A new study from the American Bar Association documents the frustration and isolation Native American women lawyers feel in a profession that they feel relegates them “to footnotes.”
In “Excluded and Alone: Examining the Experiences of Native American Women in the Law and a Path Towards Equity,” the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Native American Bar Association collaborated in what is only the second research study focused on Native American attorneys and the first specifically on Native American women.
The qualitative study explored the experiences of 74 Native American women each at one of three points in their legal careers: 5 years or less of practice, 5 to 15 years of practice, and 16 years or more of practice.
“As we read through the results of the study, it became clear that the experiences of these Native American women attorneys had generally not been positive,” Justice Maureen Mulligan
and Karol Corbin Walker, Chairs of the Commission on Women in the Profession, wrote in the report.
“Particularly notable was that all generations participating in the study reported experiencing harassment, as well as feelings of isolation and exhaustion,” they said.
Feelings of invisibility
In developing the study, Mulligan and Corbin Walker noted that “Native American voices were not being heard” in many studies of the legal profession. And when data on their experiences was included, it was often not a large enough sample to generalize the findings to the legal profession overall. “This was not acceptable,” they wrote.
Respondents to the ABA/NNABA study shared feelings of isolation and loneliness, even when trying to connect with other racial minorities who often didn’t understand Native American issues.
“I grew up around Native American people, people in my tribe. I never felt alone until I got to law school,” one respondent said.
Younger attorneys said they felt more isolated if they went into private practice or an area that was not related to Tribal or Indian Law, the report noted.
“I was the first Native person that many of my classmates in law school had ever met. I was definitely the first Native lawyer that people at my first job knew,” another respondent noted. “I had to figure out what was possible for a Native lawyer because I didn’t know any. I didn’t really even know if they existed.”
All three career-level segments of the study also reported frustrations with a lack of coverage of Native American issues in mainstream media, a longstanding gap some newsrooms are working to fill.
Others stated a seeming lack of prioritization of Native American leaders in law school; one respondent said her “Indian Law class was taught by a white man who barely knew his stuff.”
“I feel like Native American lawyers are relegated to footnotes, like a constant reminder that we are invisible,” another respondent wrote.
‘We aren’t your spiritual guides’
All three groups reported experiencing bias and harassment in law school and throughout their legal careers, leading to a lack of progression, attrition, and “exhaustion” when it comes to physical, mental, and spiritual health.
As one attorney put it, “Some of the harassment we deal [with] other people think is a compliment. People will ask me about smudging or some Native American ritual, and they are disrespecting my culture by fetishizing it, but they don’t see it that way. I just want to say, like, we aren’t mythical creatures, we aren’t your spiritual guides.”
Native American women attorneys earlier in their careers were more open to talking about not knowing how to process and navigate these experiences.
“One of the hard things is that you don’t always know when it is bias,” one respondent said. “It affects what work you get to do, your compensation. Someone else is promoted over you. And you get all of these excuses. And you feel like it’s bias, but how do you confirm that? How will you actually know? That is what makes the bias so much harder.”
Women farther along in their careers, however, felt unsafe raising issues of bias or harassment in workplaces.
“I experienced a lot of racial and gender harassment,” one respondent said. “It was normal back then. You just had to put up with it. I would talk to my friends about it. It wasn’t safe for your career to complain about it.”
Concerns of bias and harassment also played a role in the career paths these attorneys chose. Native American women attorneys 5 to 15 years into their practice reported selecting careers based, in part, on “where there was the least amount of discrimination.”
A need for mentoring and career planning
While access to pre-law programs and career planning support has improved for Native American women attorneys early in their careers, many continue to be frustrated by the lack of support for careers in Tribal or Indian Law as well as representation in the private sector.
“Career services are useless when it comes to support and information for getting jobs in Indian or Tribal Law. If I hadn’t found connections on my own, I would have been stuck,” one respondent said. Roughly 25% of respondents worked in the Tribal Sector.
“We need more Native Americans to go into Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law, but we also need more Native Americans to go into the private sector,” another respondent noted.
“Jobs right out of law school are easier to get,” a respondent said. “What comes after that? Who can help you with that?”
How to support Native American women lawyers
The report laid out recommendations for supporting the careers of Native American women lawyers based on participant experiences and what could have been helpful in their careers.
- Do not relegate Native American women to footnotes in research studies. If a footnote is needed to explain that there weren’t enough Native Americans in the study to warrant a finding, make it meaningful by adding context like the number of Native American women lawyers in the U.S. and how more are needed.
- Continue to support and expand pre-law programs to encourage Native Americans to consider law school. Many programs targeting this community, like the Pre-Law Summer Institute, are underfunded and limited when it comes to outreach.
- Train law school faculty and administration on the needs of Native American students, especially Native American women. Specifically, faculty need training on including Native American voices and integrating Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law into the curriculum, and career services staff need guidance on supporting Native American students.
- Ensure inclusive mental health support services for Native American students in law schools. Respondents noted the need for therapists trained in racial and poverty trauma.
- Improve data collection and communication on where Native American lawyers are working and how they advance within various workplaces. A lack of information can make it harder for younger attorneys to network with other Native American lawyers and for legal organizations to support these connections.
- Integrate information about the inclusion of Native Americans into all diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings conducted by bar associations, judicial organizations, and other groups. This can also cultivate allyship among non-Native American attorneys.
- Create cross-generational mentoring circles for Native American women that cut across geographical boundaries and practice areas. These connections can build community and support the long-term well-being and success of Native American women lawyers.
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