Our Stories

Tribal Judge Keeps Counsel Under the Big Sky

Lisa Adams JD'90 lived in a downtown studio over Randy's Wine Shop when she attended law school at Willamette. At night she peered down through the skylight to see Randy and his buddies playing poker over a bottle of wine.

Salem was the smallest town she had ever lived in, with a string of cities -- Chicago, New York, Los Angeles -- behind her, but she liked the small classes and beautiful campus, and found the mix of government people, academics and community residents fascinating.

Adams had landed at Willamette as the result of a coin flip. "I was working as a cashier at a restaurant and flipped a coin one day to decide between law school and an MBA," she says.

"I wasn't into the million dollar salary, but thought law was intellectually challenging and would be a versatile degree. I liked legal research. I never intended to practice."

The woman who serves as interim chief tribal judge on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was introduced to American Indian law in Dean Richardson's Civil Rights course. "I had always gravitated toward civil rights issues," Adams says. "When you read about the tragedies of justice with regard to an entire race of people you think, 'These people have really been wronged.'"

The judge who never meant to practice law never meant to marry, either, but fell for her husband, Mel Adams, an Oglala Sioux, four months out of law school. When she volunteered as an advisor for the Native American Student Council at the University of Washington, the students invited her to a sweat lodge. "I had no idea what a sweat was," she says. She met Mel's mother there, and later, Mel. "I called his mother and he answered the phone and we started talking." When they met, it was love at first sight. "He's really very handsome."

Adams' eclectic career began in Seattle, where she combined her love of writing and law as an editor and journalist for legal publications. She wrote mysteries on the side. "I understood the dualism of being a writer -- live for your art while still being able to pay the bills," she says.

After a five-year stint she moved to the opposite end of the country, living in her grandfather's oversized 1710 house in Newark, N.J., while she worked as a city prosecutor, preparing cases for police trials. Her observation of lawyers and police officers and her legal practice provided fodder for short stories and a published suspense novel, Bound Justice.

But her life in Newark came to a halt after the Twin Towers went down in Manhattan; she lost 26 work friends. "Afterward, I couldn't stand to be there," she says. "It was hard to be around officers and know which ones were missing." The police officers had not only inspired the characters in her novel, they were family.

She returned to the West Coast, taking a job as senior attorney for the Yurok Tribe in northern California, where she and her attorney husband lived in an isolated redwood forest and ate the best smoked salmon of their lives. "The Yurok are people of the river, and salmon is a staple."

Last year an Indian Country Today newspaper ad caught her eye. Husband Mel's tribe, the Oglala Sioux, had a vacancy for an interim tribal judge in South Dakota. Adams applied, was interviewed by 19 tribal members on live radio -- the Voice of the Lakota Nation -- and first heard she got the job on her car radio.

"I was absolutely thrilled," Adams says. "My husband and I have trekked all over creation, and wound up exactly where we wanted to be." She and Mel both feel a kinship with the landscape and culture of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The 2.8 million acre reservation encompasses seven counties. Tribal members speak Lakota along with English, most homes are still heated by wood stove and people often hitch a ride or walk to get somewhere. Dirt roads disappear in blizzards or rainstorms and temperatures top 105 degrees and bottom out at 30 below.

Old timers pass on the legacy of Sitting Bull and Black Elk, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn has not been forgotten. Nor has the 1973 Wounded Knee incident, where 200 American Indian Movement (AIM) activists had a 71-day standoff with FBI agents and the National Guard to protest abysmal reservation conditions -- including lack of running water, electricity, sewer and phone service. "I couldn't have landed in a more politically volatile place," Adams says, "but I love my job."

In spite of continued lack of phone service and electricity on much of the reservation, Adams has approached her new position with vitality and hope. "I can actually help strengthen the sovereignty of the tribe by applying the law," she says. Adams oversees all the courts -- criminal, civil and juvenile -- and the caseload is as long as the horizon. She has become well versed in reservation law, from domestic relations, elder abuse and inheritance to gaming and school board code to water rights, timber harvesting and animal control.

Even simple cases are often complex. "For a simple restraining order, we may have 25 people on each side show up," she says. "Making decisions in criminal matters is always a no-win for the decision-maker from a popularity standpoint." But the challenge of presiding over difficult cases is balanced by the best part of her job -- performing marriages.

Away from work, Adams still writes, and she and Mel hike, ride mountain bikes and horses, and attend powwows and rodeos.

At night they look out from their butte-top home. Ponderosa pine ridges and meadowlark prairies roll away in every direction, eventually merging into the badlands and Black Hills. Thunderstorms sweep across the broad sky, lifting the cottonwood leaves along the road, and the air smells like grasses. On their five acres at the end of a dirt road, they keep company with elk, mountain lions, wild turkeys and eagles.

"Each evening when we come home, we watch an unobstructed sunset set aglow an endless expanse of sky," Adams writes. "The sheer number of colors I have seen takes my breath away. When the sun dips behind the buttes, the coyotes come out and sing their songs in the night air. The porcupines and raccoons emerge, foraging in the undergrowth. I love this earth. I really do.

"For someone who never intended to practice law, I ended up in some interesting places," Adams says. "Karma happens. My hope is to continue to be blessed with work where I can help people.

"I want to say thank you to the school that gave me the life I have. Or as they say in Lakota, Wopila, thank you from the heart."