What Native American and Indigenous Law Applicants Should Know

Gabriel Kuris
·6 min read

Aspiring lawyers with Native American and Indigenous heritage may have understandable concerns about how welcome they would feel in law school. But even if law schools still have a long way to go toward supporting and empowering such students, there has never been a better time for Native American and Indigenous students to apply. Many schools offer such applicants dedicated resources, scholarships and mentorship opportunities.

The Native American Law Students Association, or NALSA, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and boasts 34 active chapters with 226 student members. At least two dozen law schools have programs, classes or clinics in American Indian and Indigenous Peoples law and tribal law. Some offer specialized certificates or advanced legal degrees in Indian law.

Here are five things for Native American and Indigenous law school applicants to consider:

-- Reaching out can be beneficial.

-- Resources are available to Native American applicants.

-- Native American affiliation encompasses more than tribal enrollment.

-- There are more Native American law students than official statistics show.

-- Advocating for Native American communities can take many forms.

Reaching Out Can Be Beneficial

The typical reluctance among law school professors and students to respond to emails from law school applicants does not apply in the close-knit community of Native American law.

[READ: What Underrepresented Law School Applicants Should Know.]

"Every Native American law professor is involved in recruitment," says Robert A. Williams, Jr., faculty co-chair of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. "We are happy to have applicants to reach out. Native American law professors want students for our courses and programs."

Williams, the school's E. Thomas Sullivan Professor of Law, notes that he and his staff spend hundreds of hours each year advising Native American applicants.

Likewise, Kristin Adonis Theis-Alvarez, dean of admissions and financial aid at the University of California-- Berkeley School of Law says she and her colleagues travel to tribal communities, work with partners like the American Indian College Fund and offer one-on-one advising.

Native American applicants can also seek advice from NALSA, the Native American Rights Fund, the National Native American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Section, tribal education offices, Native American attorneys, and leaders and elders in their community.

"You are not alone," Theis-Alvarez advises Native American applicants. "If you feel called to be an advocate by being an attorney," she continued, writing in an email, "know that you can attend law school and that there is a whole network of us out here waiting for you, ready to support and champion you (and maybe even nag you a little)."

Resources Are Available to Native American Applicants

Many programs at the local, state and national levels are dedicated to preparing Native American applicants for law school. For example, the Native American Pipeline to Law Initiative -- co-sponsored by Berkeley Law, the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, Michigan State University College of Law and the American Indian Law Center, a nonprofit asociated with the University of New Mexico -- provides free workshops and mentorship opportunities for college students and graduates preparing for law school.

The longstanding Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaska Natives, an intensive two-month program in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gives participants an invaluable head start on legal education methods. The program is cost-free to participants and available to college graduates who have taken the LSAT and applied to law school.

In addition, many law schools offer dedicated scholarships for Native American students, which range in eligibility from those intended for specific nations or purposes to broader offerings.

Native American Affiliation Encompasses More than Tribal Enrollment

A common misconception is that law schools favor anyone who checks the box for Native American heritage, to boost diversity. Thus, many applicants who believe they have "Native American blood" but lack a connection to a tribal community eagerly check the box.

[Read: Advice for Aspiring Lawyers About Diversity in Law School.]

Williams laughed when he talked about the surprised reaction of "opportunistic box checkers" when they receive a phone call from him or his colleagues inquiring about those applicants' interest in Native American law programs. "We do our due diligence," he says.

Law school admissions offices consider Indigenous identity a form of citizenship or cultural affiliation, rather than mere ancestry, which is why scholarships for Native Americans comply with restrictions on affirmative action.

Native American or Indigenous law school applicants do not need to be enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe. Admissions offices are not interested in policing the borderlines of Indigenous identity, and they are sensitive to the many reasons why Indigenous applicants may lack documentation or eligibility for enrollment. Moreover, applicants may come from Indigenous communities outside the U.S.

Rather than obsess about boxes or paperwork, Indigenous applicants should provide context on their heritage, identity and engagement with Indigenous communities or organizations through their personal statement, diversity statement or an addendum. Schools will reach out if they have questions.

[READ: See 2 Successful Law School Diversity Statements.]

There Are More Native American Law Students Than Official Statistics Show

Law School Admissions Council, or LSAC, statistics show that American Indian and Alaska Native applicants made up only 0.3% of student admitted to American Bar Association-approved law schools in 2020. However, like many topics related to Indigenous peoples, the full picture is complicated.

Because of historical factors ranging from racist laws and policies to cultural stigma and erasure, Native Americans often identify with Hispanic ethnicity or multiple racial categories. On the 2010 U.S. census, 0.9% of Americans identified as American Indian or Alaska Native alone, while a total of 1.7% identified as that category alone or in combination with another race.

However, the federal educational data standards that guide LSAC data collection list Native American students as either "Hispanic" or "two or more races" unless applicants check the box for American Indian or Alaska Native alone.

Thus, one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups among law students includes an unknown number of overlooked Native American and Indigenous students. Indeed, according to LSAC numbers of law students admitted to ABA-approved law schools in 2020, 8.5% identified as "Hispanic" and 10% as "two or more races," categories that similarly obscure the identities of other applicants with part Asian or Black heritage.

Native American law students are concentrated at schools with more established Indian law programs, especially those in western states. Applicants might reach out to admissions offices or NALSA chapters to get a better sense of the Indigenous presence on campus.

Advocating for Native American Communities Can Take Many Forms

In previous generations, Indian law primarily concerned the relationship between tribal nations and state and federal governments. Now the field encompasses a vast range of cutting-edge issues, from leveraging international treaties and protecting Indigenous rights to improving tribal governance and fighting problems like corruption and domestic violence.

"It's important that Native and Indigenous applicants appreciate how their presence in law school will enrich the educational environment for their professors and fellow students" John P. LaVelle, director of the Law and Indigenous Peoples Program at the University of New Mexico School of Law, wrote in an email.

"For example, in federal Indian law courses at UNM School of Law, learning and teaching are always enhanced when Native students share stories and experiences about how U.S. Indian policies have affected their own lives and the lives and histories of their tribal communities."