restricted access 29. A Life in Being
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265 twenty-nine A Life in Being i am old now, eighty at my last birthday. often i reflect on my improbable career. As a shy, only child of middle-class Jewish parents, ambiguous about my Jewishness, certain only of my idealism, I seemed to drift into the profession of law. Starting at the lowest rung, I struggled to teach myself the skills of a lawyer. Often I was fearful and uncertain. I paid a high emotional price during those early years of lonely apprenticeship. The badge of inferiority that was implanted by my law school experience never left me, no matter the many triumphs I had. But I was driven to achieve—by my sense of responsibility to my client and, in my Indian work, by my deep sense of the righteousness of what I was doing. The moral vacuum that the University of Chicago Law School left was filled by my work representing Indian tribes. Looking back, it is clear that being a tribal attorney was the most important and most fulfilling part of my adult life. It meant more than being a specialist in an arcane branch of the law. For me, and for my partners, it meant being a part of a movement for the reconstruction of Indian life in America. It was a political movement, and I shared the Indians’ feeling of being beleaguered by the forces of the dominant society . I could not avoid feeling that our opponents were the “bad guys”— that they represented the forces that wanted to see Indians disappear, even though many of them were principled people representing the interests of their own communities and their own clients. This is one of the hazards facing the tribal attorney: adopting a Manichaean view in 266 a life in being which the Indians symbolize the good and their opponents evil. Over the years, that simplistic view was clouded by conflicts between tribes and by a more nuanced awareness of the real problems of an ethnic government asserting authority over outsiders. While the work of a tribal attorney is the work of a lawyer, not a polemicist, still our firm’s political philosophy regarding the American Indian, his history and his victimization, shaped our legal thinking and our language. So we argued passionately for the recognition of tribal sovereignty, for the territorial integrity of Indian land, for the preservation of tribal resources—air quality, water quality, healthy fish stocks, and an unpolluted environment. Again and again we found ourselves pitted against state governments trying to impose their authority over tribes. But not all the work of a tribal attorney is concerned with external forces. Tribal governments are now emerging from their infancy and they must be able to provide a just society for their own members and for nonmembers who come under their authority. We were often called on to draft tribal laws and constitutions and to conduct training for tribal judges with an eye toward due process and fairness. Joblessness and poverty are big problems on most reservations, so tribes often turn to their attorneys to help them find solutions. I spent innumerable hours in negotiation with mining companies, manufacturing companies, timber companies, and fish-processing companies to develop businesses on the reservation. One business we did not deal with was Indian gaming. With the exception of the Mille Lacs Band, none of the tribes we represented operated casinos. While the Mille Lacs do operate big casinos, they rely on the law firm retained by their contractor, a specialist in this area of law. Frequently my work for tribal clients took me to the nation’s capital to meet with senators and congressmen and to testify before congressional committees. I tried to explain the tribe’s views to federal agencies and to persuade them to help the tribe. I took pride in saying, “I represent the such and such tribe.” It always commanded respect. An Indian tribe is like no corporate client; it has a historic identity, and the nation’s history of victimizing Indians is well known. I believe that being a tribal attorney is a calling. It demands that the attorney place himself unequivocally on the side of the Indian people, a life in being 267 not just for one case, but for his life’s work. I like to think that a model for tribal attorneys is William Wirt, the lawyer who represented the Cherokees in their epic legal struggle to preserve their tribal existence. William Wirt (1772–1834...


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