Sarah Deer recently had to update her resume. In her typically understated fashion, near the end of her many categories of accomplishments as a law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law she has included the following simple line, “MacArthur Fellowship, MacArthur Foundation (2014)”
As noted in an earlier ICTMN story, the no strings attached fellowship, often described as a “genius grant,” includes $625.000 paid over a period of five years.
Deer is 41 years old and a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She joins 20 other recipients of the prestigious fellowship presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Deer is a long time legal scholar and advocate and is best known for her work focusing attention on the pervasive inequalities of the law regarding sexual and domestic violence for Native American women living on reservations. She helped bring the issue to world attention, spearheading the 2007 Amnesty International report, Maze of Injustice. The report, according to the MacArthur website, “helped reframe the problem of sexual violence in Indian country as an international human rights issue.”
Her work was also instrumental in the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 as well as the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Deer admits to having trouble finding words when she got the phone call informing her she had won the award. Typically nominees are not informed of their nomination. “I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me for a little bit. My life changed in the blink of an eye,” she notes.
In 2006 she was blindsided by another life changing event, breast cancer. The illness, according to a now cancer free Deer, forced her to reevalute her life and career. Ultimately, she chose to cut back on work that demanded travel and focused instead on research and writing. Fortunately, this love of research lead to articles that have influenced and supported her work in advocating for Native women such as “Toward an Indigenous Jurisprudence of Rape,” “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” “Relocation Revisited: Sex Trafficking of Native Women in the United States,” and books, “Sharing Our Stories of Survival: Native Women Surviving Violence,” among many others.
From a long line of progressive thinkers, Deer reports that she wanted to be an activist from an early age. She credits her grandfather, Isaac Deer with helping her make connections to her heritage and awareness of racial injustice. He was irascible and outspoken about the poor treatment of Indians by the U.S. government.
Initially a teacher, he was later elected to the Kansas State legislature. Deer recalls that her grandfather Isaac had a bumper sticker on his car that read, “Trust the government? Ask an Indian?”
“From a very early age, I knew that the only way people could improve their lives was to speak out,” she says.
She also credits her work as an advocate for rape victims in the judicial system for guiding her toward her current passion of working on issues of violence towards Native women.
“There is such disconnect between prosecutors and victims. Victims are not empowered through the judicial system,” she notes.
Although she plans to help pay off some student loans with the unexpected financial boost, she is especially grateful for the validation the fellowship brings to the important work of changing laws and raising awareness about the issue of violence against Native women.
“It’s nice to get recognition but I know that I am just a part of the work of thousands of Native women at local and national levels working towards the same goals,” she said.
As for her plans for the future, she admits that they are mostly in the brainstorming phase but will be more of the same. “I can’t imagine NOT working on issues of violence against Native women,” she said.
She hopes the fellowship will help her pursue this passion in more creative ways.
“One of the ideas I am percolating is my really strong desire to learn to speak and read the Muskogee language. I’m curious to learn more about how Muskogee perceived concepts of gender and equity,” she notes.
Asked if she had any advice for young Native women thinking of pursuing a law degree, she responded emphatically, “Do it!”
According to Deer, Native women have a strong status quo against them. “If we are going to make social change in Indian country, lawyers will be a big part of that.”