For the first time in the history of this country, a Native American woman has taken the oath to become a federal judge. She will be the only American Indian to serve on the federal bench out of almost 900 judges.
Diane Humetewa has come a long way from the remote Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. When she grew up, there was no electricity and only one faucet in her village.
“We would haul water to my grandmother’s house in buckets,” Humetewa said. “Yes, it was hard labor, hard work but a great experience for kids growing up, I think.”
At the time Hopi children were taken away to federal government-run boarding schools, where they were punished for practicing Hopi traditions. But not the Humetewa kids. Diane’s parents took them to public schools in Phoenix.
“In their view that was going to give their children the best opportunities that they thought were out there at the time,” Humetewa said. “And so I really lived a split life both in Phoenix and on the Hopi reservation.”
Humetewa, who is almost 50, will be the first Native American federal judge in Arizona where there are 22 tribes and a quarter of the land is tribally owned.
Many have been pushing President Barack Obama to nominate a Native American judge because of the large number of Indian cases and the lack of tribal court knowledge.
Rebecca Tsosie is a regents professor at Arizona State University and has known Humetewa since she was in law school. Tsosie says the federal bench should represent who we are as a nation.
“Who we are as a nation in fact is a nation that entered into political agreements with American Indian nations,” Tsosie said. “We have now all of these American Indian nations across the country that depend on a fair, equitable and open legal system.”
Tsosie said if there was a case about the first amendment you would expect a judge to have knowledge of constitutional law. The same goes for a tribal court case. But federal Indian law is not a course commonly taught in law schools.
Humetewa has practiced law as a U.S. attorney and as an appellate judge in Hopi tribal court. Tsosie said Humetewa transcends the politics of diversity.
“So what I mean by the politics of diversity is the simplistic attitude that if we have somebody who looks like this and looks like that somehow we have diversity,” Tsosie said. “No, I mean she is somebody who is very principled. She understands American constitutional structure. She understands criminal law which is a huge part of federal practice.”
Since the nomination Humetewa has received dozens of letters of support from strangers all over Indian Country. Many say she is a role model for young Native Americans. It’s an endorsement that Humetewa has taken seriously.
“I hope that they know that these types of positions do not come overnight but with a lot of time, concentration, hard work,” Humetewa said. “I would hope I would meet the expectations of those who believed in me and believe in me.”
The U.S. Senate approved six Arizona federal judges last week. Humetewa’s confirmation was unanimous.