Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes currently serves as the Interim Executive Director of the Indian Law Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at ASU. She recently completed a short term appointment as the Interim President of Little Priest Tribal College and has served in various administrative roles at the Indian Legal Program. Ann Marie has taught courses in Advanced Legal Research and Writing in Indian Law and co-teaches Contemporary Issues in Tribal Economic Development. Prior to joining the Indian Legal Program, she served as the Policy Advisor for Tribal Affairs to former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Ann Marie previously served as president of Little Priest Tribal College located in Winnebago, NE. As President, she was responsible for the day-to-day administration and program implementation at Little Priest Tribal College and assisted the college in attaining 10 years of continued accreditation. During her tenure as President she was also a member of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. In the early 1990’s she served as a Gaming Commissioner on the Hoopa Valley Tribal Gaming Commission and then for her own tribe’s gaming commission for a short time in 2000. She is a member of the Little Priest Tribal College Board of Trustees and as a member of the Board of Directors for the tribal corporation, Ho-Chunk, Inc. She is an enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
1. Are you a native Arizonan? If not, where are you from? If so, have you spent a significant amount of time living somewhere else different from this state?
I am originally from Nebraska. I grew up on the Winnebago reservation in northeast Nebraska and lived there until I left to attend law school at ASU. I have lived in both northern and southern California but have spent most of my life in either Nebraska or Arizona.
2. How did you decide to become a lawyer? Did you always want to practice Indian law and/or work for a tribe? Why or why not?
I knew I wanted to be a lawyer at a very young age. My tribe had been fighting to have a new IHS hospital built in our community for a number of years and every so often our tribal leadership would come to the public school on the reservation to encourage us to stay in school and get an education. They would regularly mention our fight for this hospital and would emphasize the fact we had treaty rights and sovereignty. I knew that these words, these concepts, had a meaning beyond what even my tribal leadership was expressing. I knew in order to learn more about these legal principles and to be an advocate like my leaders, I had to go to law school. I never thought I would practice law. I was just looking for answers. My undergraduate degree is in 7-12 Social Sciences education so I thought I would be a social studies teacher and spend the rest of my time helping to fight to get resources to our community and to change the way people thought about my tribe. I’ll never forget the first week of my position as President of Little Priest. About my third day on the job I received a card from the tribal council inviting me to the groundbreaking for our new hospital. It was a decades old fight, but we had finally won.
3. To date, what do you think is your most notable accomplishment – either legal or personal?
I am extremely proud of the work I did at Little Priest Tribal College. We completed an accreditation visit during my last year there and were awarded continuing accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission. This work is a total team effort but I was a young professional with a very steep learning curve. To accomplish continued accreditation for my tribe’s Tribal College will forever be a highlight of my professional career. In my personal life I am very proud of my family. My husband and I have worked very hard to create a marriage that is a partnership. My kids are successful and happy and I hope they see our marriage as a good model to emulate in their future relationships.
4. Is there anything in your career that you have not yet accomplished that you have set as a goal for yourself? If so, what is that? If not, do you plan to retire at some point or try another career?
This is the toughest question for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve so much of what I set out to do. I work in Indian legal education, I get to teach, support students as they pursue their goals, work for my community by being on various boards and my family supports me and keeps me balanced. (Well, for the most part. Any working mom knows it is easier said than done!) So, I feel like new goals are a bit greedy. With that said, I do miss being in the classroom and hope I get opportunity to teach again soon. As a long term goal, I have recently considered going back to Nebraska someday and either working for our tribal economic development corporation or even running for our tribal council.
5. Why did you join NABA-AZ? What would you like to see the organization do or accomplish in the near and/or distant future?
I remember when the organization was first started and I was excited to see how it would grow. The website still has elements of those early days when my colleague and friend, Kate Rosier helped to develop the initial webpage. I think the organization has had tremendous growth in such a short time. There is an active and committed group of people who have really allowed the organization to make huge impact with limited resources. In the long term, I think we want to be the organization that students and lawyers think of first when they are looking for a resource to help them connect with other lawyers in the field. Our activities should raise the visibility of Indian law and tribal law both locally and nationally, as well as highlight the number of great lawyers in Arizona who practice in that area.
6. Do you have any advice for new lawyers? If so, what is it?
Find a good mentor and be patient. The role you are to play as a lawyer doesn’t always reveal itself the first, second or even third year out of law school. Find someone who will help guide you both personally and professionally. Use your law degree to do good.