By |Published On: March 1st, 2021|Categories: University Communications|

Patricia Zell, JD, is a Member of the Fielding Board of Trustees and serves as Secretary of the Board. She is a partner in Zell & Cox Law, P.C., A Native Law Practice Group, addressing the needs and concerns of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.  Prior to entering the private practice of law, Patricia served for 25 years as Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Pablo Morales, interviewed Trustee Zell about her career.

Can you share your work with Native Americans?

I worked in the U.S. Senate for 25 years — for most of my Senate career, I served as the Chief Counsel and Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

In the 1930’s, Congress authorized an assessment of Federal-Indian policy which resulted in the Merriam report.  There was no subsequent comprehensive study of Federal-Indian policies until the 1970s, when the U.S. Congress authorized another evaluation of United States’ policy as it related to American Indians and other Native Americans, and established the American Indian Policy Review Commission. The Commission was led by eleven Commissioners, which included five Native American leaders, and six members of the House of Representatives.  The Commission’s work was conducted by eleven task forces whose charge was to evaluate the relationship between the Federal government and tribal governments across the country.

I served on the Task Force on Tribal Government, and in developing a comprehensive review of Federal policy as it affected tribal governments and their citizens, Task Force members traveled across Indian country to interview tribal government leaders and tribal citizens.

Once all the task forces had completed their reports to the Commission, I was asked to be part of a team that assumed responsibility for writing the Commission’s Final Report to the U.S. Congress.  The Commission’s Final Report to the Congress was also sent to every tribal government in the United States.  The recommendations contained in the Final Report served as an “action list” to address the legal and political relationship between American Indian tribal governments and the Federal government in contemporary times. Subsequently, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives with the goal of implementing the Commission’s recommendations.

The United States Congress voted to enact all but one of the Commission’s recommendations. The Congressional action provided support for the Federal policy of Indian Self-Determination first articulated by President Richard Nixon.  Moreover, Congress built upon that policy by enacting the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

The policy and the laws enacted to carry out that self-determination policy ultimately made a positive difference in Indian country, and tribal governments increasingly became involved in the formulation of Federal Indian policy and especially, the development of Federal legislation in furtherance of the United States’ trust responsibility for Indian lands and resources.

After the Commission report was completed and submitted to Congress, I was asked to serve on the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.  I began my work on the Committee as a professional staff member.  My educational background was in psychology, and after a time, I could see that I needed to be more well versed in the law, so I while I maintained my work on the Committee, I also studied law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.  Upon graduation from Georgetown University Law Center, I was promoted to the position of a Staff Attorney on the Committee.  Thereafter, I appointed to serve as the Chief Counsel and Staff Director of the Committee.

What were some of your memorable experiences?

I collaborated with the tribal leaders on several bills that were enacted into law, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Senators from different political affiliations worked together to garner support for the enactment of tribal legislation, not only in the areas of health care and self-determination policy, but also in economic development (one of which was the enactment of Federal law formally authorizing gaming on tribal lands).

Thereafter, we began to work with the Governors of states who sought a role for the states in the regulation of Indian gaming.  In some instances, this was the first time Governors had expressed a desire to actively engage in initiatives affecting Native Americans. In addition, in so doing, there came a “sea change” in attitudes and efforts based on those changed attitudes.  Tribal leaders came forward to advocate for economic, health, and educational support for the tribes on reservations. To have experienced this sea change was extraordinary and remains preciously memorable to me.

The Indian Self-Determination policy meant that tribal governments were to be consulted in the formulation of legislation and Federal policy, before the Congress could proceed with the enactment of laws affecting Indian country.  And it turned out that the more the Congress consulted with tribal governments, the better the legislation was when tribal leaders played an increasingly important and significant role in assuring the integrity and future effectiveness of Federal laws affecting Indian country.

What do you look forward to this year?

Native Americans believe every person is a spiritual being. As we progress into the future, I hope more people will recognize the values of spirituality, as well as other Native American values, such as respect, honor, empathy, and appreciation of diversity.

I look forward to the day when more people embrace the qualities of collaboration, kindness, caring, and for all of us to realize that we can find at least one common value that we share.

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