Legal Work for Native Tribes:
Pro Bono Spring Break in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
For the first time, BU Law sent a group of students on a Spring Break Pro Bono trip to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Kelly Childs ('13), Angelo Trivisonno ('12), Josh Fairchild ('13) and Jenny Small ('13) volunteered with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (OILS), a nonprofit legal aid organization that provides pro bono legal services to low-income Native Americans throughout the state. In addition to handling civil proceedings, OILS also conducts community outreach and education to Native American tribes and groups.
View Jenny Small's slideshow and Q&A below (select "i" to view full caption).
Q & A with Jenny Small ('13)
|Jenny Small ('13)
Why did you choose the OKC trip?
Last spring, we had the idea of petitioning the School for a spring break trip related to Indian law, which is remarkable given its crossover with so many fields, including natural resource, family and corporate law. We proposed the idea to BU Law's Career Development & Public Service Office thinking we would merely be planting the seed of the idea, but they were incredible and started to actually put a plan into action and met with us for our input to develop the idea. Oklahoma Indian Legal Services (OILS) in Oklahoma City provided the ideal opportunity given its enthusiasm about hosting students, its depth of work in Indian law and its outstanding national reputation.
What is OILS, and how does the organization specifically address issues of social injustice?
OILS is one of a few organizations in the country that provides legal aid solely for Indian peoples. Traditionally, American Indians are an underserved population, and the legal issues they face are very complex because of separate laws governing their political status, which may or may not be justified by their "dependent sovereignty" status. For example, we learned in property law class that inheritance when otherwise not specified goes to the next of kin. Yet, those politically designated as American Indian with trust lands face a different law known as the American Indian Probate Reform Act (AIPRA), which dictates that trust land otherwise not specified transfers either to the tribe or to the state, not the next of kin. Lawyers may not typically even be aware of these nuances. OILS, however, has dedicated its efforts to providing key services to Indians. OILS employs some of the most dedicated attorneys I have ever met; they are what one would call "true believers" in social and native justice. Unfortunately, though, they are very underfunded and therefore have to work with limited resources to achieve their mission.
What type of work did you do for OILS, and which legal skills did you draw upon during the week you volunteered?
OILS was very generous to provide us a breadth of work. Some of the highlights include conducting land research at the Seminole County courthouse, drafting client wills at two wills clinics and attending tribal courts, including the Chickasaw Nation's court where we met Supreme Court Justice Barbara Smith and learned about peacemaking.
My classmate and fellow volunteer Josh Fairchild ('13) conducted due
diligence title research for gas exploration and production companies
before coming to law school, and although he had explained what he did
before, I still had no idea what that meant. All of a sudden, all those grids and maps that Professor Kull drew on the white board in property class had meaning. We were pulling old musty-smelling books to see coordinates and ranges for people's land for our attorneys to use in probate court.
For the wills clinics, we were fortunate to work directly with clients. Some of them had amazing stories about their backgrounds, and I particularly enjoyed how supportive families were in the process of creating wills. Under the American Indian Probate Reform Act, the trust land for an Indian without a will might escheat to the tribe or to the state and be lost to the family forever. One lady in her nineties came in with two of her daughters wanting to make sure she would provide something for all of her children. Even if none received a substantial amount of land, she thought it was important for each to have a share of their history. We were very fortunate to meet so many wonderful people during the wills clinics. I was so impressed with the stories I heard both about ancestors and grandchildren.
The Chickasaw Nation, like many of the other nations we visited—including the Absentee Shawnee, the Potawatomi, the Seminole and the Quapaw nations—was the most gracious of hosts. At the Chickasaw Nation, we were able to attend family law court cases presided over by Judge Rowe and meet with representatives from the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Our meeting with Chief Justice Barbara Smith was particularly interesting because she explained how the Chickasaw Nation uses rituals like communal peacemaking circles to resolve disputes. I am currently taking restorative justice with Professor Porter and learning about the use of circles, and I was able to share some of the experience with the class.
What was a typical day like on your trip?
There was not a typical day. OILS serves practically the entire state of Oklahoma, and the attorneys travel to meet with their clients and provide legal services. When one client could not make it to the wills clinic due to illness, the attorneys actually visited her at home to draft her will. Each day was an incredibly diverse assortment of experiences, and I believe such diversity of assignment is one rewarding aspect of Indian law.
What office did you work out of, and what were your interactions with your coworkers?
While we originally did our training in the Oklahoma City office, attorneys have coolers full of papers, printers, laptops and other legal supplies to take their services out to the many diverse nations and communities they serve. Every attorney we interacted with was willing to share his and her experiences, and it reinvigorated my desire to practice law.
Any specific observations about Oklahoma Native American issues in general?
PBS produced a documentary on the Native American and American history entitled "We Shall Remain." Not only is this an empowering motto, but I think it should be an eye-opener for all lawyers, especially those interested in social justice, that there is a significant population that is still very underserved despite wonderful organizations like OILS. We met with just a few people from a few nations, and the opportunity for change is incredible. Oklahoma has one of the largest American Indian populations, and it's growing. There are a lot of very complex legal issues that need dedicated and brilliant individuals like the attorneys at OILS. I am grateful that BU had a course on American Indian law to provide the tools to approach the work. I believe that even for students who do not have an interest in practicing Indian law, awareness of the issues is very important.
What do you think the future will hold for OILS and the issues it addresses?
OILS and other Indian Legal Service groups are likely in a precarious situation with the economy. They depend on the Legal Service Corporation and Congressional funding. I cannot overstate how important their work is and how much the communities they serve depend on it. Colline Wahkinney-Keely published an article about the need for Indian Legal Services in the Oklahoma Bar Journal highlighting the fact that the Indian population is significantly poorer, with higher unemployment and less university-level education, than the rest of the United States. They also face very complex legal obstacles with probate and child welfare. As Indian law continues to grow, we can support OILS through future collaboration and financial support as individual students and as future lawyers.
What type of law do you hope to practice, and will you draw upon skills or experience acquired during your pro bono trip that will translate into your future ambitions?
I am very interested in Indian law. Part of the appeal, however, is how the field intersects with so many other practice areas. There is something unique about working with somebody on his or her will. The sensitivity of the issue instills the kind of respect that I should approach each client with regardless of the situation. Being able to draft a will on the spot translates into any kind of drafting or transactional work where attention to detail is essential. Attending tribal courts provided the lesson that there is always another lens through which to see a matter and that an issue may be more complex than one would expect.