Lorene Ferguson was working with the Indian Education Training program when she was sent to the UNM Law Library to research the New Mexico statutes. Her job was to help parents of Native American schoolchildren understand what schools were required to provide when they received federal money, and she needed to know how state law was involved.
She became so intrigued with the law that she signed up for the Pre-Law Summer Institute, not really intending to go to law school. Considering that she had earned her undergraduate degree in English Literature from Fort Lewis College 13 years earlier, she found the study of law to be overwhelming, requiring a completely different approach to learning.
But that didn't stop her; she went ahead and enrolled in the UNM School of Law. Despite her frustration with learning how to think differently, she credits her professors with teaching her to analyze, write and, yes, think, in a way that proved useful in the years to follow.
After earning her J.D. in 1983, staying up late many nights, she continued to live in Albuquerque with her husband and two daughters, but returned to the Navajo Reservation, where she had grown up, to work, first as a law clerk, then staff attorney, for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice. In 1992, she was appointed a district court judge and nine years later became the second woman appointed a justice on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.
Being one of the first women to serve alongside men on the court was filled with barriers that took years to dismantle. Ferguson relied on the inner strength she had gained from her grandmother, with whom she spent summers, helping tend her cornfield.
Despite the powerful role women hold in the matriarchal Navajo society, Ferguson was surprised when it took a while to be accepted and respected by the tribal council and heads of tribal programs, all run by men. She also found that the equal balance of women and men pervasive in the culture didn't transfer to the legal system.
"Men often blamed women in domestic violence cases and it often seemed like women were not treated as fairly," she says.
"I stuck it out because I saw lots of young women come through the courts, many the victims of domestic violence, and it seemed important to give them time to speak," says Ferguson. "I always went back and thought of my grandmothers and how strong they were. When I was little, my grandmothers demanded respect in how they lived, and that is how government should operate.
Eventually, as her Navajo male co-workers grew to accept her as an equal, they were all better able to set goals and accomplish them. "We always applied the fundamental law of the Navajo Nation to many of the cases," says Ferguson. "It was exciting to see how the law has evolved, and is still evolving."
Since retiring in 2007, Ferguson has been making up for lost time with her grandchildren. Eventually, she would like to volunteer in the arenas of women's, children's and elderly issues, both on the off the reservation.
In April, she received the 2009 Justice Mary Walters Award from the UNM School of Law's Women's Law Caucus.
Q: What was your favorite class in law school?
A: Contracts and Products Liability
Q: Who was your favorite professor?
A: Ted Occhialino
Q: What did you enjoy most about a justice on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court?
A: Working with my own people and applying what I learned to local situations.
Q: If you hadn't been a lawyer and Supreme Court justice, what would have been your dream job?
A: In undergraduate school, I took a lot of classes in children's literature and I would have liked to work with the creativity of children.
Q: What is the last book you read?
A: Grass by Sheri Tepper