Tsosie joins ranks of ASU’s most prestigious scholars

     Rebecca Tsosie

Rebecca Tsosie was a young girl growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, an average student going through the motions of school with no plans to be the first person in her family to go to college. Then, an international incident centering on longstanding injustices toward American Indians boiled over 1,400 miles from her home, fueling in her a passion that would change the trajectory of her life forever.

The American Indian Movement’s seizure and 71-day occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the poorest in the country, had recently ended. The movement had alleged corruption on the part of a tribal chairman, and protested the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill treaties with Indian peoples. During the dramatic armed conflict, which drew the presence of the FBI and federal marshals, as well as the rapt attention and sympathy of the American people, shootings were frequent and some died.

Tsosie knew nothing of the Wounded Knee incident until four AIM leaders came to a community Indian center near her home to talk about it.

“I had never been to South Dakota, and this was not something I’d learned about in school,” said Tsosie, who is of Yaqui descent. “But I was listening to their stories, and it was very powerful. I wanted to read more. I was really caught up in it, and I wanted to do all my school papers on it. I started to do better in school.”

So much better, in fact, that she eventually enrolled in and excelled at UCLA and UCLA School of Law, clerked for an Arizona Supreme Court Justice, became a litigator, and then joined the faculty of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Since, her arrival at ASU in 1993, Tsosie has built an international reputation in Indian law, and amassed myriad accolades for her research, scholarship and teaching.

And now, she has been named an ASU Regents’ Professor, the top faculty award at the university. Tsosie will join two other new Regents’ Professors at a ceremony hosted by ASU President Michael M. Crow on Feb. 7. She is the fifth ASU law professor to be so recognized, along with David Kaye (1990), Jeffrie Murphy (1994), Michael Saks (2009) and Gary Marchant (2011).

    Douglas Sylvester

In her 20 years at ASU, Tsosie has been a rock for hundreds of Native and other students entering the College of Law, said Dean Douglas Sylvester.

“Rebecca takes her role as mentor and teacher very seriously, never turning away a student who may be homesick or struggling with a concept or a course,” Sylvester said. “She was instrumental in transforming our Indian Legal Program (ILP) into one of the nation’s best, and she helped create our excellent Master of Laws degree in Tribal Law, Policy and Government, as well as our award-winning Indian Legal Clinic. And she’s done all this while continuing to be one of the world’s foremost scholars on Indian law and numerous other disciplines.”

“Rebecca is the consummate Regents’ Professor, and we couldn’t be happier that she has received this well-deserved recognition,” he added.

In ASU’s announcement of the Regents’ award, Tsosie was described as one of the world’s most prolific and highly regarded scholars of Indian law, the author of more than 40 law review articles and book chapters. Her work is widely cited, and she has contributed chapters to almost every leading volume on American Indian law published since 2001.

“It’s been my dream to be a Regents’ Professor,” said Tsosie, a Willard H. Pedrick Distinguished Research Scholar and former Executive Director of the ILP. “I am incredibly honored.”

Tsosie credits others for enabling her to thrive, starting at the top. “I treasure President Crow’s visionary leadership and his commitment to open access to higher education,” she said. “It helps undergraduates to know that you don’t have to come from a private school background, that you can make it. Maybe when you came into this world, the world didn’t have an expectation for you. But you can find and fulfill that expectation here.”

Tsosie was an undergraduate at UCLA when her American Indian Studies professors noticed her considerable critical thinking and writing skills. They asked Carole Goldberg, Jonathan D. Varat Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, to admit her into her Federal Indian Law course. Goldberg said yes.

“This was completely unprecedented, and has never happened since,” Goldberg said. “It was clear from the beginning that Rebecca could hold her own with law students. She was walking into advanced courses without any prior training in the legal case method, and she was capable of developing and advancing analyses and arguments in the cases that students who have been through one to two years of law school were struggling with.

“Rebecca was not somebody who insisted on dominating classes as some students do, but she commanded the attention and respect whenever she spoke,” she said. “She was generating original critiques of the cases, drawing on studies she’d done in history and literature. People were taking note of the fact that she was offering fresh perspectives on issues, and I was taking note as well.”

With Goldberg’s encouragement, Tsosie applied to UCLA Law. There, she gravitated toward constitutional law, Indian law and property law, crediting her own dynamic professors. She honed her writing skills and, upon graduation, landed a clerkship with former Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Stanley Feldman. That led to an associate’s job at Brown and Bain, where Tsosie was assigned to work on the firm’s case on behalf of the Navajo Nation regarding disputed land claims with the Hopi Tribe. Although Tsosie appreciated the opportunity to represent the Navajo Nation and work with the experienced litigators at Brown and Bain, she did not feel that private practice would be a good fit for her in the long term.

She recalled, “It broke my heart how family relations were often impacted and severed, and the examination and cross-examination seemed to me inhumane. I could see the environmental issues – coal extraction, lease and water issues – and I felt the Native people were a pawn in a bigger economic gain that would not achieve justice for either nation.”

Tsosie decided to apply for a post-doctoral project on environmental treatment of tribes, which gave her the wherewithal to stretch her research wings. She had found her niche, and soon was offered a visiting professorship at the ASU law school. A faculty office had just become vacant in Armstrong Hall, a space Tsosie still calls her own 20 years later.

“I hit the jackpot when I came here, and I got the best neighbor on the entire faculty,” she said, referring to Jeffrie Murphy. “Jeff was an incredible academic mentor, and he was so generous with his time, reading and commenting on my work, even though the issues I was exploring at the time (environmental law and Indian gaming) were quite far afield from his own research. Jeff’s work was fascinating to me, and our conversations about moral and political theory opened an entirely new field of study for me.”

In his letter supporting Sylvester’s nomination of Tsosie for the Regents’ Professorship, Murphy said he has watched her transformation from “a young scholar of great promise into a mature scholar of international distinction” whose work is intellectually serious and brilliant.

“She is now truly a ‘star’ in the field of Indian (Native American) law,” Murphy wrote. “Although she is a master of the relevant legal doctrines (both statutory and constitutional) in her area of expertise, her work is not merely doctrinal but is also informed by a rich and wide perspective – a perspective that draws on her own personal experiences as an active member of her tribe and on her knowledge of religion, the arts and the sciences bearing on her fields of research.”

Murphy said Tsosie was a quick study in his own field of expertise – moral, political and legal philosophy – and her ability to grasp and make use of philosophical material relevant to her areas of research impressed him. “Indeed, our discussions were so rich that I believe I learned just as much from her as she learned from me,” he wrote.

Interdisciplinary research has been a core commitment of Tsosie’s scholarly career. In 2011, Tsosie branched out at ASU, joining both the Global Institute of Sustainability as a Senior Sustainability Scientist, and the philosophy faculty in the ASU School of Historical, Philosophical & Religious Studies. This semester, she is teaching a philosophy course, Indigenous Peoples and Intercultural Justice, which she says has been both exciting and illuminating, and is a likely path in the next stage of her career.

Also in 2011, Tsosie chose to step down as ILP’s Executive Director of the Indian Legal Program, which she wisely and lovingly shaped for 16 years. Judge William C. Canby Jr., a founding faculty member at the College of Law and member of the ILP Advisory Board, said she is an unusual combination of fearless academic and tenderhearted advisor.

“All you have to do is go to one of the ILP blanket ceremonies before graduation, and Rebecca makes it so clear how deep her feelings are for the students, how much she appreciates them, how well she knows them,” said Canby, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “You can see it goes both ways, too. The students respond to her.”

Tsosie is an earth mother of sorts to students, many who are far from home and feel hopelessly out of place at a large university law school, Canby said. She has received outstanding faculty awards from law students and alumni.

“If you take somebody who comes from a reservation background, it’s hard to imagine what a wrench that is for them, coming to a totally different environment and pursuing goals that are so unlike anything they’ve done before,” Canby said. “It’s easy to feel hopelessly alone, but when you have somebody like Rebecca, you’re not alone.”

Naomi White is one of those students. A 2010 law alumna who was raised in Window Rock, Ariz., on the Navajo Reservation, White met Tsosie in 2006 at the Pre-Law Summer Institute (PLSI) at the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, N.M. White already knew she wanted to go to law school; meeting Tsosie convinced her ASU was the place to go.

“Rebecca made every student on the first day feel that they weren’t in the wrong place, that they had a purpose for being there, that they were knowledgeable enough to be there,” said White, a prosecutor for the Gila River Indian Community. “Although the students were awestruck by her, she made us feel as if she was the one who was privileged to be able to teach us.”

At the same time, both at PLSI and in law school, Tsosie was a demanding professor who had high expectations for her students and never doubted they were attainable, White said. She was the model for the ILP.

“She made a point of helping students feel like a family, being a community, being there for each other, rather than being competitive with each other,” White said. “She wanted the students to excel, but remain friendly, to work together toward a uniform goal, and to serve our communities. She wanted us to be exceptional Indian law practitioners, and she created an environment for us to thrive in.”

White considers Tsosie a close friend, someone to shop and take cooking classes with (Tsosie’s specialty: rib-eye steak with rosemary butter), and to lean on during tough times. Doreen McPaul (Class of 2001) said Tsosie has a sixth sense about making the most of students’ strengths and is tenacious about helping them overcome weaknesses.

“I would never have thought to try out for the (Arizona State) Law Journal at the law school, if not for Rebecca,” said McPaul, Assistant Attorney General for the Tohono O’odham Nation. “She tells you you’re good enough to do it, you’re a good writer and researcher, and you start to believe it at some point. She also encouraged us to give back. We had opportunities to go to the big firms, but she encouraged us to go back to the PLSI and give back to the program that gave us so much.”

Tsosie practices what she preaches, serving as both an Associate Justice on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation Supreme Court, and as a Judge on the San Carlos Apache Court of Appeals. In addition to teaching courses in constitutional law, critical race theory, federal Indian law and property, she is a Faculty Fellow in the College of Law’s Center for Law and Global Affairs and an Affiliate Professor in the ASU American Indian Studies Program.

Diane Humetewa graduated from the College of Law the spring before Tsosie arrived at ASU. But Humetewa, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, has watched Tsosie open doors for Native women in the law, and has worked with her on the ILP Advisory Board.

“Under her direction, the law school began taking this evolutionary approach to federal Indian law issues and developing their relationship with and relevancy to tribal governments,” said Humetewa, ASU’s Special Advisor to the President for American Indian Affairs.

As a federal attorney, Humetewa forayed into legal issues relative to the protection of cultural resources, and sought Tsosie’s expertise on the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act. Enacted in 1990, it addresses the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, such as human remains, burial objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.

“Rebecca was a trailblazer to begin looking at these issues from a legal perspective, a theoretical perspective, a human-rights perspective,” Humetewa said. “There are generally a handful of people whom I have called in various stages of my career, and she was one. She has a way of looking at a situation that is different coming from the role of a native person, the role of a female and the role of lawyer. She knows the academic side of the law, and she knows the national and international law of the land on these issues.”

Tsosie is a pioneer in bringing international and comparative perspectives to thinking about domestic Indian law. She has traveled the world lecturing about climate change, forest management and environmental stewardship, governance of genomic research, American Indian political poetry, indigenous peace-making, cultural conflict and judicial reasoning, indigenous women and human-rights law, and cultural sovereignty.

“She is very well known for taking established areas of law and investigating how you can think about them from the perspective of tribal or indigenous experiences,” said UCLA’s Goldberg. “Nobody does that more effectively than she, in my estimation.”

Tsosie and Goldberg are co-authors of the casebook, “American Indian Law: Native Nations and the Federal System,” along with ASU Foundation Professor of Law Robert Clinton and others. Goldberg said Tsosie’s collaborative skills are stellar.

“In her gentle, but insistent way, Rebecca challenges and she shakes up conventional thinking in important ways, and that’s really valuable in a casebook for students,” she said. “We try to cultivate in students the capacity to develop original arguments and critical perspectives, and she has been effective there. She does the same for her co-authors.”

Goldberg can’t think of anyone more deserving of the Regents’ award, a sentiment echoed by others.

“At ASU, Rebecca is the face of Indian law and indigenous rights because of her prominence in the field,” Humetewa said. “Thousands of Native American students see her in this light, ‘If she can succeed, surely I can.’ Students and young professionals see her as that beacon of possibility.”

McPaul said Tsosie is simply the most important professor many law students will ever have. “She’s an Indian law superhero,” McPaul said. “She just needs a cape.”