- When she was 12, Danelle Smith set a goal of becoming a lawyer.
she decided, would stand in her way.
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.
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.
one of those obstacles and more could have derailed her.
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.
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.
challenges have made them invaluable attorneys, said Conly Schulte,
managing partner of the firm, which represents many tribes across
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."
a way, they're all lucky to be here.
one in Smith's family attended college, let alone law school.
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
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.
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.
seemed like a hard path to follow. Turns out, it was.
took not the easiest route," Smith said. "It would have
been so easy just to stop."
went smoothly enough at first. She got such good grades, she skipped
fifth grade. She graduated with high marks and easily got into college.
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.
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.
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.
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.
often helps cover Smith's heavy Winnebago workload and out-of-state
issues with tribes in California and New York, among other places.
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.
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
she decided to take action to help prevent something like that from
ever happening again. She decided to become a lawyer.
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.
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.
in law school, she helped raise a son with her husband.
hopes her son sees her success as proof that he can achieve whatever
he wants in his life.
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.
no one is better proof of that than Jennifer Bear Eagle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bear Eagle set goals for herself.
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.
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.
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.
was so not where I was supposed to be," she said.
wanted to do something more important and practical.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
know these three women will lead our people with the highest ethics,
and that's important," she said.
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.
tell them that they can do big things," she said. "And
they don't have to do it the hard way like I did."