TRAILBLAZING: The First Lawyer of the Snoqualmie Tribe

By Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy

This week I had the honor to interview Autumn Liner-Sanders who is the first lawyer of the Snoqualmie Tribe. Autumn is a graduate of Seattle University School of Law. She currently serves as a Commissioner on the Snoqualmie Gaming Commission. The Snoqualmie (pronounced "Snow- qualm- me") Tribe consists of approximately 500 Native Americans from the Puget Sound region of Washington State. Currently the Snoqualmies are fighting to protect sacred Indian land which is part of the beautiful Snoqualmie Falls.

To learn more about the Save Snoqualmie Falls movement, click here:

Congratulations on being the first lawyer of the Snoqualmie tribe! Can you tell me what that means to you?

Truthfully, it is kind of hard. You don’t have another attorney to teach you or lead you. You are blazing your own trail. As an attorney, people take you at your word and believe you, it is a great  responsibility. 

It took me a little while to realize that being an attorney had this effect on people but I do not want people to think that I should run the tribe just because I have a license to practice law. When I would speak persuasively at our Tribal meetings I began to notice that a lot of people would be on board with whatever I was saying. However, when I spoke to them individually I noticed often times they could not articulate a reason for agreeing with me. 

This may be difficult to understand from the perspective of the mainstream culture in the United States. In the Indian culture, We are a People. Every member of the Tribe is an element and reflection  of the Tribe, we are not just any one person. It is important that every member of our tribe honor our community. For these reasons, I have to be very careful because I do not want the fact that I am a lawyer, which is the American culture side of myself, to overshadow or undermine who I am as a member of my community.

I notice that you use the words "Indian" and "Native American." Do you have a preference?

Both words are wrong. “Indian” is wrong because we are not from India. "Native American" is more correct but still not right. "Native" has a savage connotation. American usually is used for people living the United States, which does not fit either because we are not from the United States even though we are from the American continent. The best route is to call someone by his or her tribe. If we know each other, we call each other by the tribe we are from. For example, I am Snoqualmie. That is more correct that saying that I am Native American or Indian. 

Tell us about your job as a Snoqualmie Casino Commissioner. 

I sit on the commission with two other commissioners. It is our job to ensure the Casino is abiding by the Federal laws, our State Compact agreement, and Tribal law and code. Functionally, we review and write a lot of internal policies and procedures in our pursuit of assured compliance. Every person and entity that does business with the Casino is extensively background checked and then licensed by us to do business with the Casino. We even hold hearings regarding issuing or rescinding licenses because any action on a Gaming license, like your bar license, affects all your future licenses and employment opportunities. My co-workers are inspiring people and I truly love being a commissioner. 

What challenges did you face in becoming an attorney? 

We are a generation that still has grandparents and great grandparents who suffered horrors during the boarding school and termination era. Our grandparents were forced by the US government to attend boarding schools and were traumatized. Rape and sexual abuse of Indian children was common place, some even ending in murder. They were beaten and abused, told being Indian was something that could be cured like it was a disease, as if being who you are is a disease. The goal was to force assimilation and that started with removing things like our language. Our grandparents were beaten if they spoke their native languages. Our grandparents came to understand that "If you go to school - you die."  Even if you are not physically dead, your culture is murdered and thus your identity and sense of self dies too. Our parents suffered the consequences of that traumatization. Our parents' generation withstood segregation and racism. They paved the path for us so that it is smoother for my generation. 

For my generation, we don’t approach school the same way as our ancestors were forced to. We are essentially integrated in the schools now. However, we get this education that is a wolf in sheep's clothing. You go to school and learn the ways of the greater American society and culture, but in your heart you are still in your tribal culture. You are in two places and two skins at the same time. It is hard to know where you identify with most, and where you fit in culturally. Tribal is about community and American is more individualistic. We have to remember where we came from and be very conscious to not lose the tribal connection. For the Snoqualmie tribe this is especially true since our recognition was restored in 1999. It is a day I will never forget because it was my 18th birthday and the year that I graduated high school. 

My law degree has given me the great opportunity to connect with a lot of members of my Tribe and encourage them to get more education. That encouragement includes seeing the education through Tribal focused lenses, which means not to become assimilated and lose themselves but to help the Tribe succeed in the world around us. Most Natives who have advanced degrees, statistically speaking, do not go back to their own reservation or tribes to work and impart their knowledge, which is sad. That means that part of them is lost, and the community has lost someone too. A success for one of us is a success for all of us, and a loss of one is a loss for all. I wanted to remain connected with my Tribe. I want to help all members of my tribe succeed.

You mentioned that your "recognition was restored." Could you explain what that means?

In 1953, the Federal Government said that if you don’t have land or certain things you aren’t a tribe. It was a difficult time for Native Americas. During the Treaties Era the Federal Government forced tribes together and made "conglomerate" tribes. Some tribes refused to join a conglomerate/reservation because they wanted to maintain their cultural identity, heritage, and land they lived on since time immemorial. However, many were not given a choice at all. Our tribal members at that time mostly refused to be a part of the conglomerate reservation. We existed in 1953 and had existed for hundreds of years, but because we would not join the Federal government's conglomerate/reservation, they refused to recognize us. This is like someone walking by you and saying, “I see you but I refuse to recognize that I do.” 

As you can imagine, this had a devastating effect on our people. The invading European culture believed in land ownership and possession. We believe that we cannot own anything that belongs to God. As such, we did not have land parcels for anyone to own. During the Allotment Period, the Federal Government divided land that was reserved to tribes by way of treaty into parcels and gave them to individual Native Americans, and then whatever was not given to someone was considered excess and sold off to non-tribal people. The government wanted to assimilate Native Americans by trying to turn us into farmers. Most of the grounds that they gave Tribal people were not suited for farming.  Many Native Americans had to sell their lands out of necessity to be able to provide basic necessities for their families. Many Snoqualmies had to leave the tribe in search of work and resources. Many of us worked fields in the state. My family was given trust land during the Allotment Period, which fortunately we still have to this day. However, my great-grandfather had many children, and all of them had many children, and then they had children (my generation) - so the land exists but the interests and claims to it are many.

For decades our families have been fighting to stay together, to maintain our culture and to be re-recognized. When we were restored, we were given a small amount of reservation land and that is where the casino is. As a tribe we have property that we are trying to get put into trust so that we would have more reservation land for things like housing and schools. It will take years for it to become trust land, but when it does we can develop it so that we can live on the reservation together. Having a reservation where we can live together as a community is crucial in maintaining our bond as a tribe. I have met people from other tribes who have complained about the poverty on their reservations and the housing there, but I always think, "At least you were together. At least you had that connection. We are still fighting to regain that." 

Did your tribe do something to celebrate you when you became a lawyer?

Unfortunately our tribe is still regaining tribal resources, and financial resources in particular since we are still working to rebuild after losing our federal recognition. Our education department has only been able to be actively supportive to all members for about the last 4 years. About 4 years ago is when they launched a back to school celebration and program, and now it is also used as an event to give recognition for graduates. 

What parallels, if any, can you draw between the Native American struggle and the current struggle immigrants are facing in the United States?

Our situations are substantially different, as our people faced mass extinction and our current issue is trying to recover our heritage, culture, and race. However, the underpinnings of social and racial justice and awakening are similar. Native Americans and undocumented immigrants are fighting a battle of misinformation. For example, you hear a lot of negative rhetoric about casinos being on Indian reservations. A lot of the talking points are just plain wrong. This is akin to the incorrect notion of an "anchor baby" where the media has filled the country with false information that many people have accepted as fact. Underlying much of the negative talk about Native Americans and undocumented immigrants is racial bias, racism, classism, and Eurocentric ways of thinking and being. 

How do you see yourself using your law degree within your tribe?

Because of our struggle for re-recognition, we are in an era of being a lot more political. As an attorney, this has impacted me. I am at the right age to start stepping up into leadership. For us Natives, there is a dance of living in the past while at the same time realizing you can’t live in the past and that dance can be difficult to navigate politically, tribally, and spiritually. My legal training can help my tribe during this important time in our history.

Ironically, the law degree has taught me to be more quiet and to listen. You would assume I would jump to the front. I realized that if I let my legal teaching lead and that voice to come forward, that would not honor my culture because my culture didn’t make me a lawyer, the American culture did. I want to make sure that I am honoring my culture and not jumping too quickly and not having the loudest voice all the time. My community and my Elders have wisdom. I do not have all of the answers, despite my legal training.  

Being a lawyer helped me find a common ground between the two worlds in which I live. Maybe it is because of the state/federal/tribal trifecta in which us Natives live. Understanding the law has made me understand that interaction. At the end of the day, we all live in the same space and want to make it peaceful. This is the land that we live on. Let's honor that land and one another.

About your Ally in Life, Business and Law:

Alexandra "Ally" Kennedy is a national award-winning attorney and the founder of AMIGA Lawyers and Alexandra Kennedy Immigration Law.. After becoming a mother, and in a matter of 3 months, Ally transformed her practice from earning in pesos to earning 6-figures and she is passionate about teaching attorneys how they can do the same. Ally empowers lawyers to be the CEOs of their law firms with her weekly blog, webinars, and conferences where she teaches step-by-step how to do the work they love while running a profitable legal business. Ally lives outside of Seattle with her partner and their 5 children.