If you had asked Matthew Campbell when he graduated from Fort Lewis College 11 years ago if he ever imagined that he would one day work as an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, he probably would have responded with an “Are you kidding?” And yet, as he sits in his office at NARF’s Boulder, Colorado headquarters, he sees that destiny set him on his life course—that he is exactly where he is supposed to be.
Campbell, 33 and an enrolled member of the Alaska Native Village of Gambell, was born and raised in Denver. He did not get high grades in high school. He considers himself lucky to have gained entrance into the Durango, Colorado liberal arts college, where he earned a B.A. in Sociology. Campbell said he also struggled in his first year of college, but he did well in his second, third and fourth years.
After college, he did not know what he wanted to do for work. Thanks to his persistent mother, who must have seen a lawyer in him, Campbell took the Law School Admissions Test. But he did not study hard enough, and his scores reflected that. Campbell knew the upper-echelon law schools would never take him, so he applied at the lower-tier schools. They did not want him either.
In 2005, he received a flyer for the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaska Natives, offered at the American Indian Law Center (AILC) in Albuquerque. He called the AILC yet was told the deadline had passed. “They asked me to send my application anyway, and I got in,” he said.
Campbell describes the two-month program, which replicates the first year of law school, as “intense,” and it attracts recruiters from law schools all over the country. Not only did he do well, but he was also wooed by recruiters from three different law schools. Campbell ended up enrolling at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in Tempe. In addition to his J.D., obtained in spring 2008, he holds an Indian Legal Certificate, with an environmental emphasis.
After law school. Campbell served as a law clerk at the Arizona Court of Appeals in Phoenix. About a year later, he took an attorney position at Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP, a Native American firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he worked on cases related to the environment, the Indian Child Welfare Act, voting rights, and other issues.
Campbell sent his resume to NARF in 2012 in pursuit of a boarding school staff attorney vacancy. That was the job he interviewed for at the organization’s headquarters. But when NARF called him after the interview, it was to tell him he did not get that position; rather, it had him in mind for an education attorney position that had recently become vacant. Campbell, who understood how prestigious NARF is and how rarely it hires lawyers due to low turnover, did not need time to think about it. “I pretty much accepted on the spot,” he said.
Since reporting to work in March 2013, Campbell has been busy working on a variety of court cases and projects. For example, on behalf of the National Congress of American Indians, he drafted a brief for the Jim Thorpe “repatriation” appeal; and on behalf of tribes in Arizona and southern Utah, he wrote a brief for a case involving the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s withdrawal of one million acres surrounding the Grand Canyon from uranium mining to protect sacred sites. He also has worked on implementation of NARF’s Sacred Places Project and advocated for a water rights settlement.
As an education attorney, Campbell represents Tribal Education Departments National Assembly to advocate for federal policy changes and developing and promoting education forums. He has also worked on some eagle feathers at graduation cases.
For Campbell, who is married to Annette Campbell, an attorney at the National American Indian Court Judges Association, and the father of a two-year-old son, Eli, working at NARF comes with huge rewards, and securing victories for his clients is one of them. Bigger than that, he said, “When you are in law school and you are a Native student, you are so interested in Indian law and Native issues. I get to work at NARF, and, well, that is pretty much all that we do. Just being able to work here is very rewarding. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”