TU Law student deepens knowledge of federal Indian law during congressional internship Law School

TU Law student deepens knowledge of federal Indian law during congressional internship

For nine weeks during summer 2019, University of Tulsa College of Law rising 2L student Julie Combs joined 11 other Native Americans from across the United States to live and work in Washington, D.C., as congressional interns supported by the Udall Foundation.

“The Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Internship program places emerging indigenous professionals at the crux of policy and tribal-federal relations on Capitol Hill,” explained Mona Nozhackum (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation), a program coordinator with the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute who oversees the Udall Foundation’s internship. “The unique distinction between the Udall internship program and others is the emphasis placed on the experiential learning opportunities and skills gained throughout the program that students can then take back to serve their own communities and native nations. I had the privilege to witness Julie’s transformational growth throughout the summer. I know that she will be a valuable asset to her people as she adds to her cache of tools and skills to drive dynamic and innovative change across Indian Country.”

Earlier this year, we reported on Combs’ receipt of this prestigious internship. Now back in Oklahoma, Combs shares a report on her experiences in the nation’s capital, the people she met, the work she undertook and the knowledge and resources she developed.

By Julie Combs (2L)

Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, once said, “In the context of a tribal people, no individual’s life stands apart and alone from the rest. My own story has meaning only as long as it is a part of the overall story of my people. For above all else, I am a Cherokee woman.” This summer I had the distinct privilege of serving in the 24th class of Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Interns. While I anticipated opportunities for personal and professional growth through the internship, I have had the greater opportunity to hear and see the overall story of my people.

My cohort comprised 12 individuals from 10 tribes and 10 universities During our time in D.C., we were each placed in a federal agency or congressional office and had the opportunity as a group to meet with elected officials, staff at native advocacy and public interest organizations, as well as firms that work on behalf of tribal nations. I was placed as a legal intern at the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (AS-IA).

Julie Combs with her Udall Internship cohort along with Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney in the Hall of Tribal Nations at the Department of the Interior
Julie Combs with the other Udall interns and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney in the Hall of Tribal Nations at the Department of the Interior

My work

While at the DOI, I served under Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney, the first Alaska native and the second woman to oversee Indian Affairs. Working in the office, which carries out the federal trust responsibility to the 573 federally recognized tribes, conveys a certain weight for a native individual due to the DOI’s complicated – and often unfortunate – history of dealings with tribal nations. With that in mind, I was pleased to find the desire to do better by our people was shared by the many native employees of Indian Affairs, some of whom have worked there for over 30 years.

I had the honor of working with senior legal counsel in the AS-IA hallway and attorney-advisers in the Office of the Solicitor on a wide array of issues. I gained valuable legal skills and new knowledge in areas of the law that I was previously unaware of, such as self-determination and self-governance, wildland fire contracts, tribal-state gaming compacts, the HEARTH Act, whaling and fishing rights, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) policy, federal administrative law and Indian Country investment taxation. Working at the DOI’s headquarters also gave me the unique opportunity to interact with a variety of bureaus and offices. In the span of one day, I could have a morning meeting in the DOI Office of Wildland Fire and then head immediately to the BIE hallway for a meeting on school funding.

For my final presentation, I chose the topic of the effects of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations for the Opportunity Zone tax incentive on development in Indian Country. This project allowed me to work with an attorney-adviser in the solicitor’s office who had previously worked at the Department of the Treasury in the IRS Office of Indian Tribal Governments. One of my main tasks was to draft memos for the assistant secretary on how tribal nations might best attract outside investment due to the unique status of Indian lands. It was exciting to see firsthand the intersection of federal Indian law and tax law, two areas I hope to practice in going forward in my career.

My fellow interns

Our Udall cohort became extremely close-knit this summer. We hailed from tribal nations stretching from Maine all the way to Oregon and California, and many places in between. I particularly enjoyed my time with the other four law students. Two of us were at the DOI, and the other three were at the Department of Justice.

We each hope to work in different areas of federal Indian Law and were able to share the knowledge we gained in different agencies and offices with each other. While this summer has given me an interest in Indian Country investment and land rights, my new friends are interested in areas such as cultural repatriation, Indian Country crime and water rights.

Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz, Julie Combs and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz, Julie Combs and Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney

Another remarkable thing about the Udall Foundation internship program is the extensive and welcoming network of former interns. Indeed, Udall alumni in D.C. are having an impact on Indian Country in advocacy organizations, leading law firms and every branch of government. I had the privilege of working under two Udall alumni in the AS-IA hallway: Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Economic Development Mark Cruz and Tyler Fish, White House senior policy adviser and tribal liaison. I am confident that the members from my cohort will follow in the legacy of these remarkable people and have a significant impact on our tribal nations.


Lessons I learned

A special moment this summer was when our cohort met with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), one of the first native women to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. I was able to share with her how incredible it was to meet her, as my grandmother and her mother never lived to see a native congresswoman. Many of the native leaders we met this summer, including Rep. Haaland – who is, herself, a lawyer – shared the sentiment that Native American representation matters immensely in the legal field because indigenous perspectives are often lost in the U.S. legal system to the detriment of native communities.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Julie Combs
Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Julie Combs

I will take many of the lessons I learned this summer in D.C. with me well into my legal career and beyond. More importantly, I hope to bring home some of the knowledge I gained to my people, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and my fellow students at the College of Law through my position as the president of the Native American Law Student Association.

For the interests of native communities to be protected and championed, it is imperative that the groundwork is laid at the tribal, state and federal levels for future generations to enact even greater change. The work I will do in Indian Country is already marked with the care and dedication of the generations that have gone before me – that is the story of my people.

TU Law and Indian law

TU Law has a lengthy and robust record of teaching and research in the area of Indian law. In addition, the College of Law Mabee Legal Information Center holds an impressive collection of Native American and indigenous peoples materials, including many rare primary materials as well as influential treatises in print. See where your own interest in Indian law can take you with a JD from TU Law.