By Carole Goldberg — Special to Today
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – He may have retired from legal education many years ago and undergone abdominal surgery just a few days before April 21, but Fred Hart, legendary former University of New Mexico Law School dean, was not about to miss the conference celebrating the 40th anniversary of the American Indian Law Center’s Pre-Law Summer Institute. Hart, who founded PLSI in 1967, joined attorney-graduates of the program, current law students and legal educators from across the country on April 21 to pay tribute to the program and its longtime director, Philip S. Deloria.
PLSI recruits American Indian college graduates to come to UNM for two months of rigorous immersion in the teaching methods and intellectual demands of law school’s demanding first year. At the end of the session, the program places successful students with law schools willing to admit them on the basis of their PLSI performance, regardless of whether the students would have otherwise qualified for admission. To build the trust of law school admissions officers, the program prides itself on applying high standards and truthfully representing each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
According to Hart, ”the program was never seen as remedial. It was a way of cushioning the shock of the first year of law school for Indian students, making them feel more comfortable.” Its success can be measured by more than 1,000 Indian lawyers who would never have made it into law school, or would never have accomplished as much in their legal careers, without the launch that came from PLSI. Five of its alums were contributing authors to the 2005 edition of Felix Cohen’s ”Handbook of Federal Indian Law,” the leading treatise in the field.
Hart recalled PLSI’s early years before he was dean when he found out, after offering to run the program, that it had no funding. Funding has been a perennial struggle for the program, which initially received support from the Office of Economic Opportunity (War on Poverty), and later obtained some money from the BIA. When the BIA abandoned the program, PLSI secured nearly $1 million over time from the Law School Admission Council, the nonprofit organization that administers the LSAT, among other things. Appropriately enough, LSAC’s support was brokered by Kevin Washburn, a star PLSI alum who joined the LSAC board after becoming a law faculty member at the University of Minnesota.
PLSI has produced luminaries in the field of Indian law, many of whom were on hand as speakers or attendees at the conference. On the practitioner side, John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund, filled in details about the first class of PLSI students in 1967, 17 strong. Tom Fredericks, who graduated from PLSI in 1972 and became the first Indian associate solicitor for Indian Affairs in the Department of the Interior, recounted his tangles with other federal lawyers over Indian water rights and subsistence hunting rights.
Chief Justice Herbert Yazzie of the Navajo Nation, another PLSI graduate, described a career of service to his nation as legal services attorney, attorney general and, finally, as a judge, initially challenging the tribal system from without and later working from within to bring traditional tribal law to greater prominence within the Navajo legal system.
Most compelling, however, were the testimonials from current Indian law professors, successful academics who credited PLSI with giving them the necessary inspiration, confidence and tools to reach the heights of their profession.
Law professor John LaVelle, a member of the Santee Sioux Tribe, couldn’t attend PLSI during his pre-law school summer of 1986 because Congress had stopped appropriating funds. But in his later career as a legal academic, initially at the University of South Dakota and now at UNM, he has taught eight summers at PLSI. LaVelle recounted the adverse reaction some USD students had to his appointment as the first Indian faculty member there, and how teaching during the summers at PLSI was his lifeline during those tension-filled times. His positive experiences teaching Indian students at PLSI gave him the moral encouragement he needed to continue with his teaching. Interactions with students, other faculty and Deloria also enabled him ”to hone his own ideas about what is important in Indian law scholarship for tribal communities, particularly about cultural survival.”
Minnesota law faculty member Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, left PLSI in 1990, entering Washington University in St. Louis as the only American Indian law student. Despite this isolation, he put protest flyers in every student’s mailbox on Columbus Day and recruited 13 non-Indian students to join an Indian law society he founded. At PLSI, he said, it had been ”liberating” to be in a class with other Indians, feeling a pride he had missed growing up in Oklahoma.
A major influence at PLSI was Deloria himself, who insisted to the students that ”they were not there to learn how to be an Indian or how to be a lawyer, but how to be a law student.” Washburn recounted Deloria’s blunt directives to current and future Indian law scholars. According to Deloria, ”You’re not doing anything important unless you’re taking on the hard questions and truths. Don’t just preach to the choir. If we’re not telling tribal leaders hard truths, our scholarship is useless.”
Arizona State University law professor Rebecca Tsosie, Yaqui, who missed PLSI as a student in 1987 but now regularly teaches in the program, first wandered into PLSI the summer after her first year of law school when she was working for a New Mexico law firm and seeking out research materials at UNM. She was feeling isolated, as the only Indian working at the firm, and PLSI linked her up with a network of Indian practitioners, including Kevin Gover. She described how Deloria also reassured and strengthened her as an Indian scholar by understanding her goals and ideas when non-Indian academics sometimes failed to grasp them.
One current and one former faculty member from Michigan State University Law School, Matthew Fletcher, Grand Traverse, and Del Laverdure, Crow, also spoke of their connections to PLSI. Fletcher has taught in the program, pointing out to future Indian law students that they should not be intimidated by the legal giants they encounter in their general first-year classes, as these scholars lose their authority when it comes to Indian law. Laverdure, a PLSI alumnus from 1996 and now general counsel for the Crow Tribe, explained how growing up in a ”tough” Indian community, where the dominant language was Crow, he only felt comfortable at schools with sizeable communities of Indian students. PLSI fulfilled that need for him, strengthened his writing skills and ”instilled great pride in being an Indian who is going to be an Indian lawyer.”
Deloria is retiring as director of the American Indian Law Center this year, and will assume leadership of its board as well as a position as director of another nonprofit, the American Indian Graduate Center. PLSI graduate Gover, now a law professor at ASU and formerly assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, closed the conference by noting that the program would remain a key vehicle for bringing Indian lawyers into the profession. It has transformed the landscape of Indian law and greatly advanced the legal position of tribal communities.
Carole Goldberg is a professor of law at the University of California – Los Angeles and was a speaker at the conference.