Tribal rights have too often been a matter of “wrongs” when dealing with broken treaties and a hostile or at best indifferent federal government. That’s why a great lawyer is any tribe’s best friend, and counsel.
When Tim Purdon and Brendan Johnson left the U.S. Attorney’s office in North Dakota and South Dakota, respectively, to create the American Indian law division at the national firm of Robins Kaplan LLP in 2015, it caused a minor earthquake in the Indian law community. Many wondered how the Feds would fill these enormous gaps, who would match their many accomplishments. In just under five years as federal prosecutors, they made the radical decision to shift away from decades of friction with the tribes to forge a more collaborative approach to improving public safety on Indian reservations in the Dakotas.
In the last year, the two close friends?known as the “Dakota Boys”?have translated that approach to develop the American Indian law division at Robins Kaplan, pushing into new territory as they represent tribal clients, including the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who recently sued the Indian Health Service for closing down the only emergency room on its reservation in South Dakota, as well as successfully representing Oglala Sioux tribal member Alex White Plume in his industrial hemp case.
“When we were prosecutors, we used to talk among ourselves about what we would do differently if wewere representing the tribes, so this new division at Robins Kaplan is an extension of that,” says Purdon. “We wanted to build this new division as partners and teammates and the firm has been very supportive of our work. We hope to rewrite the odds for tribes in both high-stakes litigation, as well as pro bono cases.”
The Heavy Artillery
Fresh out of Stanford and working as a young legislative assistant to Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona in the mid-1980s, Troy Eid was thrown in the deep end of tribal politics when he was sent to Arizona to talk with the Navajo Nation leadership regarding the tribe’s appropriations requests. Instead of being politely rejected as another “white” Washington player, the tribe accepted and understood the 22-year-old Eid, who is of Egyptian heritage. “They saw my not being white as positive, rather than negative – as had sometimes been the case when I was growing up,” says Eid, whose father emigrated to the United States from Egypt in 1957. “So while I’m not Native American, they made me feel immediately comfortable in Indian country. I’ve felt that way ever since.”
After joining Greenberg Traurig in 2003, he helped establish a formal American Indian law division within the firm. Eid recruited such legal luminaries as Jennifer Weddle, with whom he co-chairs the firm’s Indian law practice, as well as Heather Dawn Thompson and Loretta Tuell, whom Eid refers to as “a dream team.”
“Growing up on the Nez Perce reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, the prospect of being a woman partner in a Big Law firm was not on my radar,” says Tuell, but the chance to work with Eid on a variety of complex legal issues for the tribes was too good to pass up. “Troy’s commitment to law and order issues in Indian country continues to inspire,” says Tuell, who is passionate about Native youth, serving on the board of the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) since 1995. “In Big Law, women partners and especially women of color or Native women have been characterized as ‘unicorns’ — a rare, if not imaginary, sighting indeed. I appreciated that Greenberg Traurig opened the door and created an opportunity for us all to enhance our collective Native voices.”
Jerry Straus can remember a time when The Handbook of Federal Indian Law, Felix Cohen’s 1941 dry opus on treaties, statutes and court decisions, was virtually the only written reference in what would become an entire field of law. “I started in 1963, and in the early years there were mostly individual practitioners who worked as lawyers for tribes seeking land claims settlements, but very few firms devoted only to the practice of Indian law,” says Straus. “As time went on, the biggest change that occurred was the Nixon message of self-determination for the tribes. Indian law changed drastically after that, because tribes could hire lawyers to work on an enormous array of projects, from land claims, water rights, fishing, timber and mining, which eventually led to other areas, like gaming.”
In 1982, Straus, along with Charlie Hobbs and Bobo Dean, founded what is now one of the oldest law firms in the country devoted entirely to federal Indian law, and representing only tribes. Legendary for winning some of the most important Indian law cases in U.S. history, Hobbs Straus Dean and Walker also helped shape dozens of landmark federal Indian policy and legislative achievements.
Founded in 1976 by the legendary Marvin J. Sonosky, Harry Sachse and Reid Chambers during the era of the Civil Rights movement, Indian Self-Determination and the push for tribal sovereignty, the mission of Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP is simple: To represent the interests of tribes? its only clients. Now the oldest Indian law firm in the United States, Sonosky, Chambers has played a key role in some of the most significant Indian law cases at the Supreme Court, as well as helping to craft countless pieces of landmark legislation in the areas of economic development, health care and tribal governance.
Mary Pavel (Skokomish Tribe of Washington), joined the firm fresh out of law school in 1992, and became the firm’s first Native woman partner in 1999, eventually taking a leave of absence to serve as Staff Director and Chief Counsel for the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, where she played a crucial role in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. She returned to the firm in 2015. One of her landmark achievements was her role as the lead lobbyist on the Fort Peck Reservation Rural Water System Act, which authorized the construction and operation of a $193 million domestic water system to provide safe drinking water to the 30,000 residents of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and surrounding communities.
“Not everything we do is glamorous or flashy,” says Pavel. “The work we do is hard and very critically important to the tribes and communities we represent. You may be representing the dogcatcher, but even dogcatchers can present some of the most complex challenges involving property rights and Indian law. But you just put your head down and do the work.”
Named “Law Firm of the Year” in Native American law by U.S. News & World Report in 2016, the Miami-based Holland & Knight was one of the first international mainstream law firms to establish an Indian law division in its practice areas. Today, its Native American Law Group is one of the largest in the United States and includes nationally-renowned attorneys and former members of Congress, as well as a legislative policy team in the fields of gaming, labor, tax, energy, environment, trust land, healthcare, education, finance, economic development and human rights, among others. Known for its comprehensive and sophisticated network in government relations in both Congress and federal agencies, Holland & Knight also has a presence in state capitols where tribes have a vested interest in working on issues with state and local municipalities. In the field of gaming, the firm is a national leader, having published The Indian Gaming Handbook, the most widely-used reference library in Indian gaming.