Terry Aguilar was only 26 the first time he was given a leadership role at the Pueblo of San Ildefonso. The year before, he stood up and had been critical about how things were done at the pueblo.
“I thought I could change the world,” he said.
The next thing he knew, he was appointed lieutenant governor, a position he held until being appointed governor a year later, in 1999. He quickly realized that he couldn’t change the world, at least not quite as fast as he would have liked, especially in a traditional community.
He worked a few more years in tribal government, before leaving to pursue other opportunities, one of which included earning a J.D. at the University of New Mexico School of Law in 2009. In February of 2012, Aguilar was elected governor for a three-year term.
Now, with the support of his tribal constituents, Aguilar is leading his pueblo into new territory.
In 2011, the pueblo adopted a new governing agreement, which provides the governor with authority to oversee the operations of the tribe. The agreement provides for a council and judicial branch of the government. Separate leaders oversee the pueblo’s traditional life. Key in the new agreement is that, for the first time, women have an opportunity to be involved in tribal government.
In his new role, Aguilar, who is believed to be the first lawyer to lead a New Mexico pueblo, has begun working to protect the way of life of the pueblo’s 700 members and, at the same time, to improve their lives. He is in and out of meetings all day and into most evenings.
A week after the election, Aguilar took the bar exam, which had been eluding him for three years, since he earned his J.D. This time he passed, culminating many years of perseverance and commitment to a better life for himself and his pueblo.
Setting the stage
Aguilar left San Ildefonso Pueblo in 1989 to join the U.S. Navy. He served on the U.S.S. Midway during Desert Storm. After seeing how a college degree brought status in interactions between a college-educated officer and an older enlisted man, Aguilar headed to UNM after being honorably discharged from the Navy in 1991.
He spent his final year at UNM interning for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, returning to New Mexico in 1997 to work for the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh as a coordinator in the pueblo’s Department of Education. After joining San Ildefonso’s tribal administration, Aguilar worked to build gas stations and negotiated easements for highways that traverse tribal land. In 2002, he went to work for the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, initially as community resource director and later as the council’s executive director.
“In all of these jobs, I realized it was the attorneys who were running the tribes; even as governor I always had to ask the advice of our lawyers before making a decision,” he said.
In 2006, after completing the Pre-Law Summer Institute at the American Indian Law Center, Aguilar enrolled in the UNM School of Law. Right away, he could see that he wasn’t well-prepared for law school and that he would have to work much harder than his classmates to keep up.
“That’s what I enjoyed most,” he said, “the challenge of knowing that my peers were so far ahead of me. I knew I’d be competing against them in the work place, so I worked very hard in school. Professor Laura Gomez was my favorite professor because she was hard on me and helped me push myself.”
At his graduation was Aguilar’s father, who had been diagnosed with a respiratory illness due to asbestos exposure in 2000. He died in 2010. Following graduation, Aguilar began studying for the bar, which proved elusive for a few years, not surprising because his attention was elsewhere: on his father, his pueblo’s collapsing political structure – he worked behind the scenes for years to develop a more effective governing system.
Aguilar also had been appointed a judge pro tem at the Pueblo of Pojoaque. When he was offered this position, he was reluctant, considering his minimal legal experience: “It was hard when I had to make a decision about someone’s life.” But his colleagues, Judge Frank Demolli and Judge Edie Quintana, closely monitored his work and continued the unbending encouragement that Professor Gomez had provided.
The work begins
“Now the work begins,” said Aguilar, who is relieved to have the bar exam behind him and the future of his tribe ahead of him. For the first time since he left home at 18, he is back living at San Ildefonso.
“My community has always supported me and now I owe it to my pueblo to give back,” he said. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve taken the challenge and I hope young Pueblo men and women will take the initiative to get a post-secondary education. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
May 16, 2012