Land of the Lawyers: Native American Specialties, Attorneys on the Rise in Oklahoma

Article excerpt

Anden Sharpe may not look Native American.

But for Sharpe, the second year of law school at the University of Oklahoma isn't about how she looks but, instead, about what she's learning.

Because here in the Land of the Red Man, the law, along with many lawyers, has gone tribal.

Each year, thousands of students across the country enroll in the nation's law schools, and in Oklahoma, a growing number of those students are either Native Americans or specializing in Native American law.

Sharpe is both.

A member of the Seminole Nation, Sharpe has taken her heritage and used it to help focus her career.

"I probably don't look Native American," she said. "But I am Seminole and I've been very involved in the tribe. I don't think it's about the color of your skin, but about what you do."

And for Sharpe, that means studying law - including Native American law - and then making that study a part of her future.

"In this area of the country, Native American law is becoming a real big issue," she said. "And being Native American is, now, more of an extra benefit than a hindrance."

Native American law, it seems, has become a growth industry.

"What's happened is a number of tribes have been financially successful, so tribal resources have been allocated in a wide variety of directions," said University of Oklahoma law professor Lindsay Robertson, faculty director for the school's American Indian Law and Policy Center.

Because those resources have grown, Robertson said, the tribes need legal help.

"The increase in economic activity has spawned an increase in business law advice," he said.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows tribal businesses have grown more than 17 percent from 2002 to 2007. That growth, the data shows, represents a $27 billion increase in five years. And with the growth, comes the attorneys.

In Oklahoma City, the number of lawyers who specialize in tribal issues has risen sharply.

"When I got out of law school (OU) in 1985, there really wasn't a Native American law specialty," said G. Calvin Sharpe, a member of the Seminole Nation and an attorney for the Phillips Murrah law firm. "It hadn't really started. Now, there's a whole program."

Sharpe, who is Anden's father, said he spent some time practicing business law, but his culture and history pulled him back into the tribal arena.

"I never lost my Native American connection," he said. "And I tried to focus more on tribal practice."

The same goes for Sharpe's daughter. Tribal issues, she said, will always be a part of her practice.

"I want to focus on energy," she said, "because I think it will play a big role in the future of the tribe."

And those issues, along with a complex maze of tribal-related problems, now represent a specialized area of the law that continues to lure more and more professionals into the arena.

"There is a whole new area for attorneys," G. Calvin Sharpe said.

He said issues such as tribal sovereignty, gaming and economic development are pushing both Native American attorneys and their non- native counterparts into new areas of the law.

University of Tulsa professor Judith Royster, co-director of the university's Native American Law Center, said a number of factors have combined to heighten interest in Native American legal issues.

"Part of it is pent-up demand," Royster said. …