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A modern-day warrior

WATERVILLE, Maine – When Henry Sockbeson III began practicing Indian law in the 1970s, the courts were relatively supportive of Indian issues.

Now, not so much.

Sockbeson, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Colby College Sept. 27 in honor of his 25-year career as an attorney practicing Indian law in tribal, state and federal courts. But he’s not so sure he’d actively encourage young people to follow in his footsteps.

“When I was getting out, the judiciary was fairly sympathetic toward Indian tribes. Now the last thing in the world you want to do is take a case before the U.S. Supreme Court because chances are, you’re going to lose and that’s become more and more true in various district courts and circuit courts because more conservative judges have been appointed the last few years. So I think it’s harder to make a difference just as a lawyer in court,” he told Indian Country Today.

But, he added, “I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from looking at the law as a career, because it’s quite interesting and you can accomplish some good things.”

The award ceremony took place at the college during the second annual Colby Alumni Networking Weekend, an opportunity for alumni and current students to come together and share career advice and opportunities.

Sockbeson graduated from the liberal arts college in 1973 and went on to Harvard Law School, where he earned his juris doctor in 1976. He was the first American Indian from Maine to attend law school.

“I didn’t really know that until I’d been out of school for a while. But as other people went to law school behind me, I felt good about that. I sort of laid that out as a possibility, I guess, for some people,” he said.

His desire to work on behalf of Indian people is what led him into law.

“I thought there were some really serious problems with Indian tribes and I thought that the law was one way of addressing those problems.”

Sockbeson’s career has covered a huge range of issues and events in Indian country. He has been involved in litigation concerning land claims, tribal taxation, and religious and voting rights issues.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, he received a Reginald Heber Smith scholarship, which sent him to work at California Indian Legal Services. He stayed from 1977 to 1981, handling hunting and fishing rights cases in state and federal court, and tax cases in state court.

He worked as the directing attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado and Washington from 1983 to 1993, dealing with a wide variety of federal legislative matters involving the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) Settlement Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Indian Reorganization Act Amendments.

Perhaps the most challenging case of his career was negotiating and securing the Wampanoag’s 1987 settlement act, which provided the tribe with around 485 acres of trust land in its aboriginal homeland on Martha’s Vineyard.

“At the time, the U.S. House and Senate were controlled by Republicans and it was a Republican White House as well. It was during the Reagan era.”

One of the bill’s sponsors was Sen. Ted Kennedy. The tribe also had to go through the federal acknowledgment process.

“They were initially turned down and we got them to reverse that on appeal, which I think was the first time that was done,” Sockbeson said.

He was the lead attorney for the Larsen Bay repatriation case, a watershed event in the history of repatriation and American museums in which the Smithsonian Institution returned more than 750 skeletal remains of the ancestors and grave offerings to their tribes for reburial.

In 1993 he went to work as a tribal attorney for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. His work there included drafting tribal ordinances that established its tribal court and gaming enterprise division. He was also instrumental in setting up a mortgage initiative for tribal members living on the reservation.

He has given talks about his work and has been a volunteer for Colby College in various capacities, including as overseer, head class agent, January internship sponsor and member of a Rhode Island Regional Campaign Committee.

Sockbeson worked at Mashantucket until the end of last year, when he accepted one of the tribe’s first buyout offers to tribal government employees.