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Getting to know Hilary Tompkins

ARLINGTON, Va. – “I can introduce you to Larry EchoHawk or Hilary Tompkins,” a liaison said to a tribal leader at a BIA consultation meeting July 8.

“… I know what he’s about – I want to meet Hilary,” was the response.

The woman in the spotlight that day was the newly confirmed solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior – Hilary Tompkins. It’s the top legal position in the agency; her appointment represents the first time any Native American has held the role.

She was fresh on the job – only 12 days in at that point – and many tribal leaders lined up to shake her hand. Tompkins had just faced a delayed confirmation in the Senate, which had nothing to do with her qualifications, but rather, was based on partisan squabbles over non-related matters.

“I want her to remember that we were here,” Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said to his vice chairman after briefly meeting Tompkins.

Like Cromwell, many tribal leaders understand that Tompkins’ position presents her with the opportunity of becoming a strong legal voice in the Native affairs arena during her tenure in Obama’s administration.

She’s already had plenty of first-hand experience with tribes and the law, having worked in the private legal sector representing pueblos and tribes in the Southwest region after graduating from Stanford University Law School in 1996. She received a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1990.

From 2005 to 2008, she served as chief counsel to Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.; she provided him with volumes of legal advice involving tribes in the state. Before that, she served as deputy counsel to the governor from the start of his administration in 2003.

Officials with the governor’s office said she is missed. One of her most outstanding qualities, former co-workers said, is her work ethic.

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Some believe Tompkins’ demeanor comes partially as a result of her unique heritage. She was born in Zuni, N.M. and is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, but she was not raised by her biological parents. She was adopted at birth and raised in New Jersey.

Kevin Washburn, dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, at which Tompkins taught before being called to Washington, is one who fondly remembers her legacy. She taught a law class focused on state and tribal relations while at the institution.

“Professor Tompkins’ students adored her,” he said. “Several said it was the best class they have had in law school. … One even wished that the class was longer in duration – not a comment that we see very often.”

Prior to becoming a lawyer, Tompkins worked for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice as a tribal court advocate after passing the Navajo Nation bar exam.

Those who knew of her work at the tribe said it provides her with an experience that allows tribal leaders to see her as an authentic voice with true knowledge of Indian country.

Her authenticity was on display at the consultation meeting, where she was gracious, but didn’t shy away from providing tough answers. Even when she delivered news that was not what some tribal leaders wanted to hear – namely, that Interior at that point hadn’t decided how it would take on the Carcieri v. Salazar Supreme Court ruling – all treated her with respect.

She took multiple opportunities during the session to say she needed to hear from tribal leaders on important issues at hand – in that case, Carcieri – before she helped Interior form its legal positions on the matter.

She also expects to consult with the Department of Justice – a reality likely tied to her early law career as an honor program trial attorney for the department. There, she handled civil prosecutions in environmental cases nationwide.

Before Justice, Tompkins served as a special assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where she was lead counsel for a number of civil lawsuits in federal court.