Students in Indian Legal Program use fellowships to pursue ‘dream summer’

Joe Keene, a third-year law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, was able to work for his Osage tribe this summer thanks to an Indian Rights Fellowship funded by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Keene worked in the Osage Nation Attorney General’s Office, writing constitutional amendments and updating civil and criminal legislative matters. 

“It’s really opened my eyes as to what goes on in the legal field,” Keene said. “Here in law school we’re just in a little cocoon, but out there it’s not as cookie-cutter.” 

Keene and five other College of Law students received fellowships that allowed them to volunteer for Native American entities from Washington, D.C., to Oklahoma. 

The fellows found positions they wanted and submitted proposals that included expenditures. 

The students were able to pursue their dream summer, while eliminating the burden of financial strain, according to Kate Rosier, Director of the Indian Legal Program.

 “It was so well-received by the students and their placements that we have another grant request to continue the fellowship program,” Rosier said.

Keene said the fellowship put him in a position where he could see the top-tier of the judiciary system work. 

“Just being able to be in meeting with the chief and chairmen, I’ll always remember it,” Keene said. 

Keene received his undergraduate degree at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, and said the College of Law is the perfect school for those wanting to be involved with Indian law. 

“The school does a lot of work with tribes in the area, and it’s a nice backdrop to Indian law as a career,” said Keene. 

Stephanie Whisnant, a second-year law student, worked at the Native American Rights Fund in Washington, D.C. 

“I felt like I had to pinch myself,” said Whisnant, a member of the Osage Nation. “I was impressed with the volume of Indian law and the level of sophistication of the attorneys.”

From the first day of her 10-week stay, Whisnant said she was immersed in the field, writing memos and reviewing amicus briefs. 

She also was able to sit in on court rulings for important Indian legislation. 

“To see the oral argument and to read the opinion then going to the hearings was amazing,” Whisnant said. “It has been extremely influential in the sense that I would like to return to D.C.” 

Whisnant, who has a degree in Native American Studies from Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said she is extremely grateful to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community for their grant because she would not have been able to fund her summer experience herself. 

“Knowing it was going to students outside their tribe was really generous,” Whisnant said.