Skip to main content

‘It is incredibly powerful when we see each other’

Elizabeth Anne Reese, Yunpoví, the first Native American faculty member at Stanford Law, is working to shatter invisibilities that she says have been “comfortably the status quo” for far too long.

Elizabeth Reese was 15 and a prospective freshman when she first set foot on the Stanford campus. She was 22 when she visited again, surveying JD programs. But it was years later, still, when she did what “felt like destiny” and finally accepted an offer on the Farm.

Signing employment papers on her 30th birthday, in February 2021, Reese became an assistant professor at Stanford Law, making her the first Native American faculty member at the school.

Reese’s appointment was an overdue accomplishment for the institution and the individual. Led by Professor Greg Ablavsky, SLS has had a growing program in federal Indian law involving multiple courses, research and service opportunities since 2015. And Reese has been drawn to the campus and its vibrant Native community since she first stayed at Muwekma Tah-Ruk as an admit, half a lifetime ago. This time, the stars aligned. 

“When I was thinking about where I might want to become a law professor, Stanford was absolutely the dream,” she said.

“Not only do I have an amazing colleague who’s also an expert in federal Indian law, but there’s an incredible community on campus – faculty, staff, students – welcoming me with open arms. I’m excited to work with them all to keep expanding what we can do.”

‘There’s still so much mythology around Native people’

Reese was born in Nambé Pueblo, a Tewa-speaking tribe in Northern New Mexico, where she lived in a house built by her great-grandparents out of traditional adobe brick.

With her mother, she went to Nambé’s Kiva, one of the oldest buildings in North America, to gather with her community for traditional ceremonies and dances. With her father, the seventh child of a Lutheran minister, she read Homer and fantasized about directing Shakespearean films.

“Other kids dreamed of being astronauts,” she said. “I wanted to be like Kenneth Branagh.”

When she was four, Reese moved to Illinois so her parents could earn their PhDs in education. The relocation was jarring. 

In her new town, Chief Illiniwek was the college mascot, and kids on the playground asked questions that her mom had to explain away. How could she be an Indian if she wasn’t wearing feathers? How could she be an Indian if all the Indians were dead?

The assumptions hurt, but they were also “profoundly confusing,” Reese said. “They had nothing to do with who we were.” 

“There’s still so much mythology around Native people as being a thing of the past. As being sort of erased from contemporary existence in the United States.” 

‘I knew it was wrong, and I was going to do something about it’

Throughout her childhood, Reese continued to return to her reservation. Illinois was a residence; Nambé Pueblo was home.

There, she saw in increasing detail how life – even the price of gas and groceries – was shaped by a force from the outside: American law.

And she began to notice that the people creating, interpreting and applying the law didn’t include many who looked like her. That realization, coupled with growing confidence in her own capabilities, lit a fire.

“At some point, I just knew it was wrong, and I was going to do something about it,” she said. “I was going to move as quickly as possible to plant my butt at that table because I knew we deserved a say in our own destinies.”

At 16, Reese enrolled in Yale as an undergraduate, where she majored in political science and Native American studies. She then attended the University of Cambridge, in England, where she earned a master’s in political thought and intellectual history, and Harvard, where she completed her JD with distinction at 25.

In addition to clerking, Reese later served as a civil rights litigator at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and as an attorney for the National Congress of American Indians.

Work for the NAACP LDF placed her on the front lines of racial justice initiatives in the deep South – an important and humbling experience for someone accustomed to being an insider in her own minority community.

“I showed up as the outsider,” Reese said, “and I really had to walk the walk: to practice being a scholar who listens as much as she talks and writes.” 

‘We are uniquely qualified to make change because of who we are’

Now at Stanford, Reese is working to expand understanding of tribal and federal Indian law inside and outside of academia. She recently delivered testimony on domestic violence criminal jurisdiction before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs; and is actively engaged in conversation on Twitter, “revisiting old assumptions about power, peoples, and sovereignty.”

In her first quarter of teaching, Reese led a discussion group for first-year students examining the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz Island and the beginnings of the youth-led Red Power movement, which demanded self-determination for Native Americans. She is also co-leading a policy lab with Professor Ablavsky, in which students provide legal assistance to the Yurok Tribe, the largest federally recognized Native nation in California.

Reese sees her Stanford students making connections more nimbly than she would have anticipated. “I make one dot and they’ve gone off and made the line,” she said.

But part of an education, especially for graduate students, is learning how to carry oneself in a new professional arena. Understanding the role she plays in this regard, Reese is deliberate in modeling Nambé Pueblo values: sharing and respect.

“I think we are all at our best in our ability to learn when we are thinking of each other as equal members of the community,” Reese said. “Even though it’s hard, and it’s rare, it’s incredibly powerful when we see each other, when we truly listen.”

Reese is also aware that she is being seen – that her presence, alone, is helping to shatter an invisibility that has been the status quo for far too long. 

She hopes that she might inspire others who look like her to believe in themselves “completely,” realizing they’re needed – not merely allowed – in the halls of power. “We are uniquely qualified,” she said, “to make change because of who we are.”

Kurt Hickman & Julia James