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The sovereign nature of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's later work

Hopi Federal Judge Diane Humetewa discusses the impact Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on tribal nations; National Correspondent Dalton Walker has the latest on TikTok and an Oneida cyclist

Patty Talahongva

Indian Country Today

The first Native American woman to become a federal judge talks about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy and the impact she had on tribal nations. Ginsburg died on Friday after complications with cancer. Back in 2014 Diane Humetewa, Hopi, became the first Native American woman to be confirmed as a federal judge and she shares a story about meeting Ginsburg and talks about her controversial stance on federal Indian law.

Humetewa described Ginsburg as 'iconic.' She was only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Indigenous people have been critical of the majority opinion she authored in the City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York case. The Supreme Court denied the Oneida Nation sovereignty on land they had to repurchase. Ginsburg wrote, they would "preclude the tribe from rekindling embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold." More recently, Ginsburg sided with Justice Neil Gorsuch in the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling, which favored tribal sovereignty. 

Dalton Walker, Indian Country Today's national correspondent, has been busy working on a number of stories. One of his latest dives into the latest on TikTok and Native influencers. Another story Walker is covering is on the first Native American cyclist to race in the Tour de France. He has an update on how Oneida cyclist Neilson Powless is faring during his first Tour de France and how Powless is blazing a new trail for Native youth. 

Here are a few of their comments from Monday's newscast:

Diane Humetewa

"I have followed her as a lawyer but I think the first time I knew about her was when I was a third year law student when she had been nominated as the second woman to be considered for the Supreme Court. And so if you can imagine as a third year law student getting ready to enter the world of being a lawyer and watching Sandra Day O'Connor, who comes from Arizona, be possibly joined by a second female. For over 12 years, there was only one woman on the Supreme Court. It really was to me, very historic and watching those processes play out was ... Of course now in reflection having thought about her legacy, it really is hard to describe, there are so many levels of her that I think grew over time but most of all when I think about Justice Ginsburg, I think about, really when she was a young lawyer and, all of the obstacles and hurdles that she had to face in really working to achieve equality for women."

"She was practicing at a time where I think we could describe it as the old boy network. And she was trying to navigate these really choppy waters of people who were not really concentrating on local laws that discriminated against women. And she was very methodical and took one case at a time to develop equality for women. And then it grew from there, becoming equality for individuals. Really what I think about is, how thick skin she had to be, how tireless she had to be. And she was indeed both. She had to take on even her own establishments, like the ACLU at the time. I understood that they weren't in favor of finding some constitutional grounds to treat women equally. They were interested in other aspects of racial equality and they were more concentrated and invested in that work. And even institutions like Harvard were at the time writing opposition pieces to the work that she was trying to conduct. So it was really no small feat in terms of her work and trying to level that playing field for men and women."

"I have read and I also heard about some of the criticisms of her earlier work in Indian country issues. I think the earliest were the tax cases, the first of which was the Oneida Nation case. And there have been, I think, some comments that have been critical of her opinion. She authored the opinion in the Oneida tax case, which essentially permitted state taxation, after acquired lands by the Oneida Nation. And part of her rationale was basically that the character of the land that they had acquired after so many years was substantially changed. And that change if you were to sort of go back and deem it as Indian Country, not taxable by the state, it would disrupt the expectations of the community, the city, the citizens, and so on. Even though that opinion creates a level of precedent, over time if you look at and study her opinions, she, I wouldn't say came full circle, but she certainly demonstrated a greater and deeper understanding of tribal sovereignty, what it meant to be an Indian citizen, part of a sovereign nation."

When she joined a decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch,"I think she showed that she had an appreciation, a deeper appreciation for Indian law, federal Indian law and understanding of federal Indian law, if you will, and a deeper appreciation for the precedential nature of that opinion. And so, I think we can look at her later work as really coming to understand what some of these decisions meant to tribal nations."

"I was very honored to meet her. The occasion was the second session of our judge school, when I became a federal judge. I was joined by other appointees, including folks on the circuit courts. And one of the classmates I had was ninth circuit court of appeals, judge John Owens, who had clerked for Justice Ginsburg. And, there was a sort of an end dinner at the Supreme Court. We were hosted there and a number of the Justices joined us. And judge Owens was so kind as to pull me over and he said, I want to introduce you to Justice Ginsburg, she wants to meet you. And when he introduced me to her, I was so awestruck, I think I was myself surprised at my own reaction to meeting her. He introduced me to her as the first Native American woman to be on the federal court." 

"She just had that famous Justice Ginsburg ear to ear grin. And she was, she's very petite and she's somewhat soft-spoken and she put out her hand and just sort of gently grasped mine. And I'm sure, I fumbled with my words about what an honor it was to meet her. I could only get out a few words when, of course, a mob of other judges who really wanted to meet her, started to gather. And so I was so thrilled to be able to meet her in that way." 

"Of course very important because there's a long body of precedent. And interestingly enough, even myself being an enrolled tribal member, having parents who grew up on the reservation and having my exposure and my time living on the reservation as well. I had no idea about the implications of this doctrine of federal Indian law until I went to law school. And fortunately today we have a robust curriculum of Indian law being taught at national law schools so that it provides a base level understanding of why it is that there are separate treatments for tribal nations, tribal members." 

"We are not essentially deemed a racial classification but a political classification. It has a number of legal implications. And so it is an incredibly important. It is even more so important because you have a growing population of tribal members living in Indian country, on Indian lands. And so the Supreme Court has the potential to affect the daily lives of tribal members. And I was very thrilled back in the late 90s, early 2000s when tribal nations were actually inviting justices to come on to Indian country and to visit their courts to visit their communities, come to some of their celebrations and ceremonies. I thought that was a really important outreach on the behalf of tribes so that at least there's some base level understanding of how some of these decisions can affect the daily lives of tribal members." 

Dalton Walker

"Big news on Friday with TikTok was that it was going to disappear from U.S. smartphone stores soon. And for weeks we knew this was possible. We didn't really have a timeline of sorts until then but the next day on Saturday to President Donald Trump gave a blessing to a proposed deal for a U.S. company and a partner with the Chinese owned app, which essentially means that the app is probably not going away after all."

"Yeah, Indigenous TikTock is real and apparently it pays. My colleague Mary Annette Pember profiled a young Dine woman, Erin Tapahe, recently she was part of TikTok's new creative learning fund, where basically creators can get paid for posting on the app, which is pretty good deal to me."

"Yeah, the race finished up on Sunday in Paris. And as we all know, one of the racers was an Oneida cyclist. Nielson Powless finished 56 out of nearly 200 cyclists who started the race and these are the best of the best competing. So it's quite impressive by a first timer. On Sunday Nielson posted a pretty neat photo on his social media of his cycling team, embracing in Paris saying he finally accomplished a lifelong dream."

"Yeah, it was neat to follow his journey at Cross France. I spoke with her sister and his dad about the story. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to hold a Nielson because of his demanding schedule on the bike and doing his thing, but it's just neat to learn about the two. The two siblings are two years apart and they grew up competing in a variety of sports and both turned to the bicycle for a professional career and Nielson has straight up come from a family of athletes. Their dad was a big time triathlete and their mom, Jen is an Olympic marathoner from back in the 90s. But yeah, following Nielson...probably more tours ahead of him."

"Both Shayna, and Nielson has said this too on the social media, he was also quoted by the associated press recently about how important for both of them, of being a role model, especially the Native youth and that professional cycling doesn't have a lot of Native people to begin with. So they're hoping to change that. They're hoping to spark interest. I know both of them participate in youth events when they have downtime throughout the year."

"We have the election and less than 50 days away. And of course we have potential voting issues. Last week, the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Rosebud Sioux Tribe...filed a federal court complaint against officials in South Dakota, basically accusing them of not offering adequate voter registration services. And it's on top of a complaint filed a few weeks ago by a few Navajo people regarding their vote not being counted in time. So there's plenty of news out there regarding the election."

Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is executive producer of Indian Country Today. She is also the anchor of the weekday newscast. Follow her on Twitter: @WiteSpider.

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