First-Ever Native American Woman to Lead a Law School Visits SEC for Native American Heritage Month
Nov. 22, 2023
Stacy Leeds acknowledges that she wears “a number of different hats” in life, and she visited the SEC on Nov. 6 for a 2023 Native American Heritage Month event to discuss her experiences donning each of those along her path to ultimate success as a Cherokee woman attorney.
As someone who prioritizes public service on both national and local levels, Leeds blends her experiences “almost daily” working broadly in legal education and more specifically on matters related to “Indian Country,” which she noted is the legal term of art for the jurisdiction and homeland where Native Americans live in the U.S.
Leeds was the first woman to serve as a justice on the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. In 2011, she became the first Indigenous woman ever to serve as a law school dean when she assumed that role at the University of Arkansas School of Law.
“I think you see in the experiences of most Native American women lawyers, when they work in a space, no matter what that space is, they always find a way to connect to community and try to embody that service mentality,” Leeds explained.
I think you see in the experiences of most Native American women lawyers, when they work in a space, no matter what that space is, they always find a way to connect to community and try to embody that service mentality.
– Stacy Leeds,
ASU Law School Dean
She currently serves as dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, which “undoubtedly has the largest population of future Native lawyers,” Leeds said. “In that law school today, there’s over 70 Native students representing 35 different tribes. The volume of people that are leaving that program and going out to make big impacts is so important.”
Leeds sees what she calls a “buyer’s market” with the variety of job opportunities for young attorneys coming out of law schools today, including Native American students. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Leeds explained that in the early 1970s, there were approximately 25 Native American attorneys practicing law across the country. Fifty years later, the National Native American Bar Association (for which SEC attorney Matthew Archer-Beck is president-elect) represents about 3,000 lawyers across the country.
“The growth has been profound,” Leeds said, “but now we enter into that phase 2 where it’s not just the bulk of the students who come to America’s law schools from Indian Country who will practice in this space, it’s the growth in the depth and the breadth of what they will do. Many opportunities are now available for those that want to do other areas of work (besides Indian law)."
Leeds shared that national studies conducted over the years have shown that Native American women attorneys “tend to fall in the same place within these surveys, and that is a place of invisibility.” She called the audience’s attention to the recent release of a first-ever study exclusively about the experiences of Native American women attorneys. Three generations of Native American female lawyers were surveyed.
“Their experiences were a little troubling in that across all three generations much of the same experiences are still happening. But there were also very big steps taken in terms of opportunities across different fields,” Leeds explained. While the vast majority of Native American attorneys practice in Indian law, “one of the things that comes out of these most recent studies is that you see more representation of Native American attorneys across a broad spectrum of subject matters, so employees working here in this agency are part of that trend.”
Leeds expressed appreciation for the sense of inclusion at the SEC.
“Representation truly matters. And I applaud you for doing these kinds of events each year.” Leeds expressed that Native American employees at the SEC “feel very supported in their work and in the community here, so I thank you on their behalf for the climate that is created within this agency in particular.”