Joseph Morsette inspires American Indian youth to consider law careers


David L. Dodds

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Joseph Morsette inspires American Indian youth to consider law careers

There's no fixed path to the law.

Just ask Joseph Morsette, director of the UND School of Law Native Americans Into Law Program and faculty fellow at the Northern Plains Indian Law Center.

Though most folks follow a standardized map to their legal careers – college then law school through the prescribed hoops – others like Morsette prove there's a less-worn and, sometimes, a much more interesting journey to the coveted Juris Doctor law degree.

Morsette's first "detour" came in the form of an order from John Hoeven following the events of 9/11. Hoeven at the time, 2001, was governor of North Dakota and, by virtue of that role, commander-in-chief of the state's Air National Guard, where Morsette served as a military policeman.

"I was called up during my first year at the UND School of Law and didn't get back to law school full time until 2007," said Morsette, an enrolled citizen of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, from the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana. Morsette had spent part of his childhood in a foster home in the state of Washington.

"My mother gave her three children up for adoption without my father's consent – this was before the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978," said Morsette, a former active duty Air Force military cop and former tribal police officer. During his four years as a federal police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement Services, Morsette patrolled high-crime rate jurisdictions in Montana and Wyoming Indian reservations.

"I averaged 300 miles per shift," said Morsette, whose father also was a cop in the Marine Corps.

Throughout his early experiences, including law enforcement, Morsette learned a special appreciation for the law and figured at some point he'd go to law school.

"But I didn't know it at that time, you needed to go to college first," said Morsette, whose father, a tribal prosecutor, also had a great respect for the law. So he studied the basics and graduated from Stone Child Community College in Montana and got his bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Great Falls. Then he got accepted to the UND School of Law in 2001 – just before getting the call to duty from the North Dakota governor.

"We were the first unit called and our job on 9/11 was to secure all the airports in North Dakota," said Morsette, who served for a time as a tribal judge for the Chippewa-Cree Tribe. In 2009, Morsette completed his UND law degree. Shortly afterward, UND School of Law Dean Kathryn Rand offered him the position of director of the Native Americans Into Law (NAIL) Program and Northern Plains Indian Law Center Faculty Fellow.

As director of the NAIL program, Morsette spends most of his time reaching out to American Indian high school students in the region. He also works closely with the four tribal colleges in North Dakota and four in Minnesota to "build up the pipeline" for future American Indian law students.

It's all about student success, said Morsette, who graduated from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law with a Master of Laws in Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy.

"We provide academic support to all American Indian and Alaska Native students, mentorship opportunities, and professional and social events through UND School of Law Chapter of the Native American Law Student Association," he said.

The program has a distinguished history with 45 students receiving NAIL funding to date, including 16 currently enrolled in the program.

"We got started 10 years ago with former Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, who earmarked money for NAIL," said Morsette, who, in addition to his jobs at UND, also is an appellate judge for the White Earth Reservation, Mahnomen, Minn.

"I do that job by email--they send me cases to review," he said. "I am serving a one year appointment, renewable at the end of the contract year."

An aim of the NAIL program, Morsette notes, is to recruit promising American Indian and Alaska Native students and train them to be effective attorneys.

"No one in the program is forced to study federal Indian law or tribal law – our first priority is to educate effective and knowledgeable attorneys," Morsette said. The program provides academic support and scholarships to its students.

In addition, Morsette notes, the UND School of Law is home to – among other American Indian law-related programs – the Northern Plains Indian Law Center to assist tribal governments. That organization addresses legal issues affecting tribal lands and members, and promotes diversity within the legal profession by increasing recruitment and retention of American Indian law students.

The Center is a clearinghouse for American Indian legal materials and provides a forum for discussing and resolving legal issues confronting Indian tribes, the states and the federal government. It will also support tribal advocacy training programs. Among the Center's programs are the Northern Plains Tribal Judicial Training Institute, the Native American Law Project, Tribal Environmental Law Project, and the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy.

David Dodds

University and Public Affairs writer

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