Written by: Matthew Fletcher
Primary Source : Turtle Talk, May 31, 2019
I met Frank Pommersheim in Rapid City, South Dakota in 2004, a few months before I was to begin teaching law students at North Dakota.
We were presenting at a pipeline program for Native high school and college students, trying to show them that they could go to law school, too. Frank was to conduct a mock law school class, teaching Johnson v. McIntosh and showing them the Socratic method.
Know that I never took Federal Indian Law in law school. And so I had never even seen an Indian law class before.
I learned that a Frank Pommersheim class is an incredible performance. His deep voice seemed to both calm the students and command their attention. I was mesmerized. I had read Johnson v. McIntosh for my law school property class and wrote a short article about that experience, but listening to Frank work, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about that case. Frank had total command of the material. He deftly used the Socratic method — on kids, no less — and guided them through one of the most difficult cases in the canon just by calmly asking questions. By the end, these teenagers knew the foundations of American property law. And how those foundations rested on the tired and broken backs of Indian people. They looked inspired, inspired to climb the hill and use the law to take it all back.
I know I did.
I also knew I had no business teaching a law school class. I knew nothing about Johnson v. McIntosh. I knew nothing about how to teach. Before I got to Grand Forks, I had a lot of work to so. My first Indian law class was taught by Frank Pommersheim, and I am still trying to become a teacher as good as he was that day.
But I knew Frank Pommersheim before that. I had been a lawyer for seven years before I left practice to become a law teacher. I read Indian law articles voraciously while in practice. Because I had not taken Indian law in law school, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Frank Pommersheim was my Indian law professor.
Everywhere I turned for guidance on an Indian law topic, Frank’s work was there. Trying to show to state lawyers why a tribe might not want to go to state court on a water law issue? Frank collected cases showing state courts were inhospitable to tribal claims. Trying to explain the tribal court exhaustion doctrine to business partners of the tribal enterprise? Frank wrote the book on the tribal court exhaustion doctrine. Trying to learn about tribal customary and traditional understandings of due process? Frank wrote tribal court opinions using Lakota custom and tradition to interpret the due process clause of the Indian Civil Rights Act.
When I began my law teaching career, I needed to find an identity for my scholarship. Was I going to focus on tribal economic development, Indian gaming, taxation, and the like? Was I going to focus on tribal environmental and natural resources law? Was I going to write about cultural property? No. I liked thinking about tribal courts and I liked thinking about the Supreme Court.
I decided to become like Frank Pommersheim.
I believe I picked the best role model. His scholarship on tribal courts and the Supreme Court is the best there ever was on those subjects. It was direct and to the point. And it was correct. Frank sees through the technocratic writing of the Supreme Court on the first reading. He gets there before anyone else does and sits patiently waiting for everyone to catch up. Frank made it seem easy when it was anything but.
A few years back, Frank created a website to house all of the tribal court opinions he had written. I knew about a bunch of them. The Crazy Horse malt liquor case. The Saginaw Chippewa disenrollment case. The Long Family Land and Cattle Company case. Dollar General. But the sheer number of opinions blew me away. An entire academic career could be built on reading exclusively from this corpus of tribal law. His impact on the development of tribal law is far beyond anyone two or three other professors. His name appears in nearly every single chapter of my tribal law casebook (I just checked to see), and usually a half dozen times a chapter or more.
I wanted to be a tribal judge so I could be more like Frank Pommersheim.
A while back, I received a poem of Frank’s in the mail titled Buddha Sends a Hunter-Gatherer Poem to Prof. Pomm’s Indian Law Class. I have a binder full of poetry and art Frank has produced. There is a space on my bookshelf next to my green ceramic Buddha with Frank’s books of poems.
The man is amazing. ‘Nuff said.
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