In late May, University of Tulsa College of Law 1L student Julie Combs will be packing her bags and heading to Washington, DC, to take up a Udall Foundation Native American Congressional Internship. For nine weeks, Combs will join 11 other American Indian and Alaska Native college, graduate and law students — including TU Law alumnus Joseph T. Byrd (MJIL ’16) — as they learn first hand how the United States government works with Native nations. While in the nation’s capital, Combs will be a legal intern at the United States Department of the Interior, Office of the Assistant Secretary, Indian Affairs.
“The College of Law is so proud that the Udall Foundation has selected Julie to serve in this internship,” remarked Lyn Entzeroth, the dean of TU Law. “Through this opportunity, she will be able to gain knowledge about governmental relations that can equip her to serve tribal nations.”
Native Americans and the law
The idea of the law’s impact on Native Americans runs deep within Combs, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. “There is not a better time to be a young Cherokee citizen,” Combs observed; “the tribe is doing so much, particularly on the health care front, and they are becoming increasingly more autonomous as time goes on.”
“I have always had an interest in giving back to my people,” Combs said. “It’s very deep in our family to give back through service.” One way Combs contributes is by volunteering with the Cherokee Heritage Center in Tahlequah, where she works with the development manager to co-author grants for the Cherokee National Historical Society and other tribal projects.
Speaking with Combs, one gets a strong sense of energetic optimism. Yet, she is also fully cognizant of the acute challenges Indigenous people must confront. “All across Indian Country,” she observed, “tribes are facing battles for their sovereign rights as far as their land goes and having the jurisdiction to exercise authority over their lands. And these extend not only to water rights and other issues such as that, but also into their ability to prosecute – under the provisions of the Violence against Women Act of 2013 – those who commit violence against Native women.” In addition, Combs is interested in how environmental issues caused by humans can be dealt with through the law within Indian territories.
A focus on women’s lives
Looking towards her future work as a lawyer, Combs said she would “like to focus my work on advocacy on behalf of Native women.” This professional interest springs from a very personal, immediate source: “The women in my family are resilient and strong,” she noted. “They have always had a deep understanding that sovereignty and the ability to protect and encourage our women are inherently tied together. And that’s what I would like to do for my career.”
In the summer of 2018, Combs had an opportunity to delve into this subject when she interned at Pipestem Law, a Native American law firm in Tulsa. During this experience, Combs researched Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction for an amicus brief Pipestem filed on behalf of the National Indigenous Womens’ Resource Center in Carpenter v Murphy, which Combs described as “one of the most important jurisdictional cases in Oklahoma history.” That case is currently being deliberated by the justices of the United States Supreme Court.
TU’s supportive community
Before beginning the JD program, Combs completed a BSBA in marketing at TU, minoring in economics. “I already knew the kind of amazing work that takes place at this university, so it didn’t take me by surprise to encounter welcoming, kind people at the College of Law. Many of my professors helped me get materials ready for my Udall Foundation application, and the Professional Development Office was very encouraging.”
In addition to her formal studies at TU Law, Combs serves as an executive director on the college’s Public Interest Board and, when she returns in fall 2019, she will take up the position of president of the Native American Law Student Association. “These two organizations have been instrumental in my success thus far,” Combs commented. “My fellow students have been hugely supportive of me, my studies and my aspirations.”
Ending on a typically cheerful note, Combs smiled and said, “law school: it’s been an amazing experience so far.” Next stop for this inspirational leader: capital city!
Learn more about the College of Law and its inspiring people and activities.