Part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion blog post series

Colleagues have asked me several times whether it was difficult to practice tribal and then immigration law given how vastly apart the practices seem. Certainly, procedurally the courts are different, but the underlying practice may not be so many worlds apart as one might think.  Several months ago, a supervisor, at the end of a Zoom meeting, looked intently at me and asked: “Can I ask you a question; and if you don’t want to answer I understand that?” Logically I responded “Of course!” Now confident I wouldn’t get offended, she continued. “Being Native and all, is it hard to practice immigration law because you are basically helping immigrants come into this country that is yours technically?”

That was quite the question to unpack. First reaction: why would I get mad?; second reaction: that’s super interesting; and third: I’m honored you’re thinking about where I come from and what I believe. My fourth and final reaction was that this may be a teachable moment.

I am an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe; the Lumbee tribe is located in Southeastern North Carolina and is the largest tribe east of Mississippi. We have never been taught that to retain what is ours we must exclude others. We don’t believe our indigenous community created borders, rather borders crossed our communities (sound familiar immigration practitioners?)  The bedrock of our belief in sovereignty is not based on exclusion or expulsion- it’s on retention of the past and protection of the future.

While representing immigrants I regarded many as indigenous before a certain nationality. They too had been forcibly removed from their lands. For many of my clients, even Spanish is a second language to their mother dialect. The sadness and threats to their survival are the same: forced assimilation; restraints on the sovereign right to retain culture and tradition in a dominant world that does not recognize those traditions; language loss; femicide; loss of natural resources; poverty; loss of youth to gangs; hunger; environmental injustices; the fallout from climate change; and more. From the pipeline here in Minnesota to the devastation of the Amazon, it’s the same fight for survival, identity, and sovereignty.

The United Nations acknowledges indigenous peoples as one of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people of the world. There are over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, accounting for 6.2 per cent of the globe.  In solidarity and recognition of the inherent rights of indigenous people, by resolution 49/214 , December 23, 1994, the United Nations General Assembly designated the 9th of August of every year as the observation of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It was on this day, in 1982, that the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights convened.

In honor of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, let’s find connectivity and be inquisitive of others, especially in our practice of law.

The Lumbee deeply regard our relation, the pinecone, as an invaluable natural resource and also as a representation of where we come from: the swamps and river we call home. Distinctly from any other tribe, we incorporate the pinecone into all our regalia and quilt work. It is carefully patched with hundreds of tiny triangles.  Elders would weave quilts while they told their stories, and the tradition continues.  Here, women from all four directions, without borders, sit in unity at the center of the sacred pinecone.  Thank you to the very talented Tennin Carstensen who created the artwork; understood the concept; and represented it so beautifully, arguably more than these words.