Indian attorneys aspire to work for the Native American Rights Fund for many reasons, but the most common is they want to engage in work that has an impact at home and throughout Indian country. And why do they leave? Retirement. Although it may be too soon to know if Heather D. Whiteman Runs Him (Crow), who joined NARF’s staff attorney roster in 2013, will stick around until her golden years, she cannot envision herself ever leaving.
Whiteman Runs Him, 40, came to NARF with all the right stuff. Before she was signed on, she served the Crow Tribe of Montana for six years, first as deputy executive counsel and then as joint lead counsel. In both roles, she worked on a diverse array of legal issues, including elections, intergovernmental relations, tribal land management, water rights and water settlement administration, and general litigation. Between 2002 and 2006, she worked at two Native American law firms in Albuquerque and, the year prior to returning to the Crow reservation, as assistant public defender for the Office of the Public Defender in Albuquerque. She earned her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2002.
Whiteman Runs Him said she was interested in working at NARF because she wanted a change of scenery—a change of workplace, but the scope of the organization’s work was the biggest draw. “I thought it was a great opportunity to work with tribes nationally,” she said.
As a staff attorney based at NARF’s headquarter in Boulder, Colorado, Whiteman Runs Him focuses on natural resources, mainly water rights. In fact, she is part of the legal team representing the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in its reserved water rights case, which scored a major win this spring—and it will affect tribes across the country.
Whiteman Runs Him, one of six women attorneys employed by NARF, identified a couple of challenges that she has had to contend with through the years. One, faced as a female lawyer working for her tribe, is a culture in which men dominate the leadership. The second, which she encounters almost every time she goes into a courtroom as a Native American lawyer, is the lack of awareness of Indian law and tribal sovereignty.
“This was a challenge and frustration during law school, where we would read a very few cases that addressed Indian law-related issues, but not talk about the facts that led to the dispute before a court—the problematic relationship between the U.S. and the Indigenous Peoples of the land,” Whiteman Runs Him said. “In practice today, it is always a challenge to bear in mind that many judges and lawmakers have little, if any, awareness of the legal status and the history of Indian tribes and Indian peoples and our values and cultures that remain important today.”
Besides her Harvard education, Whiteman Runs Him studied art. She received her B.A.F.A. with high honors in Art History, and with honors in Studio Art from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She obtain an A.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Asked if she is an artist too, Whiteman Runs Him said she only “dabbles” in it. With her job at NARF and as a divorced, single mother of a first-grader, she does not have the time to do more than that. When she does dabble, she prefers beadwork.
“It is relaxing. It is more of a stress release for me,” she said. “When you work as an attorney, making something that is physical or tangible is very satisfying.”