“Whatever you decide to do in your lives, it is important that you don’t forget your community,” said Judge Sunshine Sykes, JD ’01 (BA ’97), during a Native Community Gathering at Stanford University’s Native American Cultural Center on January 26. “There’s a spot for you at the table. Sometimes you have to fight for it, and it is not always easy, but representation from the Native community is critical.”
Sykes, a member of the Navajo nation, was confirmed by the Senate in 2022 to the Central District of California Court in Riverside. She is the first Native American federal judge in California. Sykes visited Stanford Law School as the guest of honor at the evening event, which brought together Native SLS and university students, alumni, and faculty members for networking and community-building. Stanford University junior Jasmine Waukela Kinney led a pre-dinner blessing in the Yurok language, with the attendees gathered in a circle around the room.
Sykes advised the students to treasure their time at Stanford, saying “it will go much too fast.” She attributed the support she received from the Stanford Native community, both as an undergraduate and a law student, as important to her academic and professional successes.
Her career on the bench began in 2013 when then-governor Jerry Brown nominated her for the Riverside County Superior Court, where she sat for nine years prior to her elevation to the federal bench. She spoke of the power of working in close proximity to her family’s history while serving on the Superior Court.
“Probably three miles from the courthouse where I sat is Sherman Indian School, where my grandparents were taken and forced to go to school,” she said. “My grandmother was taught to care for other people’s children. That is what it was assumed she would do. My grandfather was taught to fix simple machines. And so it was very humbling to me to be able to preside and sit in that nearby courthouse when only two generations before me it was thought there would never be a Native American judge in the courthouse.”
Stanford Law School has two faculty members who teach American Indian and Indigenous law, Greg Ablavsky, the Marion Rice Kirkwood Professor of Law, and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Hidalgo Reese, both of whom were in attendance.
“Judge Sykes is an inspirational member of the law school’s vibrant Native alumni community which is doing such important work in federal, tribal, and state jurisdictions throughout the country,” Ablavsky said. “It is exciting to see our law students, undergrads, and alumni all connect with each other, and to brainstorm more ways to make Stanford a hub for work in tribal and federal Indian law.”
Reese said, “It was so beautiful to hear Judge Sykes speak about the importance of the Stanford Native community to her life and career. The gathering was an opportunity for us to re-ground ourselves in Native community and find inspiration in Judge’s Sykes’ story and fellowship with who she is today.”
The story resonated with Velina Underwood, JD ’93 (BA ’88), on a personal level. “Judge Sykes’ story of overcoming poverty and humble origins on the Navajo reservation is inspiring to anyone, but for me has a personal relevance as a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe who overcame being the child of teenage parents and poverty to graduate from Stanford University and Stanford Law School,” she said.
The Native Community Gathering was co-hosted by the recently formed Indigenous Alumni of Stanford Law School (IA of SLS), the Stanford Native American Cultural Center (NACC), Native American Law Students Association (NALSA), and Stanford Natives in Pre-Law (SNIPL).