Building Relationships with Tribal Communities

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Photo of Lora Church

Lora Church, a rising 3L at University of New Mexico School of Law and a 2020 Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC) Student Fellow, recently chatted with Equal Justice Works about her summer of service, and the challenges facing rural and isolated communities.

You described becoming a lawyer as your “second career.” What inspired you to go to law school?

My inspiration to attend law school didn’t happen overnight. It stems from a trajectory of three life-changing experiences.

My first experience occurred while playing kickball as a fifth grader at my elementary school. Before a classmate rolled the ball to me, she made a racial remark about my Navajo identity. Something inside me pushed out the words, “I’m proud, I’m proud!” Thinking back, I believe it was resiliency that moved me to take a stand against my first encounter with racism.

My second experience occurred during my last semester of undergrad. At the time, I worked with the Associate District Judge at the Cherokee County District Court in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There, I overheard one lawyer say to the Judge, “These law school students nowadays can’t even find the Courthouse ….” I interpreted that to mean graduating law school students spent most of their time in academics and less time gaining practical work experience. Based on that, I postponed my law school admissions endeavors and kept myself in the workforce. Since my undergraduate years to the present, which is more than 25 years, I have had the opportunity to serve in health & human direct services and administrative positions with county, state, tribal, nonprofit and university entities; plus I got married, had five children, and earned two Masters degrees!

My final experience sealed the deal in 2017. One of the federal REAL ID requirements to renew a New Mexico’s driver’s license was to have a birth certificate. At the time, my father’s driver’s license was getting close to its expiration, and I learned Navajo Nation had documented three different birth dates for my father. You see, he was born in a Hogan, a one-room home located on the Navajo reservation, and the formalities of recording one’s birth was not readily accessible. He filed a Petition to Change Record with Navajo Nation Family Court to reconcile the multiple birthdates by determining July 8, 1932 as his official birthdate. Within a month, he passed away to the Heavenly realms. By the following month, my mother, siblings, and I were substitute petitioners. The Navajo Judge gave us two choices of laws: follow Navajo traditional/customary law or Navajo Nation Code. If we chose traditional law, the case would be dismissed according to Navajo teachings. If we chose the Navajo Nation Code, we would redirect the focus of our petition to convey how the requested birthdate affects our family. We chose the latter. I spoke carefully to ensure I followed Navajo contemporary law, while still respecting our Navajo traditions. Our Petition was granted. My courtroom experience had intersected four legal jurisdictions of law: federal, state, Navajo Nation Code and Navajo traditional law. I was awestruck to experience four choices of law that impacted our family’s legacy! As I stood outside the courthouse that crisp September morning, I knew it was time to go to law school.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges facing rural and isolated communities?

There is a lack of sustainable programs and services in rural and tribal communities. Sustainability is critical and ought to be an essential component discussed at the program or service design phase. There also ought to be a community-based participatory system in place that invites rural and tribal residents to participate in the planning, implementation and evaluation of the services. It is the community’s contribution that heightens the value-added to the project.

A lack of or limited technology capacity in rural areas remains another challenge. In New Mexico, some tribal and rural communities are tucked inside small canyons, and the WiFi and bandwidth are very weak to sustain on-going internet connection. Therefore, it makes video conferencing services impracticable. Additionally, I think, too many urban organizations remain comfortable in the cities and urban areas, and outreach to rural residents is an “after-thought.” Throughout my career, I have heard urban organization leaders say, “We don’t know how to reach the tribal communities….” I have two suggestions: (1) become willing to step out of one’s comfort zone and visit Native American communities and organizations that are within one’s state or region; and (2) embrace the diversity and richness gained from maintaining ongoing tribal partnerships.

You were hosted by New Mexico Legal Aid, where you spent your summer helping the organization expand its community presence in Native American Nations. Can you tell us a bit more about your project and what a typical day at the organization looked like for you?

There are twenty-three federally recognized tribes, pueblos, and nations in New Mexico. The New Mexico Legal Aid (NMLA) established a partnership with one of the 23 federally-recognized tribes, the Pueblo of Laguna. The NMLA-Laguna Pueblo partnership is an inaugural Low-Income Tax Clinic (LITC) Personal Income Tax Pilot Project for eligible low-income Laguna tribal members who reside on the Pueblo reservation. All tribal and non-tribal services and businesses adhere to the Laguna tribal governance mandates and executive orders, who carry sovereign nation authority since time immemorial. The pilot project implemented a three-prong approach, once the Laguna Governor re-opened its reservation to non-tribal residents, which had been closed for many months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An eligible client underwent a comprehensive COVID-19 safe practices intake process to determine whether they needed to

  1. file their 2019 personal income tax with a tax practitioner;
  2. file a claim for the Economic Impact Payment, aka, “Stimulus Check;” and/or
  3. seek civil NMLA legal services (such as housing, consumer, economic security, domestic violence, etc.).

I worked closely with an Albuquerque-based Tax Attorney and a Project Liaison. The Project Liaison is a Keres-speaking Laguna tribal member and was the clients’ first point of contact. Three days a week, I traveled 116-miles round trip to conduct three client intake appointments per day, and devoted an hour and a half per client. I administered a battery of civil legal screening tools with the clients, created electronic client records in NMLA’s LegalServer database, and made referrals for tax preparation services, and/or legal service referrals to NMLA practice groups. At the conclude of the appointment day, the Project Liaison and I would debrief with our LITC supervising tax attorney.

You spent the summer developing valuable skills and gaining experience providing direct legal services. What specific skills did you hone in on this past summer?

I learned, as well as, enhanced several of my skills sets. I learned more about federal and state tax law and conducted legal research on tax law and rules. I underwent LegalServer training and sought technical assistance. I became a LegalServer database user and applied Legal Services Corporation and NMLA’s policies and procedures to determine clients’ eligibility for NMLA services.

Additionally, I enhance my client interviewing skills by administering a Legal Wellness Survey. This tool helped to guide an initial intake, spot issues and prioritize issues. As part of my Fellowship, I followed tribal consultation processes and adapted our project plan to comply with the Laguna Pueblo Governor’s COVID-19 Executive Order to practice safety measures in all aspects of our direct services with the clients. I also learned to maximize all available tribal communication outlets (e.g. tribal/community newspapers, board-based texts and emails, flyers, Facebook posts, and word of mouth) to reach all tribal resident. Lastly, my interpersonal skills was enriched by working closely with our supervising Tax Attorney and our Project Liaison. The RSLC fellowship was such a rewarding summer legal services experience!

If you are interested in embarking on a summer of service like Lora, apply to the Rural Summer Legal Corps by 11:59 p.m. ET on February 8, 2021. For more information about program eligibility and requirements, please visit here.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow