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Evelyn Stevenson has illustrious career in law

PABLO, Mont. – Evelyn Stevenson has been deeply involved in legal issues as an attorney for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes since she passed the Montana Bar in 1978, one of the first two Native American women to do so. But her story involves much more than her work in Montana and should begin even before she became an attorney.

She was born on the reservation in 1939 when life was very different from today. “Mother worried I might not be a citizen of the U.S. because she had not been until the Citizenship Act was adopted by Congress. We couldn’t go places or do certain things without approval from the ‘Agent’ at the BIA,” Stevenson said. “Many concerted policies aimed towards annihilation or assimilation still reverberate in the psychological makeup of Indian people today. Boarding schools, forced adoptions, relocation projects, and general destruction of the culture and customs in an attempt to ‘civilize’ has resulted in four generations of post-traumatic stress disorder along with systemic paranoia.”

This background led to her later involvement in various activities to improve the status and rights of Native people.

She married, moved to California, and became active in the civil rights movement and Indian activism. It was just as the Indian take-over of abandoned federal buildings began, including Alcatraz. Her first trip to Alcatraz was by rowboat and she continued to make nearly daily trips back and forth for six months. Indian people from throughout the country had gathered in the Oakland-San Francisco area and strong Indian Centers developed. It was an opportunity to get acquainted with members of the American Indian Movement. That in turn led to law school.

“Since the reservation world turned on rules, regulations, CFR’s and Codes, it seemed logical to try for law school.” She began working in the newly emerging tribal court. “There were no prosecutors, defenders, advocates or anything. It was ground floor up.”

Things began changing rapidly as money became available and help came from the National Indian Justice Center to develop codes and procedures for tribes. “All of a sudden we were expanding both civil and criminal jurisdiction and challenging the state of Montana on everything from debt collection, to probate, to repossession, to freedom of Indian religion.”

She began working full-time on the Salish-Kootenai Reservation in 1977, replacing a law firm from Washington, D.C. that was no longer prepared to deal with the greatly expanded tribal government. The CSKT Legal Department now has separate prosecutor’s and defender’s offices and the tribal court has a full-time attorney clerk. There is a crime victim office and an attorney to help a variety of cases. An early victory was the legal battle to defeat the building of a hydroelectric dam on the Kootenai River, outside the reservation, since it was a sacred site for the Kootenai people. “It was a great victory,” Stevenson said.

“Over the years I’ve kind of done it all, from hunting and fishing to jurisdiction to taxation. Now we have a pretty good sized legal department.” This has allowed her to reduce her work load since illness has her presently on sabbatical and staying with her daughter in Oklahoma.

She takes no credit for writing the Indian Child Welfare Act although she was part of the work team and did a small amount of rewriting. She had been a strong advocate for the concept before she became an attorney. A change was needed to prevent Indian children being taken from their homes, families and culture. “I thought it was a very significant piece of legislation to try to keep Indians from losing their families and their tribes.” It’s something she has worked on diligently and tirelessly ever since.

Over the years she has served on so many boards and committees she confesses she can’t recall them all. “I served my full terms on the board of the Native American Rights Fund and was chairman during the final couple of years. Two Montana governors appointed me to serve a total of 12 years on the Montana Human Rights Commission. I’ve been on the advisory board of the CASA Program, a past member of the Montana ACLU board, a member of the National Indian Justice Center board, and am still on the board of directors for the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.

“It seems like life has gone by all too quickly. I just wish I’d kept a diary, but we had no way of knowing history in Indian country would come so far in roughly 35 years.”

Many people across the country recognize the accomplishments of this remarkable woman. She was recently given a surprise party in Montana where 200-plus people gathered to reminisce and honor her.