From UWT to New Mexico: One Student’s Journey to Becoming a Tribal Lawyer

U.S. citizens often conflate November with Thanksgiving and turkey dinners, but for millions of American Indians, the month provokes painful memories of colonization and genocide.

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush declared November as “American Indian Heritage Month” to acknowledge these historical traumas. More recently, at least ten U.S. cities—including Seattle and Olympia—have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.

Renaming a day or month to honor Indigenous peoples does not address the myriad of cultural, political, legal, and economic challenges tribes face today. However, it does remind us to shine a light on American Indian, Alaska Native, and First Nations individuals who are doing amazing work on behalf of their communities.
With that in mind: meet UW Tacoma alumnus, Sean Distor.

Distor is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, and graduated from UWT last December with a Bachelor’s in psychology. He gravitated towards psychology, he says, as a way to understand his lifelong struggles with identity.

At four days old, Distor was adopted by a white mother and Filipino father, despite legislation—the Indian Child Welfare Act—that makes it illegal to remove children from their native tribes.

According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the act was drafted in 1978 to “protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” This was a direct response to our nation’s dark history of forcing Native children into residential boarding schools.

Beginning in the late 1800s, the U.S. government decided it was in Native children’s “best interest” to receive a Western- and Christian-based education so they could become a part of “civilized” white society. Officials infiltrated tribal communities without warning or consent, loaded children into their cramped trucks and planes, and took them hundreds of miles from their loved ones to live in schools that were threatening and strange.

Army Captain Richard H. Pratt founded the first residential boarding school, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in 1879, using a model he’d developed for prisoners of war.

There, school officials punished students for speaking their traditional languages, forced students to perform military-like drills for hours on end, made even the youngest children complete back-breaking labor, and beat anyone who stepped a toe out of line. Sexual abuse and death rates were incredibly high in these schools, but no tactic was too extreme so long as white Americans could, as Captain Pratt boasted, “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Within 30 years of Pratt founding the Carlisle School, the U.S. government erected over 500 more schools across the country. It would take a century before the schools were finally abolished, in the 1970s and 80s.

This part of our nation’s history is salient in Distor’s mind as he reflects on his own experience being forcibly removed from his tribe. “I did not grow up immersed in my tribal culture as I should have been,” he says. He wasn’t given the opportunity.

Distor didn’t find out about his heritage until, at the age of 22, he looked at his adoption papers and saw that his biological mother was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.

“I had tried to search for my mom starting when I was 18, but she doesn’t use computers and lived in a small town in South Dakota, so my searches never turned anything up,” he says.

In an odd twist of fate, Distor ended up reconnecting with the woman when he found out that his best friend’s girlfriend knew his cousin. “They were friends from high school,” he says, “and when I was talking about what little I knew about my biological mom, her name and our tribe, she put it together and called my cousin.”

A little investigative work turned into the opportunity to meet his birth mother—and learn the identity of his birth father—for the first time.

When Distor was born in 1989, his biological father was stationed in South Korea. Distor’s mother did not know how to contact him, so he never knew the boy existed until Distor contacted him as an adult.

Of his birth mother, he says “I don’t think she realized how her decision of giving me up for adoption would affect her life going forward. She never had any other children.”

He says their initial contact was “weird,” because he didn’t know what to say, but they now talk over the phone once a month.

After spending stretches of time in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Guam with his adoptive family, Distor moved to Washington State in 2008, where he got his Associate’s degree at Bellevue College. He transferred to UW Tacoma in 2012 and graduated with a psychology degree two years later.

After graduation, Distor travelled 1,400 miles to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend the Pre-Law Summer Institute at the American Indian Law Center. He says the program condenses the first semester of law school into a rigorous two-month (May to July) program, where students must take classes and complete coursework “all day long” if they want to be successful.

“It was completely different than anything I’d ever done before,” he says. But as far as preparing him to understand court cases and consume large amounts of information, the experience was invaluable.

Distor is now a full-time student at the University of New Mexico School of Law, slated to graduate with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree and a certificate in Indian Law in 2018.

Although he doesn’t yet have a post-graduate career in mind, he wants to study Indian Law so that he can “help be a solution to the problem” and protect Native peoples—especially foster children—from legal exploitation.

He would like to thank his mentor, UWT professor Dr. Michelle Montgomery, for “pushing him in the right direction,” and credits his time at UWT for preparing him for his law school journey.

Courtesy of Sean Distor

Courtesy of Sean Distor

Cover Art By Anna K. Fern

Cover Art By Anna K. Fern

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