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Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Urges Native Americans To Debunk Their Own Myths

OU School of Law

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to the University of Oklahoma last week to speak at the OU School of Law. One of the last questions came from a Choctaw student who greeted her in Choctaw.

"Halito, (words in Choctaw) yakoke. As Professor Tai said, my name is Kelbie Kennedy and I'm a proud citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma,” said Kennedy. “I am so glad that you are preserving your native language. It’s so important for people in your generation to do that, thank you for attempting and succeeding obviously!” Sotomayor said.

Sotomayor surprised everyone by going out into the audience among the students to answer pre-selected questions and take pictures with everyone who could squeeze into the frame. Choctaw law student, Kelbie Kennedy, whose greeting in Choctaw was warmly received by Justice Sotomayor, continued with her questions.

“Being in Oklahoma we're definitely in the heart of Indian Country and of course you are at one of the top law schools with one of the top Indian law programs in the nation. As a proud Native American citizen, would you please share your sense of some the challenges that you and other members of the court face when dealing with Indian law issues,” Kennedy said.

Credit Kelbie Kennedy
OU Law student Kelbie Kennedy and Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“Hmmm...You know I recently wrote an opinion where I spoke very directly to an issue that I don't think my colleagues recognize and a lot of Americans don't recognize,” Sotomayor said. “I think there is a popular image that Native Americans are rich because of gambling, because of gaming. We hear about the massive amounts that are made by some tribes and think that means that every tribe has their economic problems solved.”

“I think it only takes a little bit of travel and exposure to know that it’s not the entire Indian nation that does gaming, that there is massive poverty among many, many tribes. That the tribe health issues are decimating certain tribal populations, that the level of education, that the quality of education has been compromised in many Indian reservations and among many Indian members,” Sotomayor said.

“I think that popular mythology has made most Americans, a lot of them, very hesitant in extending what is well deserved, and much needed resources, to tribal entities. And so I don't think that that perception doesn't affect my court, and I said that in an opinion recently,” Sotomayor said.

“I felt obligated to write a concurrence pointing that out because of the way the majority was talking, the centers were talking. It is something that Native Americans have to pay attention to and have to debunk because unless you debunk it, I don't think that you're going to be able to persuade a lot of Americans in public opinion and that drives legislation and that drives the responses to your needs and that can drive some of the reaction to legal questions that affect tribes,” Sotomayor said.

The last question was about learning on the job and although not specifically about Indian law, nevertheless drew an answer from Sotomayor that referenced it. “When I got on the Supreme Court we had a lot of Native American issues coming to the court, and as a result of that, because it was an area that I had no prior exposure to, I had to start from the beginning.” Sotomayor said.

“I had to familiarize myself with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence in that area, from its foundation. And I think that probably helps when you're forced to go back to square one completely because I didn't go in with any preconceived notions of our jurisprudence,” Sotomayor said.

“I developed it, my knowledge of Native American law, in my research and thinking about our history in that area. I've actually gone back to the very beginning and tried to understand the principles that drove that jurisprudence through our history,” Sotomayor said.

“It’s given me a reason to disagree with my colleagues in some areas but I think it has been a helpful experience and one that I grew into on the court, not from prior experience.”


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