VERMILLION, S.D. – University of South Dakota law professor Frank Pommersheim was recently recognized by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe for his commitment to Indian law and service as a tribal judge for over 30 years.
Pommersheim, a graduate of Columbia Law School, was first exposed to Indian law as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) lawyer in rural Alaska.
“I had never been west of the Mississippi River but I was very taken by the cultural element and spirit of generosity,” Pommersheim said.
After his program ended, he briefly returned to New York before accepting a position in 1973 at a college, Sinte Gleska University, that was just forming on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
“I thought I would be there for a short stay, but ended up spending 10 years living in Rosebud,” he said. “Sinte had a philosophy at that time of decentralized learning. They didn’t have a campus then so you took your classes to the community.”
Pommersheim was encouraged to become an active member of the community. He said sports were a leveler.
“I played softball and basketball and went to pow wows and events,” he said. “I’m not sure if others would agree, but I would describe myself as fairly shy so to a certain extent, it was good for me.”
After 10 years living in Rosebud, including three directing Dakota Plains Legal Services which provides legal aid to Native Americans across South Dakota, Pommersheim was recruited to join the faculty of the USD law school in 1984 primarily to teach Indian law where he started two traditions that have lasted over 30 years – a biennial Indian law symposium, and a field trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
“I think we’re the only law school in the country to have hosted an Indian law symposium for 30 years,” Pommersheim said. “It’s an opportunity for students and the community to hear about the issues. There are very few forums where Indians and non-Indian people can come together.”
USD hosted its 15th biennial Indian Law Symposium in March 2018 inviting Patrice Kunesh, a former USD law professor and current director of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, as its keynote speaker.
Pommersheim also stressed the cultural element inherent in the symposium.
“There’s an opening prayer by [Native Student Services Director] Gene Thin Elk which hopes to open your heart to listen, to learn, and to show respect to one another,” Pommersheim said. “Embedded in what we do is a cultural element.”
Another way Pommersheim exposes students to Indian law is through an annual field trip to Rosebud.
“When I started teaching here in 1984, most of my students were from South Dakota. I assumed they knew something about Indian reservations,” Pommersheim said. “Two years in, I realized they didn’t.”
“People just kind of accept the landscape they’re in,” he said.
The trip includes watching tribal court proceedings, visiting the local jail and meeting with various members of the community including enjoying a meal prepared by the court staff at the end of the trip.
“When I read student evaluations, they say the field trip is the greatest thing about the class. What it does without intentionally trying to do it is dismantle a lot of stereotypes,” Pommersheim said.
“Yes, there is a lot of poverty on the reservation. Yes, there is a lot of alcoholism. But there are a lot of people trying to do good too,” he said. “You can talk about it in class which is important to do but having students go out there. It’s different. It’s become an essential part of the class.”
Around the time he began to teach at USD, Pommersheim had also begun serving as a tribal judge in Rosebud and then for other tribes as well. Currently, he serves as a justice for the Santee Sioux, Crow Creek, Rosebud and Winnebago tribes. In the past, he has served as a justice for the Saginaw Chippewa, Lower Sioux, Mississippi Band of Tribe and the Grand Portage Chippewa. He has served as the Chief Justice of the Cheyenne River Appellate Court of Appeals for 31 years.
“Somewhat unexpectedly, I found myself sitting on tribal courts and writing a lot of opinions. And that was significant to me for my own professional development. At that time, tribal courts became more popular so it became an area of intense focus for me,” Pommersheim said.
He said after 30 years of experience with Indian law, respect is the key starting point to any discussion.
“I use the word respect. It’s huge in the Lakota world. The Lakota people have to feel like you respect them,” Pommersheim said.
He believes governments need to find more areas to cooperate to solve shared issues.
“I try to impress upon my students that good lawyering is often times finding the zones where you can cooperate and people can get along. That’s an important legal skill to have,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Pommersheim is hopeful about the future.
“You can’t escape history but I think slowly but surely there is more good faith on both sides and more and more people on the tribal and state level know more about Indian law,” he said. “Indian law has become more important. We offer more than just a mandatory course. And South Dakota is the only state in the country where Indian law is a mandatory question on the bar exam. To me, that’s quite significant.”
As for what Pommersheim thinks of his own role in the history of Indian law in South Dakota and his recent commendation by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, he was reticent.
“When I first came to Indian country, I remember going to one of the first graduations and being amazed to witness and experience the generosity of a give away,” he said. “I was called forward to receive a star quilt by the family of one of the students. It was an incredibly powerful experience.”
“It’s not an award. In the Lakota way, you don’t give awards. They honor you. I think there’s a lot in the honoring that goes unsaid. There’s a tribe, a town, a community that appreciates what you’ve done,” Pommersheim said.
“It’s hard to put into words, but words aren’t really needed. I felt it very deeply.”