attorney general of the Navajo Nation, Ethel Branch '08 aims to
strengthen tribal law and native voices
Ethel Branch '08 grew
up on her family's ranch with no electricity, no running water and
a long list of questions about injustice.
Why did she have to walk
to an outhouse in the hot summer, when 20 miles away in Winslow,
Arizona, even the poorest kids had air conditioning and running
Why were there power
plants and transmission lines crisscrossing the Navajo Nation, but
so few Navajo families with electricity? Why did she feel like she
had more in common with the children pictured in National Geographic
than with her non-Indian classmates in school?
Her family's sheep and
cattle ranch on the outskirts of Leupp was six miles from the nearest
paved road. Mud or snow could quickly make the dirt roads impassable;
so, as a child, she often lived with other relatives rather than
her parents so she could make it to school reliably.
three years into her dream job, Branch calls it a wild ride:
"Politics is the Navajo national sport," she says, not basketball
As she grew up, Branch
knew she had to address these questions. "That confusion as to why
the world changed when you crossed the Navajo Nation boundary line
was a driving question for my youth and my life," says Branch. It
propelled her to study law and policy. And three years ago, at age
36, it led her to become attorney general of the Navajo Nation.
"This is my dream role,"
says Branch, from her office in Window Rock. "It's the most fun
I will ever have. It's practicing law in every conceivable way possible."
As head of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, she oversees
a staff of 88, handling all the legal affairs of the sprawling Nation,
which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in a land area the
size of West Virginia. The department includes the Office of the
Prosecutor, which has nine district offices that cover 13 district
courts; the Office of Juvenile Justice; the Navajo-Hopi Legal Services
Program; and the six units of the department (Water Rights, Natural
Resources, Economic and Community Development, Human Services and
Government, Tax and Finance, and Litigation). She has helped form
a public corruption task force, battled white-collar crime, drafted
legislation, spearheaded an initiative to revise the Navajo criminal
code, and launched a collaborative, annual Public Safety Summit
that pulls Navajo governmental partners together to focus their
limited existing resources on maximizing impact in reducing violence,
substance abuse, and suicide on the Nation. "It's so diverse. Every
single day is so different and challenging and fascinating, and
this is all done in service to my nation and my people. There is
no greater honor," Branch says.
Branch on the land where she grew up and where she returned
as top lawyer for her people. Credit: Mark Peterman
Progress can be elusive
and uneven, however. Branch estimates that half her work is suing
the U.S. government to enforce treaties and agreements, and to otherwise
protect and defend the rights of the Nation. In December, she filed
a suit against President Donald Trump after he signed a proclamation
drastically shrinking the size of the Bears Ears National Monument
in southeastern Utah and removing the land protections established
under President Barack Obama '91. Under her leadership, the department
is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other parties
for their hand in the contamination of Navajo waters in the 2015
Gold King Mine spill, battling states to maintain jurisdiction over
trust land leased to public school districts, and suing county governments
for violating the voting rights of Navajo tribal members, among
many other issues, ranging from water rights to uranium cleanups.
And she wages a constant
and uphill battle against lawmakers, judges, lawyers, and members
of the general public who don't understand tribal sovereignty. "In
high school history books, Indian tribes are mentioned in the first
chapter and never again, suggesting we no longer exist and we're
historic relics," says Branch. "It's so detrimental when you have
justices who grew up and exist in an America that has largely failed
to acknowledge the presence of tribes as governments and the history
of native peoples."
Harvard College was a
long way from Winslow High School. Branch excelled at both, majoring
in history at Harvard, and writing her senior thesis on the history
of native students at Harvard.
After college, she returned
to the Navajo Nation to teach school and "open up doors of access
for Navajo children." Like her, many of the children lived away
from their parents, either because their homes were far away from
the schools or because the lack of businesses on Navajo land meant
parents had to live elsewhere to earn a living.
She knew that to really
have an impact on Navajo children's lives, she would have to take
on the development challenge. Accordingly, she returned to Harvard
in 2004 to pursue a joint degree at the law school and the Harvard
Kennedy School. Few classes were directly applicable to Navajo law.
Most of that she learned through personal research projects, including
her HLS-HKS paper on Navajo governmental reform. She took Tribal
Legal Systems with Carole Goldberg, who then held the Oneida Indian
Nation Visiting Professorship at HLS, and Federal Indian Law with
Alex Skibine, who also held the Oneida Visiting Professorship. "A
class I should have taken is local government law," Branch says.
"Tribal governance is somewhat of a blend of state governance, municipal
governance and federal governance."
To more adequately educate
lawyers on Navajo law, Navajo officials have been discussing the
need for a Navajo law school. "We have a tremendous need for local
government lawyers, and really the way to ensure that there are
more attorneys on the Nation and more help available to all aspects
of our local governments is to have more law-trained Navajos," Branch
says, noting that recruiting lawyers is a perennial challenge. "We
have a strong mix of Navajo and non-Navajo attorneys," she adds,
but factors such as the geographic isolation and limited on-reservation
housing often mean that "only the most dedicated remain with the
department long-term. Those are usually people whose families live
here and who are committed to strengthening Navajo law and governance.
Those people tend to be Navajo people who grew up here on the Nation."
Branch sought legal experience
away from the Navajo Nation before returning there as AG. She knew
when she did go back, she would be given many responsibilities,
and she wanted to be ready to shoulder them. She practiced tribal
finance law at the firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, in Portland,
Oregon. Then she was an associate at Kanji & Katzen, in Seattle,
which focuses solely on native advocacy.
estimates that half of her work as AG is suing the U.S. governmentto
defend and protect the rights of the Nation.
In 2015, Navajo Nation
President Russell Begaye asked Branch to be the 11th attorney general
of the Navajo Nation. She was originally seeking the deputy AG position.
Branch did a lot of soul searching and consulting with friends and
mentors before agreeing to accept the top job. Nearly three years
in, she calls it a wild ride. "Politics is the Navajo national sport,"
she says. "It's not basketball or rodeo."
Professor Joseph Singer '81, who was Branch's 1L Property Law teacher,
describes Branch as thoughtful and wise. "She's not only a good
lawyer in a technical sense, but she has a very powerful sense of
the social context in which law operates."
Robert Anderson, the
current Oneida Visiting Professor at HLS, says that Branch is very
adept at bridging the two worlds she inhabits. "She's a real role
model and leader in the Indian law field," he says. "She has a winning
personality; she's brilliant; she's a tireless advocate. The Navajos
couldn't be better off than having her at the helm."
Branch returned to Harvard
Law School in the fall of 2017 to speak at an Indian law conference.
She came again this spring when she was honored as part of International
Women's Day and more recently to participate in a presentation on
national monuments litigation as part of the HLS in the Community
She speaks to raise awareness
about native issues and to encourage Native American law students
to go back to their communities. And Branch urges HLS to continue
to build its native law curriculum. "I would love it if the law
school would acknowledge tribes as the third sovereign and do more
to acknowledge tribal governments as legitimate, pre-constitutional
governments vested with inherent sovereign rights," she says. She'd
like to see native issues woven into constitutional law classes
and all aspects of the curriculum, not just relegated to Indian
Writing her undergraduate
thesis, Branch learned that the founding Harvard Charter of 1650
stated that the institution would be dedicated to "the education
of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge:
and godliness." At the college and at the law school, Branch says,
"that mission should be taken more seriously. When Harvard was most
vulnerable, resources intended to advance the mission to the Indians
were used to buoy the university, but no Indians benefited. Today,
Indian country greatly needs the resources of Harvard to help strengthen
our communities and institutions, and today there are many Indian
youth eager to access these resources to enrich our nations. There
is no better time for Harvard to embrace its founding mission by
opening its doors wide to Indian country."