By Jessica Zhu
Elizabeth Reese, Yunpoví (Willow Flower in the Tewa language), was born on the Nambé Pueblo reservation, one of the oldest continually inhabited Indigenous communities in the U.S. that sits just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico and where she is tribally enrolled. She grew up immersed in Nambé’s culture, participating in traditions that date back thousands of years to that exact location.
But when her parents decided to pursue Ph.D. degrees, her family moved to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — where they found themselves the only Native American family in a town where the mascot of the local university, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was a racist caricature of a Native American person. Though Reese remained close to her community, spending summers and holidays at the Pueblo, she experienced racially-charged bullying in her new town. Always, she was the only Native person in her classes. She never had a Native teacher.
Now, Reese is joining Stanford Law School (SLS) as an assistant professor, becoming the first Native American faculty member at the school and “the first enrolled citizen of a Native nation to have a tenure-track appointment at a top three law school,” according to Greg Ablavsky, an associate professor at SLS.
Reese attended Yale University, the University of Cambridge and Harvard Law School, where she received her J.D. in 2016. Though she found more Indigenous community than in Champaign-Urbana at these institutions, there was still little Native American representation, especially among faculty.
“It was in college that I finally had a Native professor, and not until towards the end of college when Yale finally hired Ned Blackhawk, their first tenured Native faculty member,” Reese said. “I remember taking his class and it was just, it was really something else.”
When Reese later decided to attend law school, she chose Harvard because every January, the law school hosted an accelerated American Indian Law class. “But I desperately, desperately wanted a Native professor around full-time to just be there to support the Native students, that we weren’t invisible and we had a voice,” she said.
For most of her childhood, Reese wanted to be a “Shakespearean film director.” Though she doesn’t recall a distinct moment when she shifted to law, she remembers being heavily influenced by the power that laws have in shaping the lives of Indigenous communities.
“It was laws that moved lots of people across the country, laws that took Indian kids away from their families and into boarding school, or adopted out,” Reese said. “All of the worst things that have happened to us have been laws, they’ve all been legal. The sense in Indian country, I think at least for the last 40 or 50 years, has been that those of us who are lawyers are capable of fighting back or fighting for the people.”
“There’s the sense that becoming a lawyer is like some modern-day warrior,” she said.
After working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Reese joined the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 2017, where she helped tribal governments expand criminal jurisdiction over non-American Indians under the 2013 Violence Against Women Act. While working as a practicing attorney, she said that she appreciated “the opportunity to go to tribes all across the country” and learn about their different governing structures.
Reese’s experience at the NAACP and NCAI “uniquely positions her to weave scholarship and practice in some of the defining issues of our time,” wrote director of the Native American Cultural Center Karen Biestman in a statement to The Daily.
On the weekends, Reese found herself going to coffee shops and writing outlines of papers on her legal ideas. She decided to go into academia. “I can’t imagine being the scholar that I am, writing the things that I do, without all those insights [from being a practicing attorney],” she said.
As a professor, Reese hopes to bolster the role of tribal law in law education. In March, she published a paper in the Stanford Law Review titled “The Other American Law,” which criticized the exclusion of tribal law from law schools’ mainstream curricula, an omission that furthers the invisibility and othering of Indigenous peoples.
“People who have read it have told me that they’re revising their syllabus as a result of reading my paper to include tribal court opinions or tribal code at some point in their syllabi,” Reese said. “I already feel like my work is improving legal education, for at least the students who get to attend those classes, who will not graduate from law school completely unaware that tribal governments exist.”
Ablavsky, who has worked closely with Reese, echoed the concern that federal American Indian and tribal law are both often seen as minor, specialized areas, leading to a broad lack of understanding among judges and attorneys. In a statement to The Daily, Ablavsky wrote that he is glad to see that trend change through Professor Reese’s and other Indigenous scholars’ “path-breaking work.”
“I’m excited that SLS can, I hope, play a central role in being a hub for Indian law scholarship as well as for training the next generation of lawyers who will help serve Indian country.”
Together, Reese and Ablavsky are working to increase course offerings and opportunities for direct legal services, such as policy practicums, for students interested in federal Indian and tribal law.
One such student, Tanner Allread J.D. ’22 Ph.D. ’23, said that although Stanford is already one of the only elite law schools in the U.S. that offers American Indian law classes, he is excited about the additional impact that Reese’s personal experiences will have on legal education at SLS. He wrote in an email to The Daily that as a Native law student interested in academia, he sees Reese as a role model. “I hope other Native students are inspired to attend law school and study tribal law because of her example,” he wrote.
Allread added that he hopes “other law schools will follow Stanford’s lead in hiring tribal law scholars and Native American scholars to prepare students to think about and even work for tribal nations and Indigenous peoples,” especially following recent events such as the protests at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the appointment of Deb Haaland as the first Native American presidential cabinet secretary.
Aside from improving legal scholarship, Reese also hopes to be a mentor for Indigenous students and an active member of Stanford’s Native community. She said that she has always “relied very heavily” on Native community, from her years at Champaign-Urbana to her time in college and law school.
“Especially in colleges and universities, it’s very common for Native people to form communities that are very much like home,” Reese said. “I hope that I will be able to not only be a mentor and give good advice and inspire people, but also that, you know, they can come to my house for food and feel joy and comfort.”
The feeling is mutual. “So many of us are poised to welcome [Reese] across campus,” Biestman wrote, adding that she has been “inspired” by Reese’s excitement to join Stanford’s Native community.
“On the 50th anniversary of the Stanford American Indian Organization, appointing the first Native American to the Stanford Law School Faculty is a monumental milestone,” she added. “We trust that she will find a home at Stanford.”