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Native law experts dispel misconceptions in panel session

Samantha Stetzer//May 30, 2023

focused shot of the end of a gavel on top of the edge of an open book image

Native law experts dispel misconceptions in panel session

Samantha Stetzer//May 30, 2023

Casey Matthiesen
Casey Matthiesen

In 2017, Casey Matthiesen attended her first Minnesota American Indian Bar Association (MAIBA) meeting.

For Matthiesen, who was adopted by supportive non-Native parents shortly after birth, it was a moment that changed everything.

“It was the first time I was in a room with people who looked like me,” Matthiesen said. “That changed my entire trajectory to be honest. I was able to kind of find my identity and start making sense of some of these things with my background and how I was going to connect that to my [legal] practice.”

Matthiesen, who is now practicing Robbins Kaplan LLP and is a member of the Yankton Sioux, saw that 2017 moment come full circle — by becoming the president of MAIBA.

Matthiesen shared this experience with attendees and fellow panelists at the Minnesota Bar Association’s Native Law Advocacy in Minnesota Panel in early May. Panelists also included attorney Melissa Lorentz, who is a staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; Philip Brodeen of Brodeen & Paulson PLLP and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Chippewa; and Terry Janis, an attorney and member of the Oglala Lakota.

Like Matthiesen, each panelist shared experiences as Native and non-Native persons, and how these led to their legal work today.

Ultimately, their stories were as diverse as the law they were on the panel to discuss.

“I think it’s important for our audience to know there are a lot of misconceptions out there,” moderator Racey Rodne told the panel.

Rodne is an attorney at McEllistrem, Fargione, Rorvig, and Moe P.A. and a member of the Kiowa Tribe.

The panel was part of larger ongoing conversations about diversity, inclusion, and equity within law, according to the Minnesota Bar Association’s director of equity, inclusion, and foundations, Erikka Ryan.

“Narratives around Native people are not discussed often,” Ryan said. “While there is a lot of support and programs for people of color, you rarely see specific programs and CLEs [continuing legal education] targeted to this population.”

Panelists examined the misconceptions within Native and U.S. law, as it relates to Native populations.

“[The] irony of practicing Indian law in 2023,” Janis said, later adding, “Today, we are often trying to make clear that we are different, but the basis for that argument is rooted in heavily racist thoughts… Everyone wasn’t treated the same under the Constitution.”

Panelists illustrated this by focusing on land and nature rights, gaming, and tribal enrollment.

From left: Melissa Lorentz, Philip Brodeen, Terry Janis
From left: Melissa Lorentz, Philip Brodeen, Terry Janis

A common gap, Lorentz explained, is what tribes consider necessary for enrollment.

According to the National Library of Medicine, to identify someone as Native, the federal government uses a blood quantum system and tribal membership. However, some tribes also consider other factors when accepting members to their tribe.

“There really is a diversity of perspectives between tribes and tribal members,” Lorentz said. “It can be about culture — how to tell the story of a tribe’s history. It could be about the law — how to talk about the law.”

Matthiesen and Brodeen shared similar sentiments when discussing the differences between tribal governments and non-Native, U.S. government systems.

Brodeen explained the contrasts between the tribal and U.S. governmental bodies can be illustrated through gaming, which tribes rely on to support their communities, Brodeen said.

Minnesota has gaming entities in its 11 federally recognized tribes, but some operations are more successful, and therefore more beneficial, than others, Brodeen explained.

And non-Native governments have a system for support when funding is low, Brodeen continued.

“The state and federal government have taxation, which they can get money into their coffers,” Brodeen said. “Tribes don’t have that.”

Additionally, as numerous panelists discussed, Native law often encompasses land rights discussions because of the cultural and historical significance of Native land rights and the ecosystems that inhabit those lands.

For example, Janis explained work done by the White Earth Reservation to produce a White Earth Tribal Law that gives a plant, wild rice, legal rights to exist and not be harmed when recovering.

Wild rice has a strong link to Native history in Minnesota. According to Wisconsin Public Radio, University of Minnesota researchers are partnering with tribal members to preserve this history and Native wild rice farming techniques.

“Indian nations, I think, are going to be a leading voice in what our relationship to the land and what our relationship to extraction industries and what our relationship to wealth is,” Janis said.

The key is to listen to those voices, the panelists agreed.

“As lawyers, we’re supposed to have the answers. That’s our job,” Lorentz said. “But in reality, we often don’t. Learning from the folks that I’ve been working with has been really important to me in my career.

Lorentz would later advise non-Native attendees to practice “humility” in non-Native spaces.

For all attorneys, Ryan encouraged them to be cognizant of the ways a client’s culture can impact their desires and future.

“It continues to be important to have these conversations,” Ryan said, “so people can best serve their clients and their communities.”

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