Book Review:
A Lawyer in Indian Country: A Memoir

  • Posted 12/10/2009
  • Essay 9237
by Alvin J. Ziontz
University of Washington Press, 2009
Hardcover, 318 pages
Photographs, Notes, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-295-98935-8

Al Ziontz devoted much of his four-decade legal career to representing Indian tribes from Washington and around the country as they fought to preserve tribal sovereignty, vindicate treaty rights, and protect their lands and cultures.  In this engaging memoir, he brings to life some of the key legal battles in that struggle.  He also recounts the unlikely path that led him to the “noble calling” of being a tribal attorney.    

Growing up in Chicago, the only child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ziontz knew nothing about Indians or Indian law even after completing law school (the subject was rarely taught at the time).  He practiced law in Seattle for nearly 10 years before representing a tribe.  He became the Makah Tribe’s attorney in 1963 after Bruce Wilkie, the Tribe's executive director, who years earlier discussed tribal sovereignty with Ziontz when he handled some civil cases for the Wilkie family, invited him to apply for the position.  Ziontz represented the Makahs for the remainder of his legal career and formed a close personal attachment to the Makah people that he movingly describes in his memoir.  His work for the Makahs continued even after he retired from law practice in 1994. When the Makahs’ resumption of their whaling tradition in the late 1990s led to an outpouring of vituperation against the tribe, he led the public relations effort to present their side of the story. 

Ziontz began his work as a tribal attorney at the time Western Washington tribes were fighting back with “fish-in” demonstrations and legal action against discrimination and harassment by state officials and non-Indian sports and commercial fishermen.  He devotes much of his book to the fishing rights struggle and the years of litigation that led to (and followed) U.S. District Judge George Boldt's landmark 1974 ruling that upheld treaty fishing rights and allocated half the fish harvest to the tribes.  Ziontz pays tribute to "the iron will of George H. Boldt," who overcame withering criticism and massive defiance to ensure that his decision in favor of the tribes was enforced.

Besides playing a lead role in the Boldt trial, Ziontz and his firm handled major cases for the Lummi, Colville, and Suquamish tribes of Washington, the Northern Cheyennes in Montana, the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming, and the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewas in Minnesota.  Ziontz gives a fascinating insider's account of these cases and evocatively describes the lives and history of the people he represented.  

After retiring from law, Ziontz returned to an old interest in art, studied fine-art photography, and spent a decade making photographic portraits and studies of people.  One chapter describes a two-week photographing visit to the Northern Cheyenne reservation, where he lived with Cheyenne families and connected to the people and culture in a different way than he had as a lawyer. A selection of Ziontz's photographic work is included in the 31 black-and-white pictures that illustrate his memoir.

By Kit Oldham, December 10, 2009

Submitted: 12/10/2009

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