First Nations scholar Julian SpearChief-Morris (Blood Tribe) was elected to be president of the prestigious Harvard Legal Aid Bureau this year, marking the first time an indigenous student won that post in the bureau’s 104-year history.
SpearChief-Morris is in his second year at Harvard Law School and has been with the HLAB since last year. The HLAB provides second and third year law students the opportunity to work on cases for low-income residents of the Boston area. Student attorneys work under the supervision of clinical law professors but are responsible for clients from intake interview to final disposition.
Along with spending 20 yours per week for the bureau, this remarkable indigenous student is also the co-president of the Harvard Native American Law Students Association, which was recognized as the national student chapter of the year at last year’s Federal Indian Law conference in Arizona.
Born in Lethbridge, Canada right outside the Blood Reserve in rural southern Alberta, he hasn’t been home since news of the election win but “I got a lot of great feedback from my community and it was truly humbling. I feel very fortunate.”
In a recent interview, SpearChief-Morris spoke briefly about his beginnings in Lethbridge, some of his achievements as an indigenous student and athlete in Canada, and his experiences as a student lawyer at one of the best law schools in the world
“I had a different upbringing,” he said. “My mom was from the Blood Tribe and my dad was an African American from Los Angeles... navigating between those two cultures has given me a broad and invaluable perspective.”
Before getting to Harvard, SpearChief-Morris first went to the University of Lethbridge on a basketball scholarship where, just like in high school, he continued to excel in sports and the classroom.
As a result of being on the Dean’s List at UL and his formidable basketball skills, SpearChief-Morris was named an academic All-Canadian, a national award for athletes who achieve success in school and sports. He also received an Urban Regional Studies prize for having the highest GPA in that program.
While he had been studying to be an urban planner the idea of law school became appealing to the rising star.
“I had a lot of great choices both in Canada and the U.S., but I knew I’d regret not taking advantage of this opportunity,” he said.
“After I was here I was blown away, so many great people and so many course offerings. And this clinical law program is the best in the country.”
Upon being accepted into the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau last year, SpearChief-Morris was able to work on family law cases.
“I had some custody and child support cases. Most of my clients were survivors of domestic violence and in each of those cases the violence was pretty severe. It is very emotionally taxing work but rewarding,” he said.
“But for me community is key,” he continued. “I care about building healthy communities, that’s what drives me, hoping to bring some structural change to Boston to counter the inequality and injustice.”
SpearChief-Morris did not work with Native clients in the Boston area, but he did see parallels to the challenges facing his home community in Canada.
“At the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau we serve clients who are struggling with poverty, and poverty is a universal problem. While poverty impacts different communities in different ways, the issues that I deal with at HLAB are similar to issues on the Blood Reserve because poverty is an issue on the Blood Reserve.”
He has, however, been able to represent Native clients in the summers, working for the prestigious Kilpatrick Townsend firm.
“It’s been a great experience for me where I get to learn from great practitioners like Charles Galbraith and David Smith. I’m really looking forward to this next summer, too.”
“At Kilpatrick Townsend, the Native American Practice Group represents tribes in complex litigation matters, and assists tribes in economic development, and government relations. Last summer, I was involved in matters that varied from protecting tribal interests in court to negotiating agreements to bring added revenue to tribal communities. I saw many parallels between the matters that I worked on last summer and issues I have seen at home in my community.”
This summer, SpearChief-Morris will return to work at Kilpatrick Townsend where he will again be working on a variety of cases that include tax law, religious freedom, and contract law. In the following year, 2018, he will graduate from Harvard University School of Law.
“After I graduate I hope to return to Kilpatrick Townsend to practice federal Indian law,” he said. “But for the long term I’d like to go back to Alberta and engage in some kind of work that puts my experience to use.”
“I don’t know what that will look like,” he added, “but that’s what I want to do.”