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Loretta Tuell breaks barriers in legal profession

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – An American Indian woman has been awarded one of the highest honors in the legal profession. Loretta A. Tuell, Nez Perce and partner at AndersonTuell, LLP in Washington, D.C., is one of five women who will receive the 2009 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. The awards will be presented at the ABA’s annual meeting in August in Chicago.

“I’m very honored, humbled and amazed that they decided to honor me,” Tuell said. “I’m excited to be the first Native American woman, and to open up opportunities for Indian women in the future.”

Tuell practices federal Indian law and represents American Indian tribal government clients before Congress, the courts and regulatory agencies. She has served as a senior advisor on legislative and administrative matters affecting Indian tribes as counsel on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, counselor to the assistant secretary of Indian affairs, and director of the Office of American Indian Trust. She has served on the boards of the National Native American Bar Association, National Native American Law Student’s Association, and since 1998 on the board of trustees of the United National Indian Tribal Youth.

As a woman who grew up on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, Tuell points to family and people close to her as powerful influences, especially the women. “My family has strong women in it, my mother and her sisters. Tribal women were instrumental in my success, because they were examples of leaders.”

Tuell is a partner in an Indian-owned law firm, which was among the first law firms in Washington, D.C. with a Native American woman as a founding partner. It was her partner, Michael Anderson, who nominated her for the award.

“Loretta has passion and energy to promote both women’s and Native American issues from a unique perspective,” said Anderson, a member of the Muskogee Creek of Oklahoma. “She has come from being raised on the reservation to someone successful both at home in honoring traditional ways, and in the corporate world. She’s a leader and a counselor to Native American tribes, particularly the Native women in leadership she represents as clients. She’s truly successful in walking in two worlds, and is teaching her daughter these ways.”

Anderson is confident that because Tuell is the first American Indian woman to win the award, she’ll inspire other Natives to strive for recognition. “In many cases, with awards in general, Native American men and women don’t think of them as avenues for recognition. But there shouldn’t be firsts anymore. Native American recognition should be routine. That’s why this award is a breakthrough.”

Tuell, who is married and has a four-year-old daughter, agrees. “Someone told me once that one achievement is not the end; there is always something after that. As you climb each mountaintop, it becomes the beginning of the next peak. I hope this award is just the beginning of more things to come. This award is just taking me to another opportunity to break barriers for Indians and Indian women attorneys.”

What advice does Tuell have for young American Indian women today? “As I’ve looked at life, I realized one strong tenant. I am Native, and I’m always interspersed within the tribe. The tribe is there as an entity to help people grow and advance. So use tribal governments, mentors and educational programs to achieve your goals.”

According to the ABA’s Web site, the Women Lawyers of Achievement Award was established in 1991 to honor outstanding women lawyers who have achieved professional excellence in their area of specialty and have actively paved the way to success for others. The award is named for Margaret Brent, the first woman lawyer in America, who arrived in the colonies in 1638, and was involved in 124 court cases in more than eight years, winning every case. In 1648, she formally demanded a vote and voice in the Maryland Assembly, which the governor denied.

The other 2009 recipients of the award are Linda L. Addison, co-founder of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas; Helaine M. Barnett, president of Legal Services Corporation and the first legal aid lawyer to serve as its president; the Honorable Arnette R. Hubbard, a judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. Law Jury Division; and the Honorable Vanessa Ruiz, the first Hispanic judge to serve on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, D.C.’s highest court.

Previous winners range from small-firm practitioners to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Winners are selected on the basis of their professional accomplishments and their role in opening doors for other women lawyers.