This past March, twelve Stanford Law students piled into cars and embarked on a seven-hour road trip north to Klamath, California. Over three days, the law students worked tirelessly to provide pro bono legal services to members of the Yurok Tribe. This was the second consecutive alternative spring break trip organized by the Native American Law Students Association (NALSA) to specifically support native communities. SLS students provided criminal expungement services to the Yurok Tribe last year, and estate planning and advanced health care services to tribal members this year.
Estate planning is particularly critical for native individuals and communities because of the historical, systemic allotment of native lands by the federal government. As trust lands were parceled out to individual tribal members, the lands became increasingly fractionated when elders passed away without a will. The land is often divided into interests so small that the land becomes difficult to utilize. Through estate planning, tribal members are empowered to choose who will inherit their property so that it ceases to be further fractionated. Estate planning is one step towards strengthening tribal sovereignty and native control over tribal lands.
During the service trip, SLS students served nearly twenty tribal members. One student described serving an elderly couple as a unique opportunity because they drafted a will designed for not only fee lands, but also tribal regalia and cultural items. The female regalia could only be given to women, but the couple had only three sons. The couple intended to pass their dancing regalia to their granddaughters, but to be cared for by their sons until the granddaughters reached a certain age. Drafting this will required creative brainstorming to meet the legal needs while respecting cultural traditions.
Between the legal clinics and volunteering, tribal elders and employees generously shared their time and knowledge with students. Shortly after students arrived on the reservation, Rosie Clayburn, the cultural resources manager for the Tribe, lead a discussion on Yurok history and shared a powerful documentary on Yurok culture. When students traveled to a remote part of the reservation for a legal clinic, tribal staff stopped them along the way to discuss the land and points of significance. One of those stops was Taki’miLding (the Acorn Paddle Place), where Merve George, a revered Hoopa medicine man, and his wife led students on a village site tour. Although students helped fill a legal need for tribal members, the trip also strengthened a reciprocal relationship between SLS students and the Tribe, where students learned invaluable history and culture from tribal elders and employees.
It is our hope that next year will mark the third consecutive year NALSA organizes an alternative spring break trip for SLS students to work specifically with native communities. There was an overwhelming interest in student volunteers this year, and we hope that future trips can expand to accommodate student interest. Experiences like these are critical to meeting legal needs in remote areas and exposing law students to native communities and the unique legal issues they often face.
Tory K. Tilton and Savannah Schultz Fletcher are both third year law students at Stanford Law School. Fletcher is Co-President of NALSA and will be moving to Fairbanks, Alaska next year to clerk for the Alaska Supreme Court. And Tilton served as Vice President LAF Community Engagement for NALSA. She is moving to Chicago to work at the Legal Assistance Foundation, where she will provide free legal services to people living in poverty.