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Native American Lawyer, Little Fawn Boland

When Little Fawn Boland was a child growing up in Nevada, she earned a black belt in tae kwon do, and she believes that providing her with martial arts training was one of the best things her parents ever did for her. “I think being in martial arts as a kid is such a good thing. It teaches discipline and respect for your elders, and never to miss your training or your tests. I think it was a very good foundation for my studies.” Boland knows plenty about discipline and training and taking tests: Just six years ago she earned her law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, one of the top law schools in the country.

Boland, 35, already has her own law firm in San Francisco, and she has just joined the Academy of Tribal & Local Government (ATLG) as an educator. Although she is not recommending tae kwon do for everyone, she does hope that more Native Americans will follow her academic path and study law. “I really hope that we have more Native American attorneys,” said Boland, who is a member of the Piro-Manso-Tiwa Tribe of the San Juan de Guadalupe Pueblo in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“I think it’s really important that Native people get more education so we can be our own attorneys. A lot of outsiders have come in to help tribes and while that’s really wonderful, it can also lead to disastrous results, and I hope we can have more Natives on every level going back and helping our communities.”

Her appointment to ATLG is the latest in a string of impressive accomplishments. Straight out of law school, she served with Rosette & Associates, PC, a Native American–owned and -operated law firm representing tribal governments and tribal entities nationwide, where she ultimately became a partner. Her work there focused on protecting tribal rights and interests, including tribal civil and criminal jurisdiction, federal trust obligations, tribal-state gaming compacts, tribal sovereign immunity, and the protection of cultural, environmental and resource rights. She provided general and special counsel services including litigation, administrative law, contract negotiation and project finance, advocacy and negotiation with outside governments, National Environmental Policy Act compliance, and Indian land decisions and fee-to-trust applications as related to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. She also crafted comprehensive employment law handbooks for tribal governments.

From 2006–2007, Boland served as general counsel of the Washoe Tribe, working with the tribal government, departments and boards. She advocated for the interests and trust assets of the tribe, negotiated intergovernmental agreements, and drafted tribal codes, policies and ordinances, always with the fundamental goal of protecting tribal sovereignty.

Boland said she was honored to have been selected in January to join the ATLG faculty. The academy is a Native American–owned and -operated institute co-founded by Deron Marquez, the former chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians, whose reservation is located in Highland, California. Marquez faced some of the most daunting legal battles in Indian country
during his time as chairman, including a precedent-setting court ruling that supported the National Labor Relations Board assertion of jurisdiction in Indian country. (The case has not yet been tested in the U.S. Supreme Court. Tribal nations are reluctant to take cases to the current high court, which is considered unfriendly toward Indian country.)

Marquez’s experiences in the confrontational aspect of tribal relationships with non-tribal entities led him to conclude that it would be better (and cheaper) to resolve the issues facing the nations and other governments through communication and education rather than through litigation, so he co-founded the academy with Rod Wilson to pursue those ends. The academy provides education and training for Native American and Alaska Native tribal governments, members and tribal employees and for local, county and parish governments. It also issues certification and evaluation of tribal vendors and business partners. The academy has a top-notch faculty of academics and other experts in law, finance, government, political science, economics and other disciplines.

Boland will provide workshops and training to tribal governments on a range of topics. “I’ve given a lot of workshops on ‘Sovereignty 101’ and how a tribal government may waive sovereignty in tribal contracts,” she said. “I’ve done workshops to help tribal council members understand their fiduciary duties as tribal leaders. Also, a lot of tribes now encounter complex financial transactions in which they’re introduced to financial terms that may be unfamiliar. So we take the big concepts and break them down into laymen’s terms so that tribal leaders can really learn from these workshops.”

ATLG co-founder Wilson says of Boland, “She is one of the very few Native American female tribal attorneys that I am aware of who has risen up and represented tribal nations with pride, honor and respect. She knows the law and knows how to work with tribal leaders to maintain and protect sovereignty while being sure that individual pride and self-respect are maintained. She truly is a woman who has limitless talents and is able to ensure confidence in a legal process which has been turbulent to say the least for tribal nations in their struggle for self-reliance and tribal preservation.”

Boland has shown plenty of self-reliance. After working in other law offices for five years, she opened her own firm, Little Fawn Boland Legal.

“It was slow at first and then all of a sudden, in late December, out of the blue—I haven’t done any marketing or even a website—I started getting calls from different people saying, ‘We’re looking for counsel for this or that.’ I found six clients about two weeks ago; and none of them are huge, but for one person it’s plenty of work for now.”

But Boland anticipates that her workload will increase soon because it’s not an easy time for tribal nations in terms of the legal landscape. “I think the most difficult thing is the ball is always moving on what the law is that we’re supposed to be working under. So it’s difficult to prepare your strategy for, let’s say, a restored land application or a fee-to-trust application because the rules keep changing. Also, one single politician can change the rules if they want to.”

She cited a “guidance memorandum” issued during the George W. Bush administration limiting off-reservation casinos by distance, the Supreme Court’s Carcieri v. Salazar ruling, which undermined the Interior secretary’s authority to take land into trust for tribes not “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934, and recent under-the-radar efforts by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, to introduce legislation that would limit or eliminate off-reservation casinos. “I think it’s vital for my clients and all of Indian country to maintain the networks, so they have the most accurate information on the ground of what’s happening in D.C. So working together with other attorneys, with our national organizations is important,” Boland said, adding that navigating all the issues involving Indian law right now is like a chess game. “You have to think 10 steps ahead about all the potential contingencies. You can’t just stay focused on your one little thing because everything we’re doing now fits into such a larger paradigm that has to do with Indian gaming. And the whole view right now on Indian gaming is shifting and a lot of changes seem to be coming fast.”

With all the issues facing Indian country and an anticipated increase in the number of clients in her practice, Boland said that those hoped-for Native American attorneys specializing in Indian law would be more than welcome right now.