As the days grow shorter and winter approaches, Ron His Horse Is Thunder prepares to return to his ranch on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He’s just finishing up a stint as interim president of Little Priest Tribal College in Nebraska, where he has helped stabilize the institution for its future leadership. A licensed attorney, former tribal chairman, and longtime tribal college leader, His Horse Is Thunder credits his law degree for making it all possible.
Indeed, it was precisely because of his legal education that the Standing Rock Tribe offered him the presidency of Sitting Bull College (SBC) back in 1991. Two years later, he was appointed president of the American Indian College Fund, but eventually returned home to serve another decade as SBC’s president. Beginning in 2005, His Horse Is Thunder served a term as chairman of his tribe, and in 2009, he and his wife, Deborah, launched Wiya and Associates Consulting—a firm that has worked with numerous organizations nationally on trustee training and strategic planning. It was also around this time that the couple settled into their ranch on the rolling plains of the Dakotas.
Can you tell us a little bit about your education?
I went to Standing Rock Community College [now Sitting Bull College] where I did a year-and-a-half. I then transferred to Black Hills State in ’83. I graduated from there in May of ’85. I then went to law school at the University of South Dakota.
Why did you decide to go to law school? What was your goal?
My parents were active in the civil rights movement back in the late ’60s—they were actively involved. Having heard their history, the challenges they confronted, I thought I should go to law school. So I grew up in an activist household. In ’82–83, I became active in politics on the Standing Rock reservation. I became active in the local districts. In order to make a contribution, I needed to go back to school. I wanted to assist the reservation with my legal background. I ultimately wanted to be tribal chairman. Back in ’82–83, the tribe was dependent on outside law firms for advice. A law degree would help me in that area. And it would help the tribe from not being dependent on outside lawyers.
What was the most difficult aspect of law school?
I wasn’t prepared for the volume of work that you need to do as a law student. You need to do an extensive amount of reading on a daily basis—that was difficult to get used to. All law students will tell you that the first year they scare you to death. The second year they work you to death. The last year they bore you to death [laughter]. And it’s very, very true. That first year they really are indoctrinating you—if that’s the correct word—on how lawyers think. You have to think very logically. Not everybody does. They’re changing you in how you think of any situation you come across…it’s to learn to think very logically and unemotionally. You need to detach your emotions.
The whole world of law is based on precedent. And in order to have that become part of your psyche, you need to think in terms of precedent. So that’s hard for some people. You also need to change and create new precedent. The best lawyers are those who can create new precedent.
So it’s a different way of thinking. Just grasping the mindset of the legal arena can be difficult. To do this you have to do a lot of reading—reading to midnight every night. And then you have to do case briefings. You need to be able to identify the real issue. Most people get caught up in the emotions and they get emotionally involved.
I wasn’t prepared for all the writing and reading. You do all this reading and writing on a regular basis. You never get tested on what it is you learned until the end of the semester. If you fail it, you fail it. There are no midterms to help your grade. There are no assignments. You get graded on whether you pass or fail at the end of the semester. One test—pass or fail. That creates a lot of stress for students.
Another difficulty is that you don’t dare miss a class. You miss a class, you miss some steps in the development of your logic process—you get so far behind. So you can’t miss a class. My wife at the time said, “You should’ve married that law school instead of me!”
I remember at one time during my second semester, I remember thinking I couldn’t do it and I walked away…for four days. So I missed four days. All I had was a bachelor’s degree in political science. What’s that good for? It’s only good for becoming a page for a legislator. And so I came to my senses. I knew I’d been gone for four days and so I went back and asked if I could come back and they said I could. In my mind I had quit and so I missed a whole week.
Some things I’d be reading until two in the morning in the law library. The first year is the most intense because you’re learning the expectations and changing your mindset. The second year they pile on required courses and work. By the third year you’ve established the legal mindset. It becomes easier for you. You’ve got it. During the first year it’s all required courses. The third year you can take elective courses, courses that you want to take. I thought, “Just let me out so I can practice!” By the third year they don’t scare you anymore.
When deciding whether or not to attend law school, what advice would you give to Native students today?
Once you obtain a law degree it opens all kinds of doors. Not just in the legal profession, but job opportunities—all kinds of them…almost everything but practicing medicine. It’s one of those degrees that you can do just about anything with.
It was the law degree that gave the board of trustees faith in me to become president of a tribal college. I was 33 when I became president [of SBC] in ’91. The law degree convinced the board of trustees that I had the necessary skills to be the president. There were others with much more experience and who were much older, but the board of trustees believed that since I had a law degree I could do anything. So when a student asks why go to law school? It’s because you can do about anything. It opens up all doors—all kinds of job possibilities even outside the legal field.
Students should focus on their writing skills. They should take classes in writing. One of the best things they can do before going to law school is a summer course, a pre-law school summer program for Indian students at the University of New Mexico. If they can get into it, they should go there. It should teach them how to think like a lawyer before they go to law school. It’ll teach them the style of legal writing. If they can get that before they get to law school, it’ll help them overcome some of the fear that comes with attending law school.
What kind of commitment does it take?
Don’t get married before you go to law school [laughter]. You become married to law school. It will consume all your time. You can’t go to the United Tribes powwow in September. You need to focus on law school. It’s intense [and takes] time and effort.
How can tribal college students best prepare for law school?
If you do a study on what types of degrees lawyers had, most will be in political science, but mostly because they will be engaged in the political arena. But it’s not a necessity—it’s just that’s the field they know they’re going to be in. A student can have a bachelor’s in any field and go to law school. It should be in a field that makes them write, read, etc., so they can develop the necessary skills.
What do you see as the greatest asset of obtaining a law degree?
It opens the doors of possibility in all kinds of arenas, occupations, businesses. Everyone is touched by the legal profession. So it helps them understand every aspect of life. Laws surround us in every aspect of our life. [Law school] allows us to navigate life’s pitfalls much more easily. It allows you to navigate in the world we live in—a world of laws—better than any other degree. And that’s why doors open, because people understand that.
Any last thoughts?
When I was young—when I was 16—there was a lot of expectation. No one had gone to college in my family. So they thought I was the one. I told my mom I’m tired of being the one. I just wanna be a bum. She said go to school, get an education, and if you wanna be a bum, you’ll be an educated bum [laughter]. So last year I was cutting hay on my tractor and I thought of calling up my mom and telling her I was cutting hay. I didn’t, but since I have a law degree I can do something outside the legal profession. I can navigate that profession. I enjoy being a rancher, I’m relaxed.