Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
January 8, 2000

The Lawyer Who Swam Upstream
by Rob McDonald - Staff writer

`Rez kid' brings degree home to her people

Her great-grandmother told her stories about the young Salmon People. They swam to the ocean and to foreign lands and then returned home. They often became thin and bruised while traveling, but they always kept going.

Margo Finnegan Hill, 31, grew up hearing those stories from her great-grandmother, Sadie Boyd, a revered Spokane Indian elder who lived to be 102.

Like the salmon, Hill left her birthplace, traveled to faraway places -- Seattle; Washington, D.C.; Russia, France and Scotland -- and then came home.

Hill is the first Spokane Indian to earn a law degree. She graduated from Gonzaga University Law School last year, passed the state bar exam in October and now is one of three staff lawyers in the tribe's legal office.

She represents the tribe in various matters, including legal interpretations for tribal judges.

"I'm just a rez kid," Hill said from her office in Wellpinit, 48 miles northwest of Spokane.

Hill is eight months pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Tim Hill, works for Avista Corp.

"There's nothing special about me. I just persevered," she said. "If you just keep pushing it, you can do or be whatever you want to be."

Support from tribal members kept her going. They would stop and tell her to keep it up, that they were rooting for her.

"I'm not trying to sound like a Pollyanna, but when I came home, just all the things people would say helped me," Hill said.

Hill's parents lived in the city when she was young. She attended first grade off the reservation in a Spokane school.

During the first few days of school, the teacher asked Hill and another native student to dance to a recording of a Hollywood-style Indian song so the students could share their culture.

The offended 6-year-old walked home and never went back.

Hill was then sent to live with her great-grandmother on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

"She's my inspiration," Hill said.

As a child, Hill grew up picking potatoes and planting wild raspberry bushes.

She spent a lot of time with a cousin she calls Junior, whom everyone else knows as best-selling author Sherman Alexie.

Growing up they argued like a lot of cousins do.

Alexie called her an idealist. She called him a cynic.

"I chose to reflect the positives of my culture and community," Hill said.

Dave BrownEagle, the branch campus director of Salish Kootenai College in Wellpinit, watched Hill grow up.

As a junior high student, she'd write poems and recite them to the students and coaches. She wrote about spirit, tribe and togetherness, BrownEagle said.

"There was a lot of heart in those poems. She was feeling what she wrote about," he said.

Hill graduated in 1986 from Wellpinit school with a class of 10 students. She stayed with her dad in Edmonds, Wash., and enrolled at Edmonds Community College on the West Side.

Food for thought
She began her college career behind academically.

"Our school was a number of years behind when I graduated," Hill said. "It's much better now."

At the community college, she had to take the most basic courses in English and math to catch up.

After two years, she transferred to the University of Washington to study political science.

"The first couple semesters I almost flunked out," she said.

She leaned on Indian student groups for support and advice on how to navigate the system. She's the first in her family to attend a university.

"Coming from the reservation, you always feel a little different," Hill said. "I really didn't know anything about how the world worked."

An internship in Washington, D.C., with a public interest firm called the National Association for Public Interest Law sparked a new interest. She began to understand how laws affect Indian people on the reservations.

She had grown up attending the general tribal council meetings since she was 8, but now she was seeing how the surrounding governments impact the tribes.

As in 1941 when the federal government decided to build the Grand Coulee Dam, which flooded riverbank communities and stopped the salmon from coming home.

"Our life has always revolved around the river," Hill said. "We were just cut off."

Her great-grandmother explained how the government told the tribe not to worry about the fish because other food would be made available. The first load to be delivered by the federal government was salted pork that had gone bad.

"They had to scrape out the maggots," Hill said. "All that kind of stuff stays with you and keeps you strong."

She earned her degree from the UW in 1990 and was accepted into the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.

"I was down there during the (Rodney King) riots. There were sirens 24 hours a day during finals," she said.

Again, she was behind academically. This time she dropped out.

"I was kind of over my head. I was pretty crushed. It's hard to feel like a failure."

Hill moved to Spokane and worked for the Indian Community Center and the Urban Indian Clinic. Community leaders began to notice her work.

After two years, Hill tried law school again at Gonzaga.

"I knew there were things I needed to achieve and accomplish to help my tribe," Hill said. "The mechanism or the tool was a law degree."

She went to Gonzaga during the time black students there were targeted with hate-filled letters in 1995. One Southwest Indian woman left the university because of that, Hill said.

"I felt really weird at Gonzaga for a long time because of all the racial hate stuff," she said.

It didn't help when one of her professors referred to government treaties with Native Americans as scraps of paper, called a hypothetical Indian drunken driver Joe Six Pack and said that Sen. Slade Gorton's work on sovereign immunity was ending problems with Indians.

Hill complained to the university administration and the teacher apologized to the class.

"Gonzaga's a good school overall," she said. "It was upsetting. It was another way the establishment was not supportive or encouraging."

Hill's success marks a notable turning point for Indians and education, said Raymond Reyes, vice president of diversity at Gonzaga.

"Education was the way government and churches took the Indian out of the human being," Reyes said.

With Indians and education, there's always the issue of assimilation, he said. Will you lose your Indianness?

"Margo hasn't," Reyes said. "Margo's generation shows you can have the best of both worlds."

Her diploma hangs on her office wall.

"I didn't go to school to be rich or anything," Hill said. "I came to be right here, right in the tribal attorney's office."

Now that she's lived a life akin to the Salmon People, she thinks about the stories of Mosquito who lives in a camp by the river. Mosquito's sister turned into a bird and flew away when he didn't share the fish he caught.

"We need each other, we need our community," Hill said. "You just don't survive by yourself. It's the tribal concept. That's really how I survived."

"Spokane Tribe of Indians"

Spokane Tribe of Indians - Spokane Washington

A history of the NW Coast

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