Alumna combats violence against native women through tribal law reform
Chaos. That’s how Sarah Deer, College alumna and MacArthur ‘genius’ grant winner, describes her typical day.
Mentoring students, counseling rape victims and fighting to close cracks in the legal system fill her days. At night, she unwinds with her husband Neal Axton (whom she met at KU law), their Beagle/Chihuahua mix and some mind-numbing, Netflix bingeing. Her favorite shows include “The Fall,” “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” and her not-so-guilty pleasure “Project Runway.”
Deer graduated in 1996 from the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences with a B.A. in women’s studies and philosophy and in 1999 with a J.D from the School of Law. She is now a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and an advocate for reform of tribal laws, especially those concerning violence against Native American women. She was instrumental in helping pass protections for native women including the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013.
The MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius” grant, is an unrestricted $625,000 stipend paid over five years to recipients who have shown, according to their website, “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
Deer says this newfound financial flexibility will allow her to be more creative in her ongoing work with tribal law and native women. She can use the funds in whatever ways she sees fit, without having to draft proposals or seek permission for projects. She plans to travel with the funds, help others come together in collaboration and finally pay off those student loans.
“That’s one of the things the MacArthur is designed to do, to give you an unlimited opportunity to be creative,” she said.
It will be a change of approach for Deer, who is used to creating under pressure and deadlines, much like the contestants on “Project Runway.”
“It’s trash TV but it’s so much fun,” Deer said. “There’s a lot of really compelling things about the way the creative process is cultivated. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fashion designer or a writer. You have to produce.”
Deer also plans to continue teaching, a part of her work that she truly enjoys. She says the best part about the job is when her students pass the bar examination.
“It’s really fulfilling because now they can go out and fight the good fight,” Deer said.
Working with rape, domestic violence and child abuse, Deer often gets asked how her work affects her emotions. Deer said people assume the job is very sad and depressing, when in reality it can be very inspiring.
“It’s a dichotomy. The very deep sadness is countered by the very profound happiness. People think it’s depressing to work on rape; I don’t experience that,” Deer said.
In the last five years, Deer has had a hand in making great legal strides for restoring sovereignty and reforming legal processes for native tribes. New legislation allows tribes to prosecute non-Indians for crimes on tribal lands and to convict guilty parties with punishments longer than the previous one-year sentences. Before these laws, hundreds of cases of physical and sexual abuse were falling through the cracks of the legal system. Tribes were unable to prosecute non-Indians for these crimes while states were unable to prosecute crimes on tribal lands. Dangerous abusers had a loophole.
“Doing work around oppression is very tiring,” Deer said. “People don’t want to hear what you have to say because it’s not pleasant. It challenges their privilege so you have to be able to take hits.”
Tribal law is complicated and contradictory and the road to reform is difficult. However, the great strides and impacts it has on real cases and strong women make it worth the fight. On difficult days, Deer says she thinks about her grandfather and remembers the words of wisdom he always shared with her: “Roll with the punches.”