When the Lawyer is A Jew, a Woman and a Muscogee American

Prof. Sarah DeerSo often, scholarly inquiries into the lives of Native people focus on the past. Very few books are written about the intellectual lives of Native people or the future of Native people. I would like to be part of developing a field of “Mvskoke Studies”––which would parallel other areas of inquiry such as “American Studies” or “Ethnic Studies.” Mvskoke people are not trapped in the past, yet the literature sometimes suggests so. As a result, the unique contemporary epistemologies and philosophies of Mvskoke people are not fully explicated in the scholarly literature. I have reached out to other Mvskoke scholars in a wide range of disciplines about the development of an anthology exploring our rich intellectual tradition. The project is still in its early stages, but I am encouraged by other Indigenous Studies scholars who have developed similar tribal-specific projects. I have written about the government structures of the Mvskoke people, which provide even more “checks and balances” than the American system––thus strengthening the ability of Mvskoke people to resist tyranny and oppression. I believe that a Mvskoke Studies field will offer lessons and insight to all people interested in equitable societies.

Sarah Deer is a Jewish Native American lawyer and professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Professor Deer has worked to end violence against women to enable tribes to more easily prosecute sexual assault on their land. She’s also the author of four textbooks about tribal law, and in 2014, received a MacArthur Fellowship for her work.

Sadly, like many of our people, Professor Deer’s Jewish heritage was cut.  Her maternal grandfather was Jewish, but he passed away when my mother was thirteen. As a result Sarah’s  mother was raised as a Roman Catholic.  Nevertheless, she credits that heritage with part of her drive for equality.  As a young woman she discovered that the town of her ancestors, Bacharach in Germany, had a deep history lof anti-Jewish violence and murder dating from the 13th century to 1942, when all remaining Jewish people were deported from Bacharach by the Nazis. As a child, ahe  voraciously read and re-read the Diary of Anne Frank,.

Her connection to  Mvskoke hertage is stronger. Dr. Deer is  a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and writes of how the Mvskoke people were subjected to slaughter and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Andrew Jackson.

All this heritage has led Sarah Deer to a career of law and academic scholarship aimed at  protecting victims of physical and sexual abuse in Indian Country by strengthening the corts and the rights of the tribal governments.  This work has allowed her to mediate between sectors within Native communities who disagree on the appropriate role of the U.S. legal system on reservations and on how to most effectively respond to the issue of violence against women.

In spearheading a 2007 Amnesty International report, Maze of Injustice, Deer reframed the problem of sexual violence in Indian Country as an international human rights issue. In addition, she brought Native American leaders, health specialists, and women’s advocates together around the intersection between violence against women and tribal governance, thereby launching widespread efforts to reform federal policies that interfere with the ability of tribes to prosecute offenders.

Deer’s efforts were instrumental in the passage of two landmark pieces of legislation: The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 increases the sentencing power of tribal courts and requires federal district attorneys to provide detailed information to tribal authorities about cases under their jurisdiction that will not be prosecuted. The 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act restores some of the authority that was stripped from tribal governments by Oliphant v. Suquamish (1978), giving tribal courts the power to prosecute non–Native Americans who assault Native spouses or dating partners or violate a protection order on tribal lands. With her current focus on building tribal infrastructure and reinvigorating the rich history of Native Americans’ pre-colonial criminal justice systems as a source for contemporary laws and policies, Deer is profoundly reshaping the landscape of support and protection for Native American women.

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