ALABAMA-COUSHATTA INDIAN RESERVATION, Texas - When Arnold Battise attended the annual meeting of the State Bar of Texas' American Indian Law Section Nov. 2, he expected the usual routine. But this year he was caught off-guard when he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Battise, 71, humbly accepted the prestigious accolade and said that he did his best to share his gratitude while in awe. ''They only give you these types of awards when they think you are going to die, but I don't plan on dying anytime soon,'' he said in an obvious humorous tone.
He made sure to thank his wife and children for their support and other individuals that influenced his career. Ray Torgerson, chairman of the American Indian Law Section, awarded Battise the plaque for his outstanding work as judge/attorney and his dedication to Native people.
The recently retired Alabama-Coushatta tribal member served as a judge and attorney for nearly four decades, with the bulk of his career in federal service. In 1990 he became a federal administrative law judge in Alexandria, La. He also served in Dallas, Texas. His final role as an administrative judge was for the Social Security Office of Disability Adjudication and Review in Seattle, Wash., from 1999 to 2006.
Battise's busy career kept him moving to different locations across the country, yet he managed to keep abreast of Native issues. ''I moved a lot, but I kept up with news in Indian country,'' he said.
His wife of 47 years, Jo Ann, knew about the accolade two months prior to the ceremony. Jo Ann, who serves as the Alabama-Coushatta tribal chairman, avoided his suspicion of her attendance by telling him that she was a guest speaker.
Battise does not like to boast about his accomplishments; instead, he likes to keep things simple when he speaks of himself. ''I don't know quite how to describe myself,'' he said. ''I consider myself a Native American first who is also a lawyer.''
Battise earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in French from the University of Houston. From there, he enrolled at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, graduating in 1971. His motivation for becoming a lawyer stemmed from being harassed by Houston police. He said that his skirmishes with police were likely racially motivated, as segregation was paramount during the 1960s. Luckily, none of the incidents turned violent, but were sobering enough for him to solidify a career choice.
''I thought that the best way to handle that would be to learn the law and represent myself in these interactions,'' he said.
During his career as an attorney he represented the IHS at its offices in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and North Carolina. He also served as the general counsel for his tribe in 1990.
Prior to college, Battise served in the Navy and traveled quite extensively during his tour. In the states, he served as a communications technician 2nd class, including service in San Diego, Calif.; Alaska; and Washington, D.C. While abroad, he served as a radio operator aboard ships in northern Europe, primarily Copenhagen, Denmark, before being honorably discharged after eight years of active duty.
In the early days of his law career, he was involved with the National Congress of American Indians annual convention. During the '70s, he witnessed American Indian Movement members take over a NCAI convention. He said that he felt insulted when a young AIM member called him ''an apple.'' But he understood why, as he remembers wearing a suit and a military-style haircut. Yet, nothing negative said could change the truth in his heart. He knew that like AIM members, he too was a proud American Indian and believed strongly in helping Native people.
Even his friends can attest to his dedication.
Judge Arthur Joyner, of black and Cherokee descent, worked with Battise for nearly five years in Seattle. The two periodically traveled on business together, and Joyner said that his friend made it a priority to visit nearby tribes.
Joyner described Battise as ''the archetypical much-beloved judge,'' whether at work or speaking to groups of Native elders interested in Social Security disability.
''I think the reason he won the lifetime achievement award was because he always found a way to give back, especially to the Native American community no matter what he was doing and where he was at the time,'' he said.
Battise speaks English, Alabama-Coushatta, French and Spanish. Over the years, he has traveled to Montreal to practice his French and hopes to travel some more now that he has retired. ''I would like to see more things before I pass on,'' he said.