President’s Corner

Dear NNABA Members and Friends:

On April 10, 2020 I will finish my term as President of NNABA. It is hard to believe that a year has already passed.  I began this journey with optimism and a belief that everything we wanted to accomplish this year would get done.  Little did anyone know at the time that we would be facing a worldwide pandemic before the conclusion of my Presidency.   Although our numbers are small when compared to other bars of color, it has been my experience that the members and board of NNABA seem to accomplish more than much larger organizations.  Even with all the help possible it quickly became clear that the path we were on would take more than the one year I had to serve as its President.

This year I was determined to personally visit reservations.  Although I have practiced in the field of Native law, I rarely got the opportunity to interact or see the diversity, culture, and determination present within these nations.   So, on April 10, 2019 I took off on my 2017 Harley Davidson Roadglide to see the country and learn about our people.

I rode almost 70,000 miles this year.  I visited numerous reservations covering ground from South Florida to Northern Washington.  California to the East Coast.  Canyons and deserts of Arizona and New Mexico to the high mountains of the Rockies and Wyoming.  I met Chiefs, Chairpersons, Tribal Councils, attorneys and more importantly amazing Tribal people.  Diverse and different in many ways but all sharing one thing in common, tenacity and survival.

In Pine Ridge I found some of the worst conditions imaginable.  In South Florida with the Seminole Tribe I found unbelievable prosperity and success.  I was struck at the distance between Tribes and wondered why we were not able to pull together as a larger collective to help one another.  Why some Tribes struggled by themselves and others were able to make great strides in education, financial, and governmental strength.  It was clear that NNABA had to do more and serve a larger purpose than simply legal ideas, scholarships and lobbying.

At each reservation I took time to stop and simply listen.  Listen to the people and more importantly listen to mother earth.  Sitting in the middle of Navajo, in 105-degree heat, I heard the wind as it continued its journey across the country.  Bringing with it pieces of all those people and places it had crossed prior to reaching me.  I tried to connect but always found myself falling short.  That was probably my greatest struggle.  Trying to find common ground with all the Tribal nations.   It was clear that the things that helped each Tribe survive were also the biggest differences between them.

In the end the journey I took became more personal and led me to recommit myself to not only the goals of NNABA but to continue to reach out to our communities and try to help us all connect with one another.  Our strengths will be our best hope for continuing to protect sovereignty; fight for our women and children; preserve our cultures; and ensure that real truths are told about the Native people.

Members of NNABA continue to blaze new trails and set higher standards for the Native community.  Some of our members have helped acknowledge personhood of our rivers and streams.  Other members have funded, supported and conducted outreach to future young lawyers and students.   As a group we provided leadership training to future leaders and lobbied for not only Native issues but issues important to our other minority sisters and brothers.   We collectively increased our membership and raised additional funding to help our organization sustain its long-term scholarship, education, and other goals.

We saw one of our former Presidents, Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, acknowledged by the ABA with the Spirit of Excellence award. We saw our former President Mary Smith announce her candidacy for President of the American Bar Association, the first Native American to do so. Within the ABA we watched the presence of young Native attorneys in the minority judicial clerkship program grow from zero to six and include Tribal court judges, Tribal attorney generals and current and former judicial clerks.  In spite of impediments we continued to progress.

NNABA spoke out on climate change, protection of our women and children, the missing and murdered and challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act.  600 years after we encountered the European community, NNABA and the people, Tribes and attorneys it serves continue to engage in changing law, protecting sovereignty, and advancing issues of justice for the Native community.  We were a powerful presence in Washington, D.C. and joined with other bars of color and lobbied for VAWA, voter registration issues and immigration.

One year is simply not enough.  I wish I could continue this journey, but I know it is time to allow others to pick up the reigns of leadership that were given to me.  I will be walking on from this position, but my feet and heart will not be far from NNABA and I will be there to help our incoming President Thomasina Real Bird fulfill her goals and ideals for our organization.  We are all connected to our future through our past.

The examples of John Echohawk, Lawrence Baca, Kirk Kickingbird, Mary Smith and a host of others paved a rocky road so that future leadership can travel faster and accomplish more. As we welcome Thomasina Real Bird as our organization’s new leader, it is my sincere hope that each of you will rededicate your time and energy to NNABA and its goals.  That you will encourage others to join our organization and that you will do all that you can to help us connect with one another as attorneys, Tribal members, and help make our differences smaller and our similarities stronger.

This has been one of the greatest honors I have ever had in my life.  My failures during this year are my own.  My successes came only because of the great help and assistance of the board and members of NNABA.  Thank you all for your support, inspiration, and patience with me.  I look forward to our continued progression and success and in working with Thomasina Real Bird as she strengthens our organization over the next year.  Please join me in congratulating her as we look forward to her inciteful leadership and her amazing talents that will continue to move us as a people and organization.

Always remember that unto he whom much is given much is required and in spite of the hurdles and impediments placed on our paths in the words of Maya Angelou “still we rise.”

Sgi and Wa Do
Robert Osley Saunooke
2019-2020 President
National Native American Bar Association

Recent News & Interviews

Interview: Mountain Voice With Leo Phillips [Air Date 04.27.2019]
Article: ABA Journal – Written by Amanda Robert [Published 03.16.2020]
Introduction: Hoka Hey Motorcycle Challenge [Published 07.07.2020]