ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – For a young Native attorney, opening a law firm is surely a dream come true. Zackeree Kelin, 31, has just realized this dream when he opened his first law firm in Albuquerque.
His practice will help Native and other minority-owned companies to develop and negotiate the 8(a) Small Business Administration process, and take on civil rights cases and class action lawsuits, in addition to working on behalf of individual landowners.
“It’s a very exciting time in my life right now,” he said.
For Kelin, Caddo, the myriad of experiences he has gained in the past four years as the managing attorney for DNA-People’s Legal Services, Inc. will surely help pave a new road of success.
DNA, headquartered in Window Rock, Ariz., is the oldest and largest poverty law practice serving Indian country. For the past 40 years the staff has handled family, consumer and environmental law cases. He plans to continue serving on pro bono cases.
Kelin spoke passionately about his involvement with DNA. When asked about his most memorable case, he said it was challenging to point to just one, but recalled the Navajo Nation v. U.S. Forest Service.
The case focused on the protection of the San Francisco Peaks, one of the first sacred sites cases under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Southwest tribes opposed a ski resort’s use of fake snow made from recycled sewer water, calling it a desecration to the purity of an area they consider sacred. He was disappointed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
He is currently awaiting news from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on whether they will hear a licensing case involving one of the abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation.
When he worked for DNA, he said no two days were alike. He could go from working on a brief for the U.S. Court of Appeals to doing something as simple and fulfilling as helping someone file for a name change because they weren’t born in a hospital, and lack a first name on their birth certificate.
He said victims of domestic abuse tug at his heartstrings, as well as tribal elders who are often the victims of theft. “Those stories and individuals are just as memorable as those larger cases that you do, they touch your heart.”
Kelin didn’t decide to become an attorney until he closed in on his Bachelor of Special Studies: Inequality and Public Policy at Cornell College. He was an Associated Colleges of the Midwest Minority Fellow, and conducted his research on “Self-Determination in Indian Country.”
Initially, college seemed like a bit of a struggle, but he credits Professor Mary Olson for helping
him “to think academically.
“She was the person that got me academically oriented, and without her I wouldn’t have gone to law school and be doing what I am doing now.”
His decision to go to law school was drawn from a culmination of life experiences. Both of his parents, Don Kelin and Debbie Pain, were raised in Anadarko, Okla., within close proximity of their ancestral lands. Even though he was raised in Denver, his parents often took him back to visit their people, which fueled his passion to work on Native issues.
His parents are also successful business people who value education. “I was very fortunate to have parents that were supportive and pushed me to try and be successful.”
Kelin earned his Juris Doctorate from the University of Iowa College of Law in 2005. He also served as a law opportunity fellow and president of the Native American Law Students Association.
Playing sports also gave him the determination to succeed in school, and now as an attorney. He played football in high school, and was on the wrestling team in high school and college. For the past three years he served as the coach for the Window Rock High School wrestling team, a position he will greatly miss.
“It’s been great to give back in that way, because so much has been given to me from coaches.”
If he could meet any four people in history, they would be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Vine Deloria Jr., and Caddo spiritual leader Moon Head.
“I was certainly impacted by the study of social movement, and inspired by reading and listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s words,” he recalled of his college days.
Kelin was honored as a recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 award during the Indian Progress in Business Event conference in Tulsa, Okla. in September.
He is currently engaged to Bianca and they are expecting their first child.