Kevin K. Washburn, 41, knows why he became a lawyer. During the summer of 1990, after graduating in economics from the University of Oklahoma, he attended a workshop of the University of New Mexico's American Indian Law Center, and it changed his life. "Suddenly I was told it was not only OK but wonderful to be an American Indian," he says. "That was liberating for me."
A member of the Chickasaw Nation, he grew up in small towns in what had earlier been the tribe's reservation. "I did well at school —my mother taught me the Chickasaw work ethic," he says. But rural Oklahoma, with its racial hostilities and its limitations for a young, imaginative man, "was a hard place to be young and American Indian."
Of his stay at the campus in Albuquerque, in a program that has long provided prospective law students with a "boot camp" that mimics the first year of law school, he says: "It was a magical summer. The instructors were very public-spirited, very committed to teaching, and very good at it. I gained my identity as a scholar from them."
On July 1, he will return to New Mexico's law school as a leading scholar and practi tioner of American Indian law. And as its new dean.
Several search-committee members, and eventually the interim dean, Leo M. Romero, persuaded him to apply for the job. "I was not on the dean market," he says. "I've long appreciated being a professor, and being a dean is an unfathomable responsibility."
But benefits came to mind, too, particularly the opportunity to inspire in others the sense of purpose he drew from that 1990 summer program. He called many of New Mexico's law-faculty members —34 full-timers including some former deans —and now can say: "I've long felt a debt to this school, and this job represents my very full and robust commitment to repaying it."
After that summer program, Mr. Washburn enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis's law school and then in his second year moved to Yale Law School, where he edited The Yale Journal on Regulation. A clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit followed. In 1994, an honors program took him to the Department of Justice in Washington, to litigate tribal natural-resource and environmental claims.
From 1997 until 2000, as a federal prosecutor in New Mexico, he worked on cases of violent crime in Indian country. That could be depressing, he says: "People do terrible things when they are without hope." But he relished some aspects of the job: "Bumping along in the desert was certainly great fun," he says of a typical workday. "I was never more interesting at cocktail parties."
In 2000, at only 32, he became general counsel to the National Indian Gaming Commission, an independent federal regulatory agency. But he had begun to think that, as several Yale classmates had become law professors, why couldn't he? He had by that time accumulated plenty of knowledge that would permit him to teach. So, in 2002 he took a position at the University of Minnesota's law school, and then spent the 2007-8 academic year at Harvard Law School as the Oneida Indian Nation Visiting Associate Professor of Law. Last August, he was recruited to the University of Arizona.
In books and articles on gaming and other issues in American Indian life, and in testimony before Congress, he has argued that federal authorities have a "cavalry effect" on prosecutions on reservations: When the Federal Bureau of Investigation sends in agents, tribal members clam up, mindful of a long history of disruptive incursions. Why not defer to more effective tribal courts, he asks.
Although most tribes have court systems, federal law governs more than 300 types of crime in Indian country. So, Mr. Washburn, who is a tribally appointed chief judge of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Court of Appeals of Michigan —his third tribal judgeship —has lobbied hard for new legislation. This year, for the second time, Sen. Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, has introduced the Tribal Law and Order Act, which would carry out changes like the ones Mr. Washburn has recommended.
His are not, certainly, the only ideas contained in the bill, which is expected to win approval this year. Yet Mr. Washburn can say: "It makes me feel like I've achieved some modicum of success in legal academe."
Soon he will be the first American Indian head of New Mexico's School of Law, which has a long tradition of educating Indian lawyers. And he is receiving a warm welcome. The interim dean, Mr. Romero, says Mr. Washburn's presence at the school guarantees the healthy continuation of American Indian-law activities. And while Mr. Washburn says he is not sure he has "any special gifts for deaning," Mr. Romero marks that up to humility: "He brings a lot. His scholarship has got really national attention. He's well regarded as an excellent legal thinker."