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Attorney Representing Indian Country Now Advocates for His Own Tribal Heritage

A column by Jack Duran, a lawyer who went from representing Indian country to advocating for his own tribal heritage.
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It was as if I was in a dream when I received the call from my mother, Yolanda, who had been researching our genealogy for years, informing me that she had traced my native heritage to the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo of Texas. For nearly three decades I had wondered aloud and in private where our family had come from? My journey, representing Indian Country and native interests started some 20 years ago, while traveling through Arizona and the Four Corners region of the Country with my then fiancée, now wife, Kim. I recall telling her at the time “I need to go to the Southwest, to the sand and solitude”, I didn’t know why, but it was as if the arid land was calling me. And after traveling for a week and a half through the Hopi Mesas, Painted Desert, Monument Valley and Grand Canyon, I felt at home, more focused, almost as if a tremendous weight had been lifted off my shoulders – for the first time in a long time, I was at peace.

Flash forward several years later and I was a recent graduate of the University of the Pacific-McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California and working for the California Department of Justice, as a Deputy Attorney General, when I received a rude introduction into politics. Governor Schwarzenegger’s “Indians need to pay their fair share” campaign won the California governorship, which led to his downsizing of the Attorney General’s office staff, leading to my departure from public service. Fortunately for me, I landed on my feet as an associate with one of the then largest Native American owned law firms in the country. While there I served Indian country, representing individual tribal members, tribal governments and entities in a variety of matters from discrimination cases and economic development to protecting the environment and sacred sites. I have written numerous articles for major Native American publications and trained thousands of tribal employees across the Country concerning various legal and regulatory matters. I have slugged it out with federal and state agencies and local governments, sometimes negotiating win-win solutions and at other times filing suit against them to protect my tribal client’s interests.

In 2007, I departed big firm life to start my own law firm, and the journey and my experiences with my tribal clients now run deeper and are much more personal. Over the years, in the pursuit of tribal justice I have come to deeply appreciate the tribal way of life, its customs, traditions and holistic decision-making, one that focuses on the whole community as opposed to individual parts. It is not to say that I have completely agreed with some of the decisions my clients have made, but it is the way they make them that I have come to deeply respect.

That is why when my mother traced my ancestry to Ysleta Pueblo, I welled up with a sense of pride knowing that perhaps that trip some twenty years ago and my experiences representing tribal clients over the years, are part of a continually evolving life long journey, a journey whose conclusion has yet to be revealed.

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It was an ironic moment for me also when I received mom’s call, because I had been tracking H.R. 1560, the bill to amend the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Restoration Act which seeks to remove U.S. Government control over Ysleta’s tribal enrollment, for my own intellectual curiosity. With my recent knowledge of Ysleta affiliation comes the responsibility of advocating for the United State government’s relinquishment of control over the Pueblo’s enrollment, which has been closed since the early 1980’s, under the terms and conditions of the Pueblo’s Restoration Act. It’s the right thing to do.

United States government control of Ysleta’s enrollment is nothing short of a travesty, and I have come to know and understand that tribal sovereignty, and the ability for a tribe to control membership, is one of paramount importance and an inherent sovereign right. So important is this right that even the United States government, of which I often am at odds with, has recognized and affirmed tribal sovereignty and control over enrollment decisions on numerous occasions in U.S. Supreme Court precedent. And although I am advocating for the governments relinquishment of control over Ysleta’s enrollment, I am fully aware that doing so comes with certain risks. Ysleta Pueblo leaders could decide to open enrollment and possibly include me and my sons, as tribal members. Alternatively, it could decide to do nothing. However, my training and experiences in Indian Country inform me that if enrollment is ceded to the Pueblo it’s the Pueblo’s sovereign right and decision to make and having defended that right on numerous occasions over the years, I am prepared to live with the consequences - whatever the Pueblo decides.

Jack Duran is affiliated with the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo of El Paso, Texas and is the owner of Duran Law Office, a Roseville, California, based Native American law firm.