Frank Pommersheim Symposium — Angela Riley

I’m not certain of the first time I met Frank, but one of my earliest memories of him is from an Indian law mentoring event at Lewis and Clark Law School, probably around the year 2005. That event, which included other luminaries in the field, was organized by Bob Miller to identify and mentor junior scholars. (I was so inspired by the event, in fact, I copied it years later at UCLA). That symposium was undoubtedly one of the turning points in my career. I was a junior scholar, and, while I had benefited from some professional guidance, I had not received much mentoring around being an Indian Law professor to that point. At that meeting, in particular, I recall I was working out some new ideas that would ultimately turn into my (Tribal) Sovereignty and Illiberalism piece and aid in securing my tenure.  I had not yet figured out how to really refine my ideas, and I remember presenting them in sort of a muddle. Instead of harsh criticism, however, the senior colleagues gathered there were encouraging and thoughtful, while pushing for better, clearer ideas, crisper arguments, and deeper thinking.

Frank made an impression on me then, one that has stayed with me. I recall very clearly Frank’s tall, quiet way. His very deep voice, his stylish Western vest, his humble and unassuming demeanor. He had a way about him: earnest and kind, but always with a quiet humor percolating just beneath the surface. I was wowed and intimidated by him in those days, until eventually I found my footing and we became peers and, later, friends. When he published Broken Landscape, I poured through it. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a review of the book, which Matthew has graciously agreed to reprint below.  That review highlighted, among the many things I admired about Frank’s excellent book, his clear optimism and sense of hope.  As I wrote in 2011:

Broken Landscape is a comprehensive, beautifully crafted, ambitious work that courageously breaks from the swarm of contemporary critique of the Supreme Court’s Indian law jurisprudence. From my vantage point, the most promising thing about Broken Landscape is that it is a beginning, not an end.

For this and other reasons, I still assign it every time I teach my Good Native Governance seminar, introducing students at UCLA, Harvard, and Montana to Frank’s insights.

From that point, Frank became a trusted colleague. I moderated the panel at Fed Bar when he discussed the ideas – along with other scholarly giants, Carole Goldberg and Rebecca Tsosie — and I have referred students to his work countless times. Though I love Broken Landscape, in my view, Frank’s greatest impact is the work he did with and for tribal courts, leaving a truly profound imprint on Indian country. So when he sent me Tribal Justice: Twenty -Five Years as a Tribal Appellate Justice a few years later and asked me to blurb it, I was honored.  I remember the plane I was on, flying from Los Angeles to Oklahoma, when I read it. And my words that appear on the back cover are truly from the heart:

Only a poet could so seamlessly intertwine memoir, practical how-to, and grand vision in one remarkable book about law and life in Indian country. Tribal Justice is deeply compelling, taking the reader on a more than quarter-of-a-century ride through an extraordinary career devoted to tribal law and the people from which it springs.

I have to say, I felt a little forlorn that Frank did not allow an event to celebrate his greatness and his mark on Indian country. So I was delighted and honored when Matthew told me he would be putting this incredible collection together on Turtle Talk and asked if I want to contribute. I jumped at the chance.

Though there are volumes of things one could say to honor Frank, I’ll say this. Frank is a poet, a dreamer, a visionary, a teacher, an intellectual, a pragmatist, and a friend. But of all of his remarkable qualities, I have probably been most influenced by one characteristic that stands out above all others to me. That is respect.  As his entire career – and certainly his work on tribal courts – reflects, Frank holds enormous respect for the world around him, for his place on the planet in relation to other living things, and, most of all, for Indian people. In conversation and in his writing, Frank always speaks of Indian people, of reservation life, of tribal justice systems, of indigenous (and other) cultural and spiritual commitments, with the deepest respect. In my experience, that is the foundation for understanding and connection in this oftentimes fragmented and disassociated world that keeps us so lacking in empathy and gratitude. Frank taught respect by showing respect.

Like Broken Landscape, this chapter of Frank’s journey undoubtedly is a beginning, not an end. I will follow that journey with rapt attention. And I extend my deep respect to Frank and thank the Creator who made him. Jagenagenon.

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