Living Her Dream: Eldena Bear Don’t Walk Discusses Her Law Career
The youngster who imagined one day becoming a lawyer has done exactly that — and more. She has been an appellate judge for eight years, serving almost every tribe in Montana. At the St. Ignatius-based Bear Don’t Walk Law Office, she works as an attorney, consultant and independent legal researcher. And she was the first woman to serve as chief justice of the Crow Tribe, a seat she held from 2007 to 2011.
It’s an impressive resume for someone just 40 years old. For Bear Don’t Walk, it all has a feeling of inevitability, because she is doing exactly what she has always wanted to do.
“I love law,” she said. “I always have. I remember when I was in fifth grade, my school had a day where we could all dress up as what we wanted to be. My dad was a judge for the Northern Cheyenne then, and I wore his black robes to school. Everyone thought I wanted to be a nun!”
Born in Missoula and raised in Billings, Bear Don’t Walk is an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe and has ties to the Salish and Ojibwe nations as well. Her father, Urban Bear Don’t Walk, was one of the first American Indian attorneys in the United States and was the second member of the Crow Tribe to ever get a law degree.
“Because of my dad, I was a legacy at the University of Montana in Missoula,” she said. “That’s notable, because it’s a new thing in Indian country to have legacy lawyers. I’m really proud of that.
“I was raised in a very education-focused environment,” she added. “My parents actually met at Montana State College; they were among just a handful of Indian students. At that time, there were just 156 Indians in college in the entire United States.”
Bear Don’t Walk’s father remains in private practice at the age of 72, and her mother, Marjorie, is the executive director at the Indian Health Board of Billings. Starting when her daughter was just 11 years old, Marjorie Bear Don’t Walk built an impressive career in urban Indian health care administration.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that these particular parents expected their children to take advantage of every opportunity. And she and her two older brothers did exactly that.
“My oldest brother has a business degree, and my middle brother is a Rhodes Scholar,” Bear Don’t Walk said. “He’s currently working on a PhD at the University of Chicago. I was lucky, because he was at the University of Montana when I was there. So I had a support system, family close by; lots of Indians don’t have that when they go away to school.”
A member of her high school speech team and head of the school newspaper, Bear Don’t Walk was interested in journalism when she first arrived at the University of Montana. But her passion for criminal justice led her away from a writing career; in 1998, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in sociology.
Bear Don’t Walk went on to earn a Juris Doctorate from the Montana School of Law in 2003 and a Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Montana in 2006, the year she passed the State Bar of Montana. Just last year, she added an LL.M in Indigenous People’s Law and Policy from Rogers College of Law in Tucson, Arizona.
Her first job after passing the bar: public defender for the State of Montana. Bear Don’t Walk said it was a natural choice, as her parents had raised all three children to be socially conscious. It wasn’t an easy one, however.
“I had a lot of Native clients,” she remembered, “and I knew a lot of these people. So I felt a high level of investment… and of burnout.”
So she went on to work as a judge in appellate and constitutional courts for the Northern Cheyenne where, as she put it, she focused on getting experience, being humble, putting her head down and simply getting her work done. Then, in 2007, the former chief justice for the Crow Tribe approached her about taking that seat. She was appointed by the late chairman, confirmed by the legislature, and became the first woman to serve as chief justice in the tribal court’s history.
“Imagine that you drop a runner halfway into a marathon and say, now, run as fast as you can,” she said, chuckling. “That’s what the experience was like.”
Her new role was a poignant one; in 1975, when her father was still in law school, he and her uncle developed the Crow Court.
“It was an honor to be chief justice of a court my dad started,” she reflected.
While she acknowledged that it can be hard to work for your own tribe, Bear Don’t Walk said she’s proud of what she accomplished in her four-year term.
“I’m probably proudest of the fact that we dealt with the entire backlog of cases, which happened because there had been a lag between justices,” she said. “When I left, we were totally up to date — 40 cases, and everyone had their opinions by 2011.”
As chief justice, Bear Don’t Walk had to administer the bar exam, and she said she is also proud of the solid pass rate during her term.
“You’ve got to set a high standard for the bar exam, for appellate courts, for judges,” she said. “You’ve got to make sure there’s no impropriety and protect the integrity of the court. The people in the communities need to feel that integrity. Something I really prize is the idea that I can provide a great model, so I set those bars high.”
Today, in addition to her work at her law office, Bear Don’t Walk is an associate appellate judge for the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska; a substitute justice of the peace for the Lake County Justice Court in Polson, Montana; a pro-tem administrative law judge for Montana’s Fort Belknap Indian Community; an associate appellate justice for the Chippewa Cree in Box Elder, Montana; and a chief appellate justice for Montana’s Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“Appellate work is kind of my thing,” she observed with a laugh. “I’m heavily invested, and I take the responsibility very seriously because there’s the potential to have significant impact. Opinions in appellate court can destroy sovereignty.”
As an appellate court judge, Bear Don’t Walk has written 70 opinions in seven years, and she said many of those were really exciting. Code, she said, is an organic document, and it can evolve based on the changing needs of Native communities.
“We can affect change with appellate opinions, and no one does that better than the Navajo Nation,” she observed. “They’re a fantastic model. In tribal courts, we need to reflect what’s familiar to ease the public’s anxiety, yet also reflect our traditional cultures and values.”
In the last few years, Bear Don’t Walk has watched national legislation under the Obama Administration with interest. She noted that whether the subject is the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 or the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, there is a common thread: The legislation is important because it puts issues affecting Indian country into the minds of those in Congress, but without the necessary funding, there may not be enough strength behind the law.
“To get extended jurisdiction and sentencing (under TLAO), for example, tribes may have to put up money that they don’t have,” Bear Don’t Walk said. “So I’m concerned about legislation without resources. If tribes had accessibility to more funding, you’d probably get better buy-in. It’s a problem. Is a tribe simply not interested, or is it an issue of money?
“The same with VAWA,” she continued. “I’m an Indian woman, so I do think it’s incredibly important legislation. But is there funding for the institution of it?”
Bear Don’t Walk said, on the whole, she’s been pleased with President Barack Obama during his years in office. He has, she said, shown a commitment to Indian country, from appointing Standing Rock Sioux tribal member Jodi Gillette as senior policy advisor for Native American affairs, to meeting with tribes regularly in Washington D.C., to honoring his relationship with the Crow Tribe’s Black Eagle family, into which he was adopted.
“He did what he said he’d do,” Bear Don’t Walk noted. “He’s shown a real commitment to Indian country. He’s not perfect, but what politician can be?”
One of her big passions, she said, is the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“It may be the only time in history that I’m on the same page as (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia,” she remarked. “And it’s made me fall in love with (Supreme Court Justice Sonia) Sotomayor.”
Although she does follow legislation and court opinions at the national level, Bear Don’t Walk said her primary focus is much more local right now. She’s planning to run for House District 15 in the Montana House of Representatives.
“I’m much more interested in what’s happening locally,” she said. “I’m a community member, so I’m focused on big issues here in terms of social and criminal justice. I’ve always wanted to get into politics, so I’m starting small and will work my way up. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the work I do with tribes in the judicial system, and I want to expand appellate work to other tribes.”
She also has a grassroots passion: youth development. Every summer, she conducts youth programs at her home that focus on gardening, nutrition, food sources, cooking, physical health and holistic wellness, and taking care of elders. She called it a social investment, a dedication to tackling disenfranchisement among reservation young people.
“I want to teach them that social issues are about honor and responsibility, not duty,” she explained. “We also talk about regular things, like scholarships and college. We work out together. There’s something really satisfying about that, because I was raised by a generation of incredible, eclectic, brilliant mentors; some of these kids have no mentors at all. So we try to share what we know with them.
“Honestly, if you’re not getting young people to invest, why bother with top-down reform?” she observed. “If we can even influence one kid at a time, we’re creating better communities. We’re teaching them that we can’t just complain about not having things. If we don’t see it, how can we make it happen? We’re capable and can create what we need.”
Bear Don’t Walk said she recognizes that there are things she has taken for granted, in terms of the opportunities she’s had in her life. That is the very reason she is so invested in her professional and not-for-profit work.
“The message is that you need to seize the opportunities that come your way, and make a difference locally,” she said. With a chuckle, she added, “Like juicing and eating your beets.”