Indian Law or Tribal Law, even if that requires hiring adjuncts or visiting professors to fill those course needs.

Once Native students are in law school, professors should work to mentor those students for academia. I never considered academia until I was encouraged to by my professors.

Your research at Arizona State University College of Law focused on Native American participation in democratic systems. What obstacles do Native American communities face?

Native Americans who live on-reservation often experience barriers to voting that are unthinkable to the average person.

If you like voting by mail, imagine having to travel two hours to retrieve your mail-in ballot and two hours back to return it, because the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t offer at-home mail delivery on your reservation.

Imagine having to do this without owning a car or traveling unpaved roads during inclement weather where public transportation is not available.

Envision having to determine the hours the post office—which is two hours away—is open without access to the internet. Now add the fact that the post office is only open for a few hours a day.

Those may be too many barriers for a person to vote by mail. However, they will still have to overcome many of them if they choose to vote in person.

For example, if your local election administrator has chosen not to put a polling location on your reservation, you will have to find a way to leave the reservation to vote.

These are real-world barriers that Native American voters face because they lack access to the basic infrastructure people off-reservation take for granted: at-home mail delivery, paved roads, reliable transportation, and internet access.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Illinois legal community?

I hope members of the legal community in Illinois take the time to learn about the people who are Indigenous to the state.

While there are no federally recognized Tribes in Illinois, it continues to be the homeland of many nations and many people.

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