Patrice Kunesh ('89)

Alum of the Month Mar '14

Patrice Kunesh ('89) has always approached her work with a singular question, “How are the children?” Regardless of where her work has taken her, Kunesh finds motivation in ensuring that children are “happy, thriving, well-fed, housed, and supported.” Hearing that response, as Kunesh explains, “is my goal in life.” This outlook isn’t very surprising for Kunesh, who was raised in a household with thirteen brothers and sisters in a small town in Minnesota.

Kunesh moved to Colorado in 1980 and completed her undergraduate studies at Colorado State University, earning degrees in Foreign Languages and Human Development and Family Studies. Kunesh attended Colorado Law from 1986–89 where, while raising two young daughters, she was an editor of the Colorado Law Review and published an article about the Indian Child Welfare Act. Kunesh, of Standing Rock Lakota descent, clerked from the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) while a student at Colorado Law. Upon graduation, she continued her work with NARF as a Skadden Public Interest Fellow. The Skadden Fellowship Program, described as a “legal peace corps,” awards grants to graduating law students who wish to devote their professional lives to providing legal services to the poor, the elderly, the homeless and disabled, as well as those deprived of their civil or human rights. As a Skadden Fellow, and later a staff attorney at NARF, Kunesh litigated cases involving tribal sovereignty and natural resources and provided legal and policy advice to tribes on a wide variety of Indian law and tribal governance issues.

Kunesh remained in Boulder at NARF until 1995, when she became in-house counsel to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut. In that role, Kunesh continued her legal and policy work in the areas of tribal law and governance and economic development. In 2005, after nearly ten years of service to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Kunesh accepted a faculty position at the University of South Dakota School of Law, where she taught in the areas of Federal Indian Law, Legislation, Property Law, and Children and the Law, and also directed the University’s Institute of American Indian Studies. In 2009, Kunesh received a Leadership Fellowship from the Bush Foundation to attend Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she earned a Masters in Public Administration.

In 2011, Kunesh was appointed to serve as the Deputy Solicitor for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior. For the next two years, Kunesh supervised the work of the Solicitor’s Office on a wide variety of issues concerning American Indian tribes and individual Indians, Indian lands, and Indian gaming. In May 2013, Kunesh began her tenure at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the Deputy Under Secretary of Rural Development, the position she currently holds. In her current job, Kunesh is responsible for overseeing operations and management and the Office of Civil Rights, as well as working with various State Directors.

While Kunesh admits that she doesn’t have much time for hobbies outside of work, she enjoys the outdoors whenever possible and spends as much time as she can in her garden. Also, an avid reader who particularly loves biographies and Indian literature, Kunesh recently completed U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, “My Beloved World,” which she enthusiastically recommends!

Five Questions for Patrice Kunesh ('89)

What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?

For me, it was the old law school cafeteria that we used to call “Fat City.” It was just a simple cafeteria, nothing like what is there now, but it was a special place where students would meet and talk about all things law school, who was doing what, and who was going where. That room embodied everything I loved about Colorado Law, it was such an inclusive group of people that really like to be around each other, many friendships were made and solidified in that room.

It was an extra special place for me because it was right next to the room where the Native American Law Students Association would meet and often a meeting there would end up with a much bigger group next door in “Fat City.” Also, my daughter was in kindergarten at the time, and I have very fond memories of her meeting me there after she was done with school. We would both finish our homework in the cafeteria together before heading home for the day.

What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?

Mostly about the classes I took and which ones ended up being important in my later career, and ones I never had a chance to take. I loved all the classes I took, but as I’ve spent a great deal of time working in government, I can’t stress enough how important Administrative Law is and wish I would have taken more classes on that topic. Also, it is very important to take classes outside of the law school, like economics or negotiations. Classes like that teach practical real world skills that will absolutely help support a legal career.

What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?

Be aware of how important the relationships you are making in law school will be down the line. In the not too distant future, your classmates will be co-workers and some may be the judges before whom you stand, and, not just your fellow students, but your professors as well. It’s a really great thing to be able to call on a former professor and have a conversation about an issue that I’m dealing with in my career. You should relish the opportunity to form these relationships while in school, as they will be incredibly important to your future and a fulfilling career.

Who was the biggest influence on your career?

It wasn’t a single person, for me it was being awarded the Skadden Fellowship. I was part of the original group of fellows and relished the opportunity to demonstrate that my proposal, which was to work with tribes to develop legal and social systems to support and protect the well-being of Indian children at the Native American Rights Fund, fit with their objectives of enhancing civil and human rights. My supervisor at NARF encouraged me to apply for the Fellowship, and several Indian Law professors helped shaped my proposal. Later, as a Trustee of the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, I was able to expand the reach of the Fellowship to other Native American legal issues and programs. I am very proud of that service.

Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

I am most proud of my work in highlighting the importance of child well-being as a matter of good governance and community development. For example, while working with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, I helped establish an Indian child welfare program.  It was an amazing experience because we were able to incorporate best practices from around the country, particularly by taking holistic and traditional approaches to child and family well-being, with much success.  Even now, in my work at Rural Development, creating strong rural communities begins with ensuring that the basic needs of the children in those communities are met and that they have opportunities to learn and thrive.