We’ve known for a few days that our great friend and inspirational leader Rina Swentzell had walked on, but we’ve taken a few extra days to collect our thoughts on how to best represent her.
We invited Rina to Michigan State’s annual Indian law conference in 2008 and she was very gracious in accepting our invitation. That year’s conference was dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the Indian Civil Rights Act legislation, and would eventually lead to a volume of edited essays on the Act published in 2012, the misleadingly titled book, The Indian Civil Rights Act at 40.
We knew about Rina from her prior appearances at law school conferences, but mostly from her compelling talk (published as a law review article), “Testimony of a Santa Clara Woman.” The talk remains for us one of the most compelling pieces of legal scholarship, cutting through the theoretical doctrines of law we hold so dear to the muscle and bone of what federal Indian law means to the Indian people it affects. In some ways she might not have understood at the time (although I suspect she might have), her testimony was a powerful and yet gentle rebuke to commentators critical and even supportive of the Supreme Court’s decision in Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, which had held that there was no federal forum to challenge a tribal law that discriminated against on its face against Indian women and their children.
At our 2008 conference, we invited several American Indian women from all over the country to talk about the Martinez decision, its legacy and its impact on their lives — Rina, Eva Petoskey, Rebecca Miles, Francine Jaramillo, and Gloria Valencia-Weber — as well as Catharine MacKinnon, one of the decision’s most critical detractors. To our surprise, all of the Indian women voiced strong support for the decision, despite the outcome. Rina was the center of that discussion. We published the commentaries of the Indian women next to Professor MacKinnon’s paper in the book in 2012.
Rina’s argument, over spirited objections, that the federal courts, even the Supreme Court, was no place to force change on tribal government and tribal law eventually prevailed. In 2014, the people of the Santa Clara Pueblo changed the tribal law in question in Martinez to be more reflective of tribal norms. Rina was a driving force in that tribal political movement.
We are terribly sad to hear of Rina’s passing, but we celebrate what she taught us.