Native American Heritage Month: A Time to Honor the Invaluable Contributions of Native American Peoples

November 29, 2023

The following appeared in the State Bar of South Dakota newsletter in November in the "President's Corner" by Heather Lammers Bogard and includes comments from Delta Tau Delta alumnus Robin Zephier (South Dakota, 1983).

November commemorates Native American Heritage Month, a time to acknowledge and celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and contributions of Native American peoples throughout history. Native American Heritage Month serves as an important reminder of the profound impact indigenous communities have on the fabric of our nation. It is an opportunity for us to reflect on the resilience and strength displayed by Native Americans in the face of historical challenges and ongoing struggles. It is also a time to recognize the unique legal and social issues that affect indigenous communities and to recommit ourselves to promoting justice, equality and understanding.

The legal profession plays a vital role in advancing the rights and interests of Native Americans. We must strive to increase awareness and understanding of the legal and historical issues that continue to impact indigenous communities. By offering pro bono legal services, engaging in advocacy efforts, and supporting organizations working on behalf of Native Americans, we can contribute to positive change and help address the disparities that persist.

Education is another crucial aspect of our commitment to Native American heritage and justice. We must encourage schools, universities, and legal institutions to include comprehensive education on Native American history, culture and legal issues. By providing accurate and culturally sensitive information, we can foster greater understanding and combat harmful stereotypes and misconceptions.

To further advocate for Native American Heritage Month, I asked Robin Zephier to provide his valuable input:

Warrior Is

ln commemoration of Native American Heritage Month, new SD Bar President Heather Lammers Bogard, a wonderful and kind human being, and a skilled and empathetic professional, has asked me to lend some humble words to the moment:-I am a Native American human being, who happens to be a SD practicing attorney. I am a Lakota Mnincoju person, and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in SD. I have been practicing law since I graduated from USD Law School in the late 1980s. My brother Harley L. Zephier and I recently wrote a novel about our great grandfather's life story, "Warrior Is" (2017). In the life story of Mato Niyanpi (Saved By Bear), ,ve did try our best to share the origins and nature of the Lakota/ Dakota/Nakota people's relationship to the new white European society and culture, and specifically, their unfamiliar and somewhat unnatural concept of 'laws: and how that related to the indigenous concept of the truth of all things. Many present day societies and citizens may not have or carry a full appreciation of the conflict and contrast that existed in the l!ast several centuries on Turtle Island, North America (and within the now present United States), between the indigenous peoples and their civilizations and self-governance, with that of the encroaching foreign society, culture and legal systems. "The education of the Lakota began at birth. Education was all about truth and about the truthful way everything was handled and done. The child was presented with truth from the beginning, from the very first time he or she was taught about some thing, some way, or some process. Children were told the truth about the matter and nothing more. Those that taught, taught the child the truth of things from the very beginning. This way, there was no question in the child's mind about what the truth was. The truth was the only way that the Lakota would live within. The Lakota child would know things to be no other way. They would not have to guess about the truth. 1hey would not be presented with a false positive or with a distracting test seeking to discover whether or not they could pick out the truthful thing from among multiple untruths. There were no deceptions and no competitions. No one had a greater claim than anyone else to the truth:' Warrior Is, p. 89. "Very few Lakota spoke the whites' language. Very few of the Lakota on the plains in the 1800s had any comprehension of the written word. Almost none of the Lakota during the nineteenth century on Turtle Island hao ever seen written language or words. Hardly any- Lakota understood English, the white word language, except for a scant few who had encountered European fur traders along the rivers farther east in the land of the Dakota. Literally, the Lakota communicated through speaking Lakota, through sign language, or through pictographs drawn on rocks or hides. Very few, if any, actually wrote 'words: Very few, if an}:', understood what it meant to record what one spoke. No one ever really thought that the words they said to one another could be etched down on hide or paper or a piece of wood, in such a way that another, just by looking at an etched inanimate object, could know what had been said by mouth:' Warrior Is, p. 197. "The ability to separate what is right from what is wrong has always been the torment of humankind. There are no clear marks or warnings for when you are near the barrier between the two, only the regret an_d guilt that follows when you make the wrong decision - choosing the wrong path over the right one - while at the fork in the road of life. Each of us cannot know totally which of the two roads to take at the fork, not unless we allow ourselves to know ourselves and have the ability to feel how our decision will affect not just us as an individual, but also others, especially those who we love, care about, and have meaningful contact with. We cannot truly appreciate that impact upon others unless we have spent some time coming to know that our own actions do in fact impact others. If one does not know or accept that reality, that notion, then one is truly selfish and unappreciative of the concept that one has an impact on the society in which one lives and on the greater world. In order to discern between right and wrong, one must open up one's mind and spirit enough to allow the real truth to enter and then find a home in the conscience. To be able to do what is right, versus what is wrong, one must truly first know the difference:' Warrior Is, p. 304.

Education is paramount to a civilized society. It is the key to understanding each other, and ourselves. It is the key to having and celebrating the gift of curiosity, the natural energy to wish to know-what the truth is, and how the truth provides the signs along the Trail of Life, to become the human being one is striving to become, and to seek out and reach for the dreams and destiny of the one, to gain a better understanding of others, and, in turn, of ourselves. The Circle of Life is not complete without the gift of the presence of each one of us, within the Circle. The indigenous people celebrate and give thanks for the gift of that awareness and understanding, and are always willing and joyful to try to share and pass on that energy to those that wish to know and receive it. It would be a magical experience and beautiful thing, if peoples of all races, origins, beginnings, and settings, could share that energy. Education and an understanding of a truthful application and acceptance of the law and the law within society and life, and humanity, would greatly benefit us all.

Robin L. Zephier Mnincoju Lakota

Sacred He Sapa (Black Hills) of SD 

USD Class of 1986

Native American Heritage Month is a time for us to honor the invaluable contributions of Native American peoples and to commit ourselves to supporting their pursuit of justice and equality. As legal professionals, we have a responsibility to advocate for change, promote cultural competency, and build bridges of understanding.

In conclusion, I want to recognize and thank those individuals, in addition to Robin Zephier, who have made a tremendous impact in South Dakota and beyond with the pursuit of justice and equality, particularly with respect to Native American Heritage in our legal profession: 

  • Eric Schulte and Stephanie Pochop, in their roles in State Bar leadership, starting in 2015, visiting tribal schools and communities to communicate with and perhaps inspire Native American students to consider a career in the law.
  • The Indian Law Committee, particularly with Seth Pearman organizing a trip to Eagle Butte each year. Seth and others perform mock trials prepared by the Honorable Karen Schreier to 9th and 12th grade students, discussing being a lawyer and emphasizing that Native Americans are under-represented in the legal world. Those involved have also included Eric Schulte, Anthony Sutton, Henry Evans, Angel Runnels, Tre Gillaspie, Kirk Albertson, Reese Ganje, and others.
  • Tamara Nash for her work in the Young Lawyer Section on Project Destination, a program that received national attention and grant funds. 1hrough the years, YLS has visited many schools to engage Native American students in a conversation about the law and to encourage high school and college students to consider a legal career. Some of the schools visited Little Wound School, Red Cloud Indian School, Flandreau Indian School, St. Francis School, Pierre Indian Learning Center, Black Hills State University, SD School of Mines and Technology, and Sisseton-Wahpeton· Tribal College.
  • Dean Neil Fulton, his staff and students, for hosting the Dedication Ceremony for South Dakota Tribal Flags Installation at the USD Knudson School of Law in October. Nine newly installed flags were unveiled, each symbolizing he unique heritage and culture of the Native American Tribes of South Dakota.
  • Members of the Indian Law, Diversity and Inclusion, and Women in Law Committees for their support, along with Elizabeth Overmoe for her work securing a traveling exhibit, 100 Years After the Indian Citizenship Act: The Continuing Struggle to Guarantee Voting Rights to Native Americans, to be displayed at our Annual Meeting in June 2024.
  • Jessica Larson, Chair of the CLE Committee, Elizabeth Ovennoe, and others on the CLE Committee for their work ensuring we have an Indian Law CLE at the June 2024 convention.
  • Professor Frank Pommersheim for excellent instruction of Indian Law at the USD Knudson School of Law for many years and Professor Ann Tweedy for taking over following Professor Pommersheim's retirement.
  • Mary Smith, President of the American Bar Association. She is the first Native American woman to serve in this role.

Please forgive me if I failed to mention someone! Members of this Bar have accomplished a great deal, but there is more work to be done. Get involved and reach out to inspire the next generation of lawyers to continue the work that the above-referenced individuals have done.