Student attorneys experience real-world lessons at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

April 13, 2014 •

Stepping out of the classroom and onto the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation showed second-year law student Courtney Cole a whole different side of being an attorney.

Cole and 10 fellow students traveled to the South Dakota reservation in March as part of their applied training through the school’s American Indian Law Clinic.

“There is a very interesting juxtaposition in talking about things in the abstract and being able to do them on the ground,” Cole said.

Established in 1992, the American Indian Law Clinic is a one-year practicum course in which students provide pro-bono legal services to clients in the American Indian community. It is one of only a handful of such university-based clinics in the nation and one of the main reasons that Cole, who is Cherokee and Choctaw, chose Colorado Law.

The clinic’s student attorneys, supervised by Director Carla Fredericks, were invited to the reservation by the Red Cloud Indian School Economic Development Initiative to present a curriculum on entrepreneurial and business law. They also hosted a roundtable on the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), a law designed to keep American Indian children within their tribal communities when state intervention occurs.

Fredericks explained that reservation visits are critical to understanding tribal communities and their legal needs. “It’s very close to Colorado, but it’s a world away,” Fredericks said.

The experience helps students more completely engage in the significant challenges their clients are facing. “It helps the students see the modern reality and trauma created by some of the policies they study in school,” Fredericks said.

On the reservation, the experience of applying classroom skills to the real world turned into a lesson in adaptability.

The second day of their visit, Cole and her colleagues hosted a presentation on navigating the legal thicket surrounding ICWA, attended by tribal members, state social services representatives and key child-welfare leaders on the reservation. What started as a two-hour event became a four-hour dialogue among participants on their perspectives concerning the law.

“The reality of the roundtable was very different and more meaningful than the presentation we had planned,” Cole said. “We learned we could serve the community much better by listening rather than talking, by understanding rather than explaining.”

Cole shared a story of a woman she met during the presentation who lost her son to the state foster system. After he was removed from the family’s home, he was given psychotropic medication without her consent, and later committed suicide. The mother, a tribal member with a Ph.D., said she was unable to work within the legal system to maintain her family rights.

“Hers was the worst possible outcome for the system,” Cole said. “I wondered, if she can’t do it, how will other people be able to get their children back?”

To address this, the student attorneys developed materials to leave for tribal members that will serve others in the woman’s situation.

Under the guidance of faculty, these situations are an opportunity to practice law in a setting that allows students to make improvements and fosters their confidence, Cole said.

“You know that not only can you do it, but you’ve done it,” she explained. “And it will serve you in your lawyering life and your life in general.”

The trip was funded by a legacy contribution left by the late David Getches, dean of the law school from 2003 to 2011. For more information about the clinic visit www.colorado.edu/law/academics/clinics/american-indian-law-clinic.

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