Cultural Misunderstanding? Native American Law Students Ethnicity Questioned By The ABA

St. Lawrence Day Massacre or Pueblo Revolt? Both occured on August 10, 1680. In fact, these titles represent two different perspectives on the same historical event.

On the one hand, “el Día de San Lorenzo,” or the St. Lawrence Day Massacre, commemorates the deaths of 400 Hispano settlers, including 300 women and children, and 21 friars who enhabited colonial Santa Fe and were killed during a massive American Indian attack.

On the other hand, the Pueblo Revolt is often touted as the First American Revolution against the invading Spanish–a fight in favor of freedom of religion and the preservation of the Pueblo Indian and other Native American culture.

“I personally would want to see our tragic history, or the tragic elements of our history, acknowledged,” President Obama told conventioneers at the Unity Convention in 2008.

“I consistently believe that when it comes to whether it’s Native Americans or African-American issues or reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just offer words, but offer deeds.”

Not only controversial holidays, but controversial legislation surrounds the special rights and benefits provided by the federal government to the 5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives residing in the U.S., or 1.6 percent of the total population, as of July 2009, according to the U.S. Census.

And now, the controversy has spread to Native American lawyers.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Native Americans who graduated from American Bar Association-accredited law schools was approximately 2,600, according to the ABA. During that same period, the number of Native American attorneys who practiced law in the U.S. increased by approximately 200, according to the U.S. Census. Wait a minute…

Either a large proportion of Native American lawyers are unpracticing, living outside the U.S., cleverly orchestrating a ruse to avoid the U.S. Census, or there are a few too many law students checking the Native American ethnicity box. At least, this is what the ABA believes explains this discrepancy.

Concerned these numbers represent a disturbing trend in law school admissions, the ABA’s House of Delegates approved on Monday a resolution that urges the Law School Admissions Council and ABA-approved law schools to require additional information from people who register for the Law School Admission Test and apply to law school as a Native American.

According to The National Law Journal, this type of of additional information could include information about tribal citizenship, tribal affiliation, or enrollment number. In the event applicants do not belong to a tribe recognized by the U.S. government, they can provide a “heritage statement” instead.

“While few people would indicate they were Asian-American or African-American on a law school application unless it is part of their identity, for some reason there is a wide level of comfort about self-identifying as Native American even though they are not in fact Native American,” wrote the ABA, as reported by The National Law Journal.

“This is particularly disconcerting given that being Native American is not just an ethnic identity, but is an actual citizenship in an Indian tribe or Nation which carries with it a formal tribal enrollment number, not unlike a social security number.”

If you or your clients have questions about government qualifications as a Native American, see http://www.benefits.gov. The Native American Rights Fund also provides useful information about legal assistant resources for Native Americans. Finally, law students who do decide to indicate their ethnicity as Native American should consider joining groups like the National Native American Law Student Association.

Each time you fill out an application, sign a membership, or apply for benefits, you’re partipating in a contract that is not only binding under the laws of this country, but also an essential part of its founding principals. So, with or without the requirement of additional information and evidence of your Native American status, a lawyer should always be aware of the ethical obligations of this profession and act accordingly.

Don’t add to the controversy, add, instead, to true American diversity.

-WB

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