Tracing Harvard Law School’s Native American Graduates

Insight February 7, 2022

Solomon Jones Homer, a Choctaw citizen from the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, was the first Native American to attend Harvard Law School. In the fall of 1894, his 1L year, the faculty voted to remit his tuition fees, “believing him to be a man of marked ability and of much strength of character; it also appearing that Homer is an Indian.” But the Roanoke College valedictorian would leave the Law School in less than a year, returning to his home, “practicing law, and otherwise helping his people.”

After Homer left, Harvard Law School only had a few scattered Native students until the late 1960s. In 1970, the Harvard Inter-Tribal Council assembled to increase enrollment of Native students across the University. At the time, the Law School averaged about one or two Native students in the entire student body. Third-year law student Sanford Smith ‘70 (Ute) lamented, “We were listened to politely but no one is willing to take an overt action to achieve our goals. . . . The admissions committee said in effect[,] ‘Yes we should have more Indians but . . . .’” Unfortunately, student advocacy did not yield a response. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, there were typically two or three Native students active in the Harvard Native American Law Students Association in a given year. Besides a few vibrant cohorts, most students had to navigate their experiences alone. Even fifty years after Smith’s speech, Native students often struggle with being the only Indigenous person in their HLS classrooms.

The relative invisibility of Native students in the legal profession can compound this isolation. Of the 1.2 million attorneys in the United States, only 0.2 percent—or just under three thousand—are Native American. The literature on the legal profession often omits Native lawyers, justifying this exclusion by citing statistical insignificance. Recently, in 2020, the NALP Foundation and the University of Texas School of Law’s Center for Women in Law launched a massive study of women of color’s experience in law that ignored Native women. Its ten-year nationwide longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers also barely mentioned Native graduates.

To fill this gap, the National Native American Bar Association (NNABA) researched the exclusionary practices that Native peoples encounter in the legal profession. It found that Native graduates were not considered in diversity and inclusion efforts, were not seen as a group that required attention due to their small numbers, and did not have discrimination complaints taken seriously because incidents did not “look like the kind of discrimination” that other minority groups experience. HLS alum and former NNABA President, Lawrence R. Baca, encapsulated the immense pressure that Native law school graduates face: “There is a greater likelihood for Native attorneys that they will be the first. The first Indian hired into your law firm or agency; the first or the only Indian teaching at your law school.” Still, Native survey respondents were more likely than the general population to report that they wanted to serve their tribal communities and that family, friends, mentors, and lawyers strongly influenced their decision to attend law school.

With the Center on the Legal Profession student fellowship, I am continuing to work on the paper that I began in the Legal Profession seminar on this topic. Invisible No More: Harvard Law School’s Native American Graduates and Their Contributions to Indian Country endeavored to name Native HLS students, describe their educational experiences, and chart their career trajectories. My preliminary findings showed that these graduates were highly service-oriented. More than three-quarters of HLS Native alumni dedicated their careers to strengthening tribal sovereignty. They became tribal judges and lawyers, taught American Indian law, fought for tribal interests in the Department of the Interior or the Department of Justice, supported tribal economic development, or joined firms or non-profits focusing on American Indian law. More often than not, they participated in a combination of these causes over their lifetimes. Their lawyering and leadership changed the face of Indian country.

This study seeks to ensure that Harvard Law School recognizes their achievements. Over this semester, I am developing interview questions and a survey for HLS’s Native graduates. It will mirror many categories of the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD project, a ten-year national longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers. For instance, I will determine what portion of their careers Native lawyers spent in the service-oriented fields pertaining to American Indian law versus time spent on issues unrelated to tribal sovereignty. I also will show whether or not Native lawyers returned to their homelands after law school and which Native nations have been represented at HLS. Through the survey, I also will underscore the experiences of HLS’s Indigenous women graduates in the workplace. Ultimately, this work will highlight the accomplishments of Native alumni and start a robust record so that the experiences and accounts of Native graduates no longer remain invisible to the legal profession.

I hope that this summary serves as an invitation to learn more about my project. I am deeply grateful to the Native graduates who have shared their perspectives on their law school experiences and fought for representation in the legal profession.

Sarah Sadlier is a Student Fellow with the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School; she is a JD Candidate and a History PhD Candidate at Harvard, specializing in Native American History with a secondary field in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS). As an undergraduate at Stanford, she quadruple majored in American Studies (with Honors), History (with Honors), Iberian and Latin American Cultures, and Political Science (secondary major) with Distinction. She completed her master’s in Modern Thought and Literature in 2017 at Stanford and her master’s in History in 2019 at Harvard.