Campus LifeNews

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.