“It was a unique, enlightening, emotional experience,” said one of the people who attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s 10th Anniversary Women and the Law Conference. “You could see tears in a lot of eyes.”
The 2011 conference held at TJSL on Friday, February 18, focused on the theme of “Gender Justice and Indian Sovereignty: Native American Women and the Law. Featured as this year’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lecturer was Stacy Leeds, interim Associate Dean, Professor of Law and Director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas School of Law.
“We live in remarkable times,” Leeds told the audience. "The number of Native American law practitioners is exploding. Women have played an integral role in advancing the law, but their stories are not often told.”
In telling one remarkable story, Leeds gave everyone there a new mantra: “WWLD, or ‘What Would Lyda Do.’” Lyda is Lyda Conley, one of the pioneering Native American attorneys and also the inspirational figure in Leeds’ keynote address.
Leeds told of how Conley, who was a member of the Wyandot tribe, refused to give up the land on which her ancestors are buried in Kansas after the federal government sold it to developers.
Conley and her sister built shacks on the property, put up “No Trespassing” signs,” and held off everyone with shotguns, according to Leeds. Even after Conley was incarcerated several times, filed a lawsuit, had her claim denied by the U.S. Supreme Court , she refused to give up the land.
“She ultimately protected the land, even though she lost in court,” said Leeds, who added that it eventually led to the passage of the Native American Protection Act. “And Lyda was not a solitary figure – it was the sisters,” said Leeds.
Professor Leeds, whose Ruth Bader Ginsburg lecture was titled “Resistance, Resilience, and Reconciliation: Reflections on Native American Women and the Law,” stirred the audience when she said: “Indian women have kept advancing the law and now there’s an army of us moving forward.”
Many of those marchers were at the conference, as attendee and former TJSL dean Mary Lynne Perry noted: “Everyone who is important in Native American Law is here.”
Indeed it was a distinguished assemblage brought together by conference organizer Professor Bryan Wildenthal. Many of them were “firsts” as Leeds pointed out. “The first to be multi-tribe judges, the first lawyer in their tribe, or the first to have Native American women to have tenure-track positions in academia.”
Many of those women presented on the panels featured at the conference. There were two panels on Intersectionality and Civil Rights, one on Gender- Related Violence and Indian Country Law Enforcement, Indian Country Economic Development and Developing Tribal Governments and Courts.
One issue discussed at the conference by several presenters was the issue of tribal membership: who is a tribal member and who isn’t as well as who is an Indian and who is not.
“The issue of identity is very complicated,” said Linda Rose Locklear, a professor of American Indian Studies at Palomar College. “You can be an Indian on one reservation and not an Indian on another.” As for belonging to a tribe, she said, “One day you are a member, the next you are not. We in Indian Country must address this issue of enrollment. If we don’t come up with legislation or a policy, things are going to get worse.”
Another presenter, Dakota lawyer Angelique EagleWoman, said: “This is a historic conference. You are all amazing women.” She captured the spirit of the event, when she said, with tears in her eyes, “I am honored to walk in the moccasin tracks of so many of you who are here today and the many grandmas and aunties and my mother in the spirit world who dreamed of a gathering such as this to renew our beliefs in who we are as women and culture holders in the law.”
“If there is a Native American woman in the law, the role of Native American Woman comes first, said Stacy Leeds. Being a lawyer comes second. The law will eventually catch up.”
Dean Rudy Hasl welcomed everyone to the first major conference held at Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s new downtown campus, which opened a month before the event.
“I have a huge case of building envy,” said one of the invited speakers.