MOSCOW, Idaho - The University of Idaho Law School developed a program a
year ago to improve and increase estate planning on Indian reservations
through a grant from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. Doug Nash, Nez
Perce attorney and professor at the law school and Dennis Colson, also a
professor, headed up the program. The first year of the two-year program is
now nearly complete and the results were recently discussed at a meeting in
Six students in their third year of law school were chosen last spring to
participate in the program, and met in Moscow for an intensive week of
training in Indian law. They then went to the reservations selected for
this initial phase: Nez Perce and Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, Warm Springs and
Umatilla in Oregon and Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Colville and Spokane in
Two students, Cecelia Burke and Helaman Hancock, shared the podium to
discuss their successes and observations of the past year. Burke worked
with the two western Washington tribes while Hancock worked with the Idaho
tribes. Equally enthused about their reception and their achievements, they
are now planning a future in Indian law - a career choice neither had
considered prior to this experience.
The students worked under the supervision of Legal Aid offices in each
state and were paid an hourly wage from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation
grant. There were no fees charged to clients. The tribes provided office
Burke said she initially spent a considerable amount of time developing
forms for various documents, notably wills and durable powers of attorney,
that would resolve both state and federal probate problems.
An elder had told her, "Don't expect to do any wills." As it turned out she
completed 28 wills, 21 durable powers of attorney, 16 living wills, and had
a waiting list of clients when she returned to school.
That success can partially be attributed to acceptance and trust. She had
an open door policy where prospective clients could stop by and she spent
lots of time having lunch with elders and "hanging out where we could
interact." Both students reported that after doing a will they would
frequently get referrals to other family members.
Hancock reported similar results in Idaho. When he first arrived on the
Coeur d'Alene Reservation he asked an elder what he needed to do. The
response was simple but invaluable: "Listen. Listen to what they have to
say and have to tell you."
He has since written 23 wills and continues to work as school time allows
and is working on 12 more wills with additional names on a waiting list. He
has learned the importance of giveaways and dance regalia and other
historical materials, and has incorporated such things into wills.
Wills were also created for members of other tribes who live on these
reservations. Both students stressed the fact that the client was the
individual tribal member and the wills were drafted to their desire and in
strict confidence, whether or not it served the tribe or the Land Tenure
Foundation. Wills also provide peace of mind, knowing the legacy is being
passed to the next generation in the way the client desires.
One strong consideration in estate planning is to reduce further
fractionization of land ownership. Most Indian people have interest in
allotments, and without a will the land becomes even more fractionated
after death. As one elder told Hancock, "It's just a spoonful of dirt."
Hancock reported, "In every will I wrote ... we were able to prevent
further fractionation of lands and that was a main focus of the project."
Enthusiasm for the project is evident in these two law school students'
"One of the most rewarding aspects is seeing the effects it has on clients
and see that you're actually helping a client in need," Hancock commented.
And as Burke noted, "It was an opportunity to help reconsolidate lands,
gain autonomy and ownership over their own interests. I grew up on the
Muckleshoot Reservation and it was good to go back and help the community
and help right a historic wrong."
A new group of law students will soon be selected for the program's second
year, aided by the materials produced this past year and by the acceptance
already established within the reservations. "I've offered to come back and
help share and train new students for 2005. I would do it for free: it's
that great a project and I enjoyed it that much," Burke added.