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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Job Allows Woman To Speak For Tribe
by Dane Stickney - The Omaha (NE) World-Herald Staff Writer

OMAHA - When she was 12, Danelle Smith set a goal of becoming a lawyer.

Nothing, she decided, would stand in her way.

Not the poverty and unemployment that surrounded her on Nebraska's Winnebago Indian Reservation. Not the patriarchal nature of the tribe that kept women from speaking at some gatherings.

Not the burden of raising three sons on her own while attending law school. Not even the rarity of female Native American attorneys at firms across the country.

Any one of those obstacles and more could have derailed her.

But here she is today, at age 37 one of the youngest partners at Omaha's Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan. Here she is speaking for her tribe in courts of law. And here she is mentoring two other Native American women - Leonika Charging and Jennifer Bear Eagle - who also are lawyers at the firm.

All three women had to overcome much to become personally successful and to become advocates for their people. They found their motivation in the troubled history of their tribes and a sense of justice to make sure the future would be better, not only for themselves but also for their people.

Those challenges have made them invaluable attorneys, said Conly Schulte, managing partner of the firm, which represents many tribes across America.

"It's absolutely amazing what they've done to get where they are," Schulte said. "They certainly bring an understanding that is unique to the practice. We're lucky to have them."

In a way, they're all lucky to be here.

No one in Smith's family attended college, let alone law school.

When she was young, she began digging into Native American history. Her tribe had originally lived in Wisconsin, but during the 1800s, the U.S. government moved it to Minnesota, Iowa, back to Minnesota, South Dakota and, finally, Nebraska. Along the way, the people had trouble adapting to new ways of life. Many starved or caught unfamiliar illnesses.

As a preteen, Smith decided that couldn't happen again. Native Americans needed to stand up for themselves. Lawyers could do that, she thought. And she was as able as anyone to become one.

But to get there, she'd have to graduate from high school on a reservation where many didn't. She'd have to go to college, which was a rarity. She'd have to attend law school, which was almost unthinkable.

It seemed like a hard path to follow. Turns out, it was.

"I took not the easiest route," Smith said. "It would have been so easy just to stop."

Things went smoothly enough at first. She got such good grades, she skipped fifth grade. She graduated with high marks and easily got into college.

But she eventually left Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., to care for her dying mother. She had her first son at 19. Eventually, she received her associate's degree from a tribal college on the reservation.

She didn't let the death and births - she eventually had two more sons - in her life keep her from completing her degree at Wayne State College. She didn't quit class at the University of Iowa College of Law, where her classmates would hit the bars for happy hour while she raced to day care to pick up her three sons.

She didn't let the burden of being a divorced single mom keep her from serving as her tribe's general counsel before joining the Omaha law firm and climbing its ranks.

Smith spends most of the week in Winnebago, dealing with the tribe's legal issues. She's in Omaha at Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, where she's worked since 2006, about one day a week.

Charging often helps cover Smith's heavy Winnebago workload and out-of-state issues with tribes in California and New York, among other places.

Charging, 35, grew up in White Shield, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Unlike Smith's tribe, Charging's people - the affiliated tribes of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa - follow a matriarchal tradition. Women are given more leadership roles and control. That helped spur her to become a lawyer.

When she was young, she heard stories about how the federal government moved her people off their native lands in North Dakota and flooded the reservation to create a lake and park. The move caused decades of trauma that still lasts today, and Charging believes it wasn't fair.

So she decided to take action to help prevent something like that from ever happening again. She decided to become a lawyer.

After graduating from high school in Vermillion, S.D., where her mother taught school, Charging attended the University of Kansas. She then enrolled at the University of South Dakota School of Law.

She chose the University of South Dakota because it offered classes specific to Native American law issues. That attracted nine other native students in her class, which is exceptionally high.

While in law school, she helped raise a son with her husband.

Charging hopes her son sees her success as proof that he can achieve whatever he wants in his life.

"The fact that I'm here - that we're here working as lawyers - is proof that others can go to college and make a difference," she said.

Perhaps no one is better proof of that than Jennifer Bear Eagle.

The 29-year-old joined the firm this year, an accomplishment even she didn't imagine growing up in Wounded Knee, a small but storied village on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

She didn't know anyone who ever went to college, and less than half of students on the Oglala Sioux Reservation graduated from high school. But her parents urged her to not use that as an excuse.

They saw education as a tool vital to making a difference in the fight for Native Americans' rights. Even though they didn't have that tool, they still tried.

Bear Eagle describes her parents as radicals. They met at an American Indian Movement rally. Her father was in Wounded Knee during the 71-day siege between residents and U.S. Marshals in 1973.

So Bear Eagle set goals for herself.

In elementary school, she decided she'd try to read every book in the modest school library. She got through all the fiction titles and some of the nonfiction works before school let out for summer. When a bookmobile sporadically rolled through during the summer, she read as many of its books as she could.

She then focused on graduating from high school. Then college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then an English doctoral program at the University of Missouri.

Bear Eagle didn't get through that last one. She didn't enjoy teaching freshman composition. And she sure didn't enjoy a class that focused on the sublime in 18th century British literature.

"That was so not where I was supposed to be," she said.

She wanted to do something more important and practical.

So she enrolled at the University of Nebraska College of Law, where she graduated in 2008. She's in her first year as an associate lawyer at Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan. While she's handling a growing caseload, she's set another goal.

Someday, she wants to return to Wounded Knee with enough money to build the town a proper library - one that stays open in the summers and boasts a big fiction section.

That way, the future Bear Eagles, Chargings and Smiths can have the resources to push themselves to something special. Maybe they'll be lawyers, doctors or politicians.

Judi gaiashkibos plans on trumpeting the three attorneys as much as possible. The executive director of the Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs has already used the women as examples to motivate the state's Native American youth, recruiting them to take part in a UNL native daughters lecture series earlier this year.

"These are women who didn't accept the status quo," gaiashkibos said. "They said, 'No, we want more.' And they did whatever it took to get it."

Having such intelligent and driven Native Americans stay in Nebraska and represent their people is paramount to building a strong support base for emerging leaders, gaiashkibos said.

"I know these three women will lead our people with the highest ethics, and that's important," she said.

Smith's three boys - now 12, 15 and 18 - had better watch out. Their mom doesn't want to hear any excuses, especially after she slogged through dreaded first-year law classes while scraping together student loans to raise the boys.

"I tell them that they can do big things," she said. "And they don't have to do it the hard way like I did."

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