Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Justice Scholar

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Justice Scholar

Article excerpt

Rebecca Tsosie has devoted her life's work to teaching Indian law. 4

As a youngster coming of age in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Rebecca Tsosie became radicalized to the plight of the American Indian community when she learned of an international incident that transpired on February 27,1973 in Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Nearly 200 followers of the American Indian Movement (AIM) had attracted national attention when they seized control of the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days in an effort to impeach tribal president Richard Wilson, whom they had accused of widespread corruption. The organization had also called on the U.S. government to reopen treaty negotiations, and it sharply criticized U.S. leaders for failing to fulfill its treaties with the Native people.

In the midst of the protests, armed FBI and U.S. Marshals were summoned to the scene, and a shootout transpired. Several people were killed.

When Tsosie, who is of Yaqui descent, learned of the incident years later from members of the AIM, she was not only intrigued, but she was inspired.

"I had never been to South Dakota, and this was not something I'd learned about in school," says Tsosie, who is now a regents professor at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. "But I was listening to their stories, and it was very powerful. I wanted to read more. I was really caught up in it, and I wanted to do all my school papers on it."

Not only did the Wounded Knee incident spark Tsosies interest, but it set her on the path to becoming one of the nation's most visible scholars in Indian law.

After she arrived at ASU in 1994, she began directing the school's Indian Legal Program, which provides legal education and promotes scholarship in Indian Law while also providing legal services to tribal governments.

According to Tsosie, who stepped down as director in 2011, the program not only trains students to effectively represent Native people, but it educates them on the differences between the legal systems of Indian Nations and those of the state and federal governments.

Over the years, Tsosie noticed a growing interest in Indian law by her students.

"I think it gives you a passion for getting the truth out," says Tsosie, who attended the University of California Los Angeles as an undergraduate and went on to enroll at the university's law school. "So much is not known about the Native community - treaty rights, gaming activity. I have a commitment to doing this work."

While in law school, she began studying cases specific to American Indian communities.

"I was really angry by the old cases that we studied," Tsosie says in an interview with Diverse. "It was clear to me that so many people did not know about sovereignty issues."

Shaping minds

After she graduated from UCLA's law school, Tsosie clerked for an Arizona Supreme Court justice, became a litigator and then vowed to bring her skills and knowledge of the law to ASU, where she has been busy training a new generation of legal scholars.

Douglas J. Sylvester, dean of ASU's law school, says Tsosies scholarship is cutting-edge.

"Rebecca takes her role as mentor and teacher very seriously" says Sylvester, "never turning away a student who may be homesick or struggling with a concept or a course.

"She was instrumental in transforming our Indian Legal Program into one of the nation's best, and she helped create our excellent Master of Laws degree in tribal law, policy and government, as well as our award-winning Indian Legal Clinic," adds Sylvester, who was named dean of the law school in March 2012. …

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