My Summer Experience Working in Indigenous Law in Washington, D.C.
By Ian Tapu, 2L
This summer, through the generosity of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) and Ka Huli Ao, I had the immense privilege of interning in Washington, D.C. with Akin Gump and the OHA DC Office. In addition to working for the Indigenous arm of a large international law farm and supporting Native Hawaiians in the federal arena, it was also on a more basic level about being a Polynesian man in a major city that largely framed my experiences this summer. I was challenged and uplifted in a way that validated my choice to be in law school and cemented a passion to work for Indigenous and underrepresented communities.
Having only completed my 1L doctrinal classes, my work with the American Indian Law and Policy team at Akin Gump introduced me to the complexities of Federal Indian Law and environmental regulations. More specifically, I conducted legislative research on the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act as well as researched the applicability of the Clean Air Act and Environmental Protection Agency regulations to ensure compliance for client projects. I also conducted research on tribal constitutions, with a focus on comparing different tribal processes for elections and candidate nominations. Probably one of my most meaningful assignments was being able to work one-on-one with a partner on a pro bono case to support a veteran.
In addition to conducting research, I was also heavily involved with policy work. I kept the team updated on hearings and bills affecting Native Americans which included monitoring the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the House Committee on Natural Resources and providing summary reports, depending on client needs. I also attended and reported on the National Indian Gaming Association’s (NIGA) Summer Legislative Summit. The summit included reports and updates from senators and congressmembers on topics such as the Farm Bill, the reorganization of the Department of Interior and sports betting.
In my second internship, I worked with the OHA D.C. office, providing legislative research on issues and bills impacting Native Hawaiians. More specifically, I conducted research on child sex trafficking on the islands, spoke with various leading experts and met with Senator Brian Schatz’s staff members on finding ways OHA and the Senator can partner and support each other. I was also able to attend the Pacific Night at the New Zealand Embassy and later attended a meeting with the Embassy staff and other organizations to brainstorm ways to strengthen the advocacy and education component of the event.
In terms of my own personal growth, my time with OHA inspired me to be more intentional in reaching out to people and organizations. Even though the OHA D.C. office is far from home, its staff understands the importance of community and how community can till the ground for individual, social and political growth. OHA connected me with the Conference on Asian Pacific American Leadership (CAPAL), which provides weekly speaker series for interns on themes related to advocacy, social justice and topics pertinent to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It was through my work with OHA and my interaction with CAPAL that I began to form a cohort of Pacific Islander young professionals in DC. It was important for me to connect with others from similar backgrounds in order to consult, support and empower each other, especially in a city that can be intimidating and overwhelming.
Another component to my summer experience was my participation in the intern lunch series organized by the Native American Bar Association (NABA). Each week NABA coordinated one to two site visits with firms, federal agencies and congressional committees that directly impact or work closely with Indigenous communities. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak with Native professionals and get personal accounts on how the law can be used as a broad tool to advance tribal issues.
So often in our first year of law school, the administration, professors and alumni inscribe into our minds the weight of what it means to be a Richardson lawyer. It wasn’t until this summer, however, that the often repeated mantra began to take shape and make sense. A Richardson lawyer, I’ve come to learn, understands that necessary change occurs incrementally. And equally as important, necessary change occurs through relationship building and treating those around you with a high standard of respect. I was challenged in ways I never knew I would be, and as a result, I grew in ways I never knew I could. I am grateful for the opportunity and am hoping to return to D.C. in some capacity in the future. Summer 2018 was definitely one for the books.