Updated: Jun 7, 2021
Racheal M. White Hawk: Purpose Through Community
For Racheal White Hawk, the practice of law is not merely an intellectual exercise. As an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota (Sicangu Lakota), her interest in the law is deeply intertwined with her family history and cultural heritage. Ms. White Hawk’s family history motivated her to pursue a career as a lawyer, shaped her work as an associate in Procopio’s Native American Law Practice Group, and inspired her to seek a new position as an associate attorney with Earthjustice. She also works tirelessly to improve representation in the legal profession through her work with the Federal Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Pre-Law Summer Institute’s Judicial Clerkship Committee.
Ms. White Hawk grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska, where she lived with her mom. Growing up, Ms. White Hawk knew that she was Lakota and that her mom was adopted, but her family seldom discussed their Native culture and heritage. It was through her aunts, Deb and Sandy, that Ms. White Hawk learned about a profound injustice that fragmented her mother’s family and countless other Native families in the United States.
As a child, Ms. White Hawk’s mother was taken from her Lakota family and placed with a non-Native family during a contentious period in the United States when 25% to 35% of all Native children were forcibly removed from their homes. Ninety percent of such children were placed in non-Native homes for the purpose of assimilation. Consequently, Ms. White Hawk’s mother was not raised in a Native home and was distanced from her culture and community.
Despite this, Ms. White Hawk made efforts to learn about her Native culture—and many others—in college and beyond. She attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an undergraduate, where she participated in the University of Nebraska Inter-Tribal Exchange (UNITE), a student group that sought to advance the academic and professional interests of Native students at the college. Ms. White Hawk majored in International Studies, learned Spanish and Mandarin, and studied abroad in Mexico and China during college. After she graduated in 2009, Ms. White Hawk taught English in South Korea for a year before pursuing research regarding water pollution and sustainable economic development in Chengdu, China as a Fulbright scholar.
Ms. White Hawk when she “came into the circle” to dance for the first time at a UNITE powwow in 2013. The “coming into the circle” ceremony is when a dancer dances for the first time at a powwow. From left to right next to Ms. White Hawk are her mother, her aunt Edith, her aunt Deb, her cousin Amy, her aunt Sandy, and her cousin Dyani. This was the first time that her mother and aunts were in the same place at the same time—they had been separated prior to this due to the adoptions.
After spending years abroad immersed in other cultures and communities, Ms. White Hawk returned to the United States with the specific objective of working with tribes. In 2011, she secured a position with the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (Commission), an agency that acts as a liaison between the state government and the tribes in Nebraska. Ms. White Hawk started as an administrative secretary, and later helped coordinate the Sovereign Native Youth Leadership Program, which provided trips for Native American high school students in Nebraska to visit college campuses and meet elected officials and other professionals to learn about career opportunities.
The Executive Director of the Commission, Judi gaiashkibos, was a critical influence on Ms. White Hawk’s career trajectory. Ms. gaiashkibos took many Native students under her wing, connected them with members of the community, taught them the merits of hard work, and, as a Ponca tribal member, supported them in understanding and cultivating their own Native cultural identity and incorporating that into their professional lives. She encouraged Ms. White Hawk to attend the Pre-Law Summer Institute for Native students and consider applying for law school.
It was also during this time that Ms. White Hawk began to take more affirmative steps to connect with her relatives in Rosebud and Lakota culture. Ms. White Hawk was initially hesitant to dive too deep into her community because she feared, due to her mother’s forcible adoption, that she may not be accepted. However, the more she interacted with members of her community, the more she realized that many others carried the weight of similar experiences, either as someone who was forcibly adopted or the family member of someone who was. In 2012, she participated in an annual powwow organized by her aunt Sandy in Minneapolis that facilitates healing for Native adoptees and anyone affected by adoption, which she found to be an emotional and restorative experience. During this time, Ms. White Hawk also testified before the Nebraska legislature about the need to improve implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which was a federal law enacted to stop the mass removal of Native children from their homes and into adoptive families outside their communities.
These experiences reinforced Ms. White Hawk’s desire to work with and on behalf of tribal communities. After enduring the intergenerational trauma inherent in her family history, she saw a career in law as a way to directly improve conditions for tribes. Ms. White Hawk sought to reverse the course of destructive policies by using the law to protect tribal rights and interests.
With this clearer understanding of her history, community, and personal identity, Ms. White Hawk started her legal journey at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, home to one of the top Indian Legal Programs in the country. She learned from faculty dedicated to the study of Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law and pursued the school’s many opportunities to engage in clinical work and externships in the field. She secured an Indian Law Certificate and felt fully prepared for practice upon graduation.
After law school, Ms. White Hawk clerked for Chief Justice Scott Bales of the Arizona Supreme Court and Judge Mary Schroeder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She learned extensively about the legal process and how to craft reasonable, succinct arguments and to tailor them to the judges—and the clerks—who read legal briefs. Afterward, although she had been a summer associate at Lewis Roca in Phoenix, Ms. White Hawk followed Lewis Roca partner and Seneca tribal member Kerry Patterson to Procopio in San Diego.
As an associate in the Native American Law Practice Group, Ms. White Hawk represented several tribal clients in transactional and litigation matters, which involved a wide range of legal work. She worked on contractual and financial matters for tribal gaming enterprises; revised tribal laws; litigated employment, insurance, and personal injury cases arising on tribal land; and engaged in tribal-state compact negotiations under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Ms. White Hawk has appeared in federal court as well as tribal court, including the Intertribal Court of Southern California, and has helped dismiss cases from state court based on tribal sovereign immunity.
Now, Ms. White Hawk is starting a new chapter in her legal career. She recently accepted a position as an associate attorney with Earthjustice, a nonprofit law firm that works with tribes and other entities to litigate the most pressing environmental issues of the day. She plans to work with Earthjustice’s Northwest Office to advocate for environmental conservation and protection for tribal communities.
Outside the Office
Ms. White Hawk’s passion for the legal profession does not end at her office door. She is also a member of the Federal Bar Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, where she helped start the Judicial Clerkship Initiative (Initiative). This project stemmed from her experience clerking at the Ninth Circuit, where she and other diverse clerks advocated for more transparency regarding diversity statistics in the federal courts. She and the other members of the Initiative have met with the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to increase clerk diversity and participated in “Listen and Learn Tours” with national affinity bar organizations to discuss the challenges their members face in applying for and securing clerkships. She is also an active member of the Pre-Law Summer Institute’s Judicial Clerkship Committee—the committee that taught Ms. White Hawk about clerkships—to help inform Native students about the judicial clerkship application process and experience.
Ms. White Hawk and her Arizona Supreme Court co-clerk, Patrick Tighe, at the Colosseum in Rome, Italy
In her free time, Ms. White Hawk enjoys traveling—especially to Spain and Italy—and hopes to visit South America for her next trip. She is also reading several historical classic novels and is currently making her way through Anna Karenina.
Advice to Current and Future Lawyers
Ms. White Hawk’s advice to future law students interested in Federal Indian Law or Tribal Law is to try a variety of experiences in law school to determine the type of work they most enjoy, because Federal Indian Law and Tribal Law encompass almost every type of legal practice. She also highly recommends that all law students consider clerking in the judiciary, which has tremendously shaped her approach to developing legal arguments and which she credits with helping her become a better legal practitioner.
* Alisha Ansari is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. She is serving as a Judicial Law Clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.