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Cherokee Nation

TU Law alumna and Cherokee Nation Supreme Court justice to teach at alma mater

University of Tulsa College of Law alumna Shawna S. Baker (JD & MS ’02) serves as a justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court and is the founder and principal of Family Legacy and Wealth Counsel, a legal firm specializing in estate planning and business consulting. This fall, she will add to her busy schedule by taking up the position of Distinguished Alumna in Residence at TU Law.

woman with long blonde hair wearing a blue pant suit while standing in a lobby and leaning with her right arm on a railing
Shawna Baker

Baker’s expertise is remarkably varied, including human rights, health, Native American law and taxation. During her residency at TU Law, she will draw on this wealth of knowledge and experience to lead courses on Federal Indian Law and Evidence. Baker is also looking forward to working with President Brad Carson, Dean Oren Griffin and TU Law’s faculty to revitalize the college’s Native American law programming.

As she gets set to return to the halls of academe, Baker recently engaged in a lively and thoughtful Q&A. Addressing an array of topics — from the surprising Hollywood spark that motivated her to study law to the significance of being an open and proud 2SLGBTQ+ legal professional, to the need to destigmatize HIV/AIDS in Indian Country and advice for people considering a legal career — Baker shone a light on her convictions, her work and the impact brilliant, focused advocates can have on their society.

Where did you grow up and what were some of the early influences that, looking back, led you to study the law?

I grew up in a small, rural town on the Oklahoma and Arkansas border located within the Cherokee Nation Reservation.

The sole impetus for me to study law was the film The Ghosts of Mississippi. Released in December 1996, the story recounts the trial and conviction of Bryon De La Beckwith and the 30 years it took to secure justice for the family of Medgar Evers.

At the time, I was midway through my freshman year at John Brown University as a pre-med major. After watching the film, I became curious about and disheartened by the grave amount of injustice and inequality occurring in present-day America. I felt compelled to alter course.

You serve on the board of trustees of Oklahomans for Equality and you are the first 2SLGBTQ+ person and the third woman to serve on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. What are the personal and cultural-political significances of these aspects of your identity as they relate to your role as a justice, lawyer and academic?

In 2020, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Tribal Council focused on my qualifications as the nominee, rather than on who I love or my gender. I am immensely grateful for my tribe’s inclusive embrace.

The gift of full equality grants me the personal freedom to be authentic 24/7/365. In turn, the totality of my energy is channeled to serving the Supreme Court and, hence, our tribal citizens.

I am continually mindful that my presence matters. Through me, 2SLGBTQ+ persons as well as girls and women can picture themselves serving their tribe both on the bench and at the highest level of government service. Most of all, my representation reminds them that they, too, are valued and beloved members of our tribe.

June is Pride Month in Tulsa and much of the rest of the country (and beyond). As a Native American, a 2SLGBTQ+ person and a thoughtful, influential person alive today, what do Pride and Pride Month mean to you?

Pride is a time for 2SLGBTQ+ persons to celebrate the equality and freedoms we presently enjoy while simultaneously remembering and paying tribute to the catalyst of the gay rights movement, the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and the multitudes of daring individuals upon whose shoulders we stand.

As we celebrate, we are visible to our families, friends, co-workers and broader communities.  Visibility provides an opportunity for us to counter historical stereotypes, to provide a safe space for discussion and education, and to affirm our individual and collective dignity. Until “all [persons] are created equal,” as penned in the Declaration of Independence, is a lived experience by every citizen subject to American jurisprudence, there is essential work to be done.

Health and health law are important subjects to you. In particular, you are involved in the HIV arena. Would you illuminate this facet of your work?

My private practice focuses on estate planning and, as an academic, I began to explore the intersection of law and medicine. Numerous negative health disparities exist at alarming rates for 2SLGBTQ+ persons as well as indigenous peoples. Because Oklahoma is one of seven states with the highest incidences of new HIV infections per capita, I have every motivation as a tribal citizen, an Oklahoman, a woman and a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community to ensure that all persons, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, learn about HIV prevention and treatment.

We must find a way to destigmatize HIV in Indian Country. Every tribal citizen must be encouraged to know their HIV status, to discuss the efficacy of anti-viral drugs and, ultimately, to actively participate in lowering transmission rates.

Our task when dealing with HIV should be as simple as discussing the importance of COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and mask-wearing. Sadly, it isn’t. To that end, I presently serve as an advisor to Cherokee Nation Health Services on its Ending the HIV Epidemic project. Outside of the Cherokee Nation, I serve on the national-level Indian Health Service and the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board’s Native Ending the HIV Epidemic Advisory Committee.

You also serve on Chief Hoskin’s Domestic Violence Task Force. I wonder whether you would tell us what that body is and your role on it.

More than 80% of Indigenous women experience violence, more than half experience sexual and/or intimate partner violence, and we are murdered at 10 times the national average.  In August 2021, Chief Hoskin created the Domestic Violence Task Force (DVTF).

The DVTF is charged with reviewing all existing tribal laws and policies and providing feedback, either in the way of revisions or through the proposal of new and innovative ideas for strengthening the nation’s response to domestic violence and, thus, improving protections for women and children. It is my sincere hope that the policy recommendations and implementation efforts directly correlate to an immediate and dramatic reduction in the number of domestic violence incidents occurring throughout our tribal nation and the number of domestic violence cases brought before our courts.

After you earned a joint JD and MS from The University of Tulsa, you went on to complete two more master’s level legal programs. What were they and what motivated you to gain those additional qualifications?

woman with long blonde hair wearing a blue blazer standing outdoors in front of a fountain and a light-colored stone buildingDuring my final year at TU Law, I shared with some of my professors an interest in pursuing an academic career in the law. True to form, the deans and professors began to mentor me for such an endeavor. This included inviting me to serve on the college’s Appointments Committee as the student representative. In that role, I had the honor and pleasure of traveling to Washington, D.C., to interview candidates for the law school’s tenure-track positions. One of the takeaways from that experience was many, if not most, of the candidates had one or more Ivy League degrees. So, in order to become a competitive candidate on the academic market, I attended Columbia Law School for my first LL.M.

After returning to private practice, I pursued a second LL.M. in taxation from NYU Law School.  Taxes are the point of intersection for accountants, financial advisors and estate planning attorneys. Spending additional time in New York City certainly did not discourage me!

For people contemplating applying to law school or currently in the midst of a JD program, do you have any words of advice?

When I was a student at TU Law, Professor Lance Stockwell shared a wonderful piece of advice with respect to being a practitioner. The essence of his advice was: Lawyers should refine their case and practice their craft until the most complicated set of facts can be easily explained to anyone regardless of age, skill, education or other factor. I took his advice to heart and it has served me well.

The folklore of law school teaches students on day one that success is measured by class rankings, performance in extra-curricular activities, such as a law journal or mock trial, and, ultimately, offers of employment. As students transition to become practitioners, success seemingly becomes measured by the number of hours billed plus wins in the courtroom, as well as, perhaps the ascension to partner. But, in order to achieve all that “success,” lawyers often neglect their personal well-being.

The best advice I can share with young, ambitious people is to grant yourself the grace of rest and self-care. To rest is not to fail. Saying “yes” to a positive work-life balance is a skill set that must be sharpened. We must recharge because there is never a shortage of injustices to fight!

At TU Law, you’ll find a rainbow of vibrant student organizations – including the Native American Law Student Association and OutLaws — through which to make new friends and deepen your understanding of specific areas of the law.


Cherokee Nation attorney general to speak at Hooding Ceremony

half-length portrait of a woman wearing glasses and wearing a bright red jacket standing in front of a red flag with a golden star visible on it
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill

The University of Tulsa College of Law is deeply honored that Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill (JD ’03) has accepted an invitation to address the graduands at the May 2022 Hooding Ceremony.

A graduate of the College of Law, Hill was appointed in 2019 to serve as the attorney general of the Cherokee Nation. Prior to that, she spent a decade in the Nation’s Office of the Attorney General and served as the Cherokee Nation’s first secretary of natural resources.

Hill’s legal career has been entirely in Indian country, where she has worked on a wide range of legal issues facing tribes. She has often focused on environmental and natural resources issues, including serving as counsel for the Nation in State of Oklahoma v. Tyson and Cherokee Nation v. Sequoyah Fuels. In recognition of her legal and environmental work, Hill has received numerous awards.


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.