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From Orphanage to Judge: The Fight to Overcome

What does it take to succeed in life when everyone, in your formative years, abandoned you? It takes determination, smarts and a bit of luck. My life began in January 1954 to a military father and an Inupiaq mother. My father, still living in Nashville, Tenn., fell in love with a single mother while stationed in Alaska and they married. My brother, Jimmy, and I were born, joining an older half-sister, Mary Jane. My mother, Elizabeth, lived the military life, traveling and raising her children. Then misfortune struck. Our mom and her children had flown north to her hometown of Kotzebue, Alaska for a family birthday party. Shortly thereafter, we went to live in Fairbanks where our mother enjoyed a life on the town and left us three children alone. I pieced together bits of family history through discussions with our father, our mother, my older half-sister, and official communications on letterhead from the Territory of Alaska (prior to statehood).

I have counted among my “mothers” the Catholic Church, my sister Mary Jane and my brother, Jimmy. We were placed, for a time, in a Catholic orphanage in Fairbanksrun by the Sisters of Providence. We experienced the adoptions that were common prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, and placed into non-native households; in our case, a Catholic family. My adopted family, Witkowski, was a blended family, and for the most part, nurturing, if a bit structured and stern. I graduated from Lathrop High School in 1972 in record time, half a semester ahead of most of my classmates.

In the early 1970s, Alaska was in the midst of tremendous change. When oil was discovered, a push to settle Alaska Native land claims changed our lives forever. Our birth mother had the foresight to enroll each of her children with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and another paper trail emerged on my journey of discovery of my family roots. Our stepmother, Dorothy, received letters from the BIA in 1973. By September, my sister, brother and I had enrollment numbers in the Northwest Alaska Association of Kotzebue (which later changed to NANA Regional Corporation.) Later in my life, I shared our story in an anthology, Children of the Dragonfly, Native American Voices on Child Custody and Education, published by the University of Arizona Press.

I later learned through family conversations that I was related to Alaska State Sen. Willie Hensley. I wrote to his official Juneau address and we eventually met and confirmed our family connections. At last I had my mother’s name and her current location. My cousin Willie holds a wealth of knowledge on family kinship and our Inupiaq language, and has written a memoir, Fifty Miles From Tomorrow.

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Years later Willie would mentor me through one of the greatest challenges of my life, law school. The goal to attend law school began when, at age 17, I started a very personal quest for equality for Native women. I studied hard for the Law School Admission Test and was recruited by law schools around the country. But I chose one close to home at the University Of Puget Sound School Of Law (which became Seattle University Law School.) It was located 100 miles away from our family residence in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, and that was a challenge. That feeling of abandonment I had experienced as a young toddler caused me endless worries for my children. My husband, Kevin Paul, raised our children during my law school years. We spent our weekends together as a family, one weekend at Swinomish and the next in Tacoma.

After graduating from Seattle University Law School in 1998, I began responding to requests to speak at universities and community groups, often to audiences of women. From the lands of my birth mother in Alaska to the foothills of Guatemala, I have always shared the personal side of my life along with my professional accomplishments. In 2014, I was selected as a deliberator at the International Prehearing of Permanent People’s Tribunal in Seattle, listening to human rights violations. As an individual who has experienced a tremendous loss in my life, I found that I can absorb the tragic stories of loss in the lives of others. This has proven true in my experience as a tribal judge.

In the Pacific Northwest where I reside, my first professional legal work was to preside as a pro tempore tribal judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System presiding over criminal, civil, fishing and family law matters. There is a gratifying sense of justice in keeping families together and helping them heal. There is a conversation, in the tribal courtroom, that begins with understanding the background of each person appearing in court. Never once did I hear a defendant question the authority of tribes; it was more of an educational process explaining tribal codes and regulations.

Today, I am presiding as an appellate judge for The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and an example that we can overcome hardships to succeed.

Patricia Paul (Inupiaq) is an appellate judge for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.