CITY -- Life is good for Dani Daugherty.
2003 law school graduate, she is currently a federal law clerk
the first American Indian to hold that job in South Dakota.
is also happily married, with four daughters.
if not for a few simple choices along the way, Daugherty's life
might be very different today. Eight years ago, she was newly divorced,
a single mother scraping by on a meager salary. She had a high school
diploma and a trailer house on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Daugherty also had a strong incentive to improve her life: Her daughter,
who was then 6 years old.
was what really clarified things for me, that I need to do
something different so things are different for this kid,'"
she said recently.
downplays her accomplishments. What she did, she said, was make
small lifestyle decisions that paid off. "I don't think it's
anything that's giant rocket science," she said.
then Dani Fresquez, grew up in Pine Ridge, where her mother was
a social worker and her father is an educator. She graduated from
Pine Ridge Christian Academy, a small private school near their
Wolf Creek home.
high school, she attended South Dakota School of Mines & Technology
in Rapid City. But drinking interfered with her studies. She dropped
out, moved home and got married.
could have kept partying.
she stopped drinking, thinking it would help her marriage.
didn't. Daugherty found herself divorced and raising Amanda alone,
trying to make ends meet.
could have gone on welfare.
she worked as a grant writer for Red Cloud High School and later
for the Lakota Fund. She took a few college courses. Still, she
seemed to be treading water.
could have kept drifting.
she concentrated on school, earning a bachelor's degree from Oglala
Lakota College in 2000, then tackling law school at the University
of South Dakota.
attorney whom Daugherty had met once told her she would make a great
lawyer. Daugherty remembered that when she found a USD program that
allows students to earn a joint degree in public administration
and law in three years.
I saw that opportunity at USD, I thought, That's it,'"
she said. "But it took a big leap to sell my single-wide trailer
that I was so proud of."
was also a big leap for Amanda, who turned 9 when they moved to
Vermillion. Both adapted well though Daugherty wasn't so
sure at first.
don't think anybody can explain to you how bad (law school) is going
to be until you get there and start doing it," she said. "The
first year was hideous."
school professors give huge reading assignments, plus lectures.
Daugherty tried to do all her studying between classes and after
Amanda was asleep.
class, professors often call on individual students to answer questions.
"Dani was one of those students who, if you wanted to get on
with the class by getting the right answer, you called on her,"
Barry Vickrey, dean of the USD School of Law, said.
didn't know that then. And the worst part was that semester grades
are based entirely on one three-hour essay exam and test
results don't come back until the next semester has already started.
remembers stuffing her report card in her backpack and taking it
home before opening it. "I just couldn't even look at it,"
she said. "But it was a lot better than I ever imagined."
had earned A's and B's. Daugherty thought, "I can do better
than that" then realized she was in the top five students
in a class of about 75. "You just have to adjust to lower standards,"
didn't do that in her personal life. On Jan. 1, 2001, she married
Steve Daugherty, a Huron farmer who has commuted to plant and harvest
his crops ever since. "I thought, 'I'd better marry a farmer,
in case this doesn't pan out,'" she said jokingly.
Daugherty's sense of humor is one thing people remember about her.
At Pine Ridge, she was renowned for her "Top 10" lists,
one of which won her tickets to "The Phantom Menace" Star
Wars premier in a 1999 Rapid City Journal contest.)
law school, Daugherty did an "externship" with the U.S.
Attorney's Office in Sioux Falls. She was a graduate assistant,
teaching review classes and publishing a newsletter. She worked
on USD's Law Review, earning the prestigious editor-in-chief position.
As far as she knows, she is the first Indian editor-in-chief of
any U.S. school's primary law review.
Daughertys were also named USD's "Family of the Year"
in 2002. And that fall, Dani and Steve took in Lenora, a young relative
who needed a home. They have since adopted "Nora," as
she's called, who is now 5.
does a person manage all that?
very organized," Daugherty explained. "I just blocked
time to do things and just made it work."
is still doing that. Daugherty was among 100 law students to apply
for a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Karen E. Schreier. She
got the job, which started in August 2003, days after she had taken
the bar exam and less than two months before giving birth
to a daughter, Madison.
Daugherty said, Steve is "Mr. Mom when he's not farming. He
took over when Madison was 6 weeks old."
family grew again last November, when the Daughertys took in foster
daughter Catherine, 17. She has stayed with them longer than with
anyone else, Daugherty said.
clerks spend two years working for a judge, researching legal issues,
preparing drafts of opinions, drafting jury instructions and handling
other paperwork. Schreier believes clerkships make better lawyers.
They also help her do her job.
able to go through a record in great detail and flag the really
significant parts that I need to pay very close attention to,"
the judge said. "It's really important to have good law clerks.
... (Dani) has been terrific."
Schreier, it's an added bonus to have a clerk from Pine Ridge. Because
the federal court in Rapid City handles all felony cases from Pine
Ridge Indian Reservation, about 60 percent of the caseload in Rapid
City's federal court is American Indian.
of the comments that I've heard a lot from both defendants and witnesses,
and Native American jurors, is that for them, coming into the federal
system is frightening," Schreier said. "They come into
the courtroom, and there are not any other faces ... of people of
presence has helped people feel more comfortable in court, Schreier
said. "That has been just a tremendous benefit, I think, to
the federal court system in general."
background has helped in other ways. For example, she wrote an informational
memo for a case involving the Badlands, including a paragraph explaining
the significance of the Stronghold area to the Lakota people.
assistant U.S. attorney told her later that the information was
very helpful and likely wouldn't have been included if Daugherty
hadn't written it.
downplays the significance of being the first Indian law clerk in
South Dakota's federal system. With more Indian students entering
law school, it was bound to happen soon, she says, and she is glad
think we're starting to see a lot of firsts fall away at this time,"
Daugherty said. Her clerkship is less shocking now than it might
have been 15 years ago, "and that's exciting to me."
of her USD classmates, Shane Thin Elk, is now a clerk for the chief
justice of the South Dakota Supreme Court. They were among six Indian
students in Daugherty's class who completed law school. That was
twice as many as any previous USD law class.
such as Barry Vickrey hope Daugherty might help inspire other Indian
students to follow her lead.
think it is important for people to see what Dani has accomplished,"
Vickrey said. "I would like to think a young Native American
student would read (this) story and be inspired to think, I
can be the best I can be, as well.'"
expects to eventually work in a tribal setting and hopes to someday
teach law school. She doesn't know what she will do when her clerkship
ends in 2005, although she has promised her husband they will move
closer to Huron.
could be worried.
far, when her life has been at a crossroads, opportunities have
presented themselves; and she has taken advantage of them. "It's
been working very well for me so far," she said with a smile.