Albuquerque Journal

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reconnecting With Her Navajo Roots Led Lawyer Back to N.M.; the Governor Helped Her Stay

By Rick Nathanson
Journal Staff Writer

Hilary Tompkins "walks in beauty," a traditional Navajo saying, meaning "I have found that harmony, that place where I'm at peace with who I am and comfortable in my own skin," she explains.

Finding that beauty has been a lifetime journey along a road paved with diversity and tolerance but dotted with pothole-size questions.

A Navajo born at Zuni Pueblo, Tompkins was adopted as a baby into a vegetarian Quaker family. She and her adopted Anglo- and Puerto Rican-descended siblings were raised in Absecon, on the New Jersey coast, six miles inland from Atlantic City.

The community was populated by Italian, Jewish, Greek and black families. "I never met another Native American until I was 15 years old," Tompkins says. She later graduated from Dartmouth and Stanford, returned to the reservation, practiced law and was married to a non-Indian in a traditional Navajo ceremony.

Today, Tompkins, 39, is the chief legal counsel to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and one of the highest-ranking Native Americans in the administration.

With a broad smile and an easy laugh, Tompkins talks about the incredible journey that brought her full circle to New Mexico, where she now sits in a compact office on the fourth floor of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. "It's got a window," she jokes. "Prime real estate in this building."

That her feet are confidently planted in two worlds is a testament to her upbringing. Her mother, Nancy Tompkins, operates a preschool where young Hilary spent many of her formative years. Her father, Kenneth Tompkins, is a professor of medieval literature at a liberal arts college.

"I knew I was different from a very early age by the way people would stare at our inter-racial family," she says. "My parents were way ahead of Brad (Pitt) and Angelina (Jolie)."

And they were open with all their adopted children about their origins. Her parents, she says, "instilled in me a sense of pride in my heritage and they bought me Navajo rugs, jewelry, music and books. I always had a sense of my Native American identity."

Her first meeting with another Native American occurred during her only year at a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, when she was 15. "She was a student from Tuba City, Ariz., and was Navajo. She lived on the reservation and we talked about our different lives and she told me about the Navajo culture."

Ivy League bound

Homesick for her family, Tompkins returned to Absecon and completed her secondary education at a nearby Catholic high school, rather than the less academically rigorous public school.

To her friends, she was "just another kid from the neighborhood," but she remained a novelty to curious and sometimes insensitive strangers.

What bothered her far more was the attitude of people who had "preconceived notions about how far I could go in life," she says. High school teachers discouraged her from applying to top-tier colleges. "I was a strong student academically, but they gave me the feeling that they thought I was out of my league because I was Native American."

Tompkins proved them wrong. She was accepted to her first-choice college, Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. The Ivy League school seemed both "familiar and comfortable," she says. She had spent many summers in New Hampshire with her grandparents; further, Dartmouth had originally been established in 1769 to educate Native Americans.

Although the vast majority of Dartmouth students were not Native Americans, Tompkins found herself among a community of about 40 people from different tribes, including Navajo, Hopi, Mohawk, Chippewa, Chactaw, Cherokee and Santa Clara.

Lacking the personal knowledge about the culture and language that her Navajo peers possessed underscored an intuition that "I had a connection without a deeper meaning." She talked to her parents about returning to the reservation, and they told her, " 'when you're ready, you'll go back.' ''
That happened sooner rather than later. Her first job after graduating in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in government was as a paralegal with a large New York City law firm. After a year, "I knew I was ready to learn more about my roots." Tompkins took a job in Window Rock, Ariz., with the Navajo Department of Justice.

"Now that was culture shock— going from Manhattan to Window Rock," she says. One of her first images of the reservation made a lasting impression: "I remember seeing little kids and a grandma in the bed of a pickup truck and thinking, 'that could have been me.' And it occurred to me, how funny life is that you end up on a different path."

For the next three years Tompkins participated in traditional ceremonies, learned some of the Navajo language and received guidance from medicine men and women. She also passed the Navajo Bar Exam and served as a lay practitioner in the tribal courts. The desire to become an expert in Indian law motivated her to attend law school at Stanford University in California.

During her last year at Stanford she was caught off guard by a letter from her birth family. "I never actively sought them out, but the Navajo Nation has an expansive grapevine. My birth family heard that I had returned to the reservation and sent me a letter asking to be reunited. The summer after I graduated in 1996 I met with them in Ramah and it turned out to be a life-changing event. It filled an empty space inside."

Bill's calling

It also set the stage for her 2000 wedding to Michael Prindle, whom she'd met at Stanford. They were joined in a traditional Navajo ceremony in Ramah in the presence of Tompkins' birth and adoptive families.

Her first job after law school took her back to the East Coast, where she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Three years later a leading D.C. firm specializing in Indian law recruited her. They were opening a branch office in Albuquerque and wanted the young lawyer on their team. Tompkins moved to Albuquerque, where she represented tribes and "handled everything from water rights to complex litigation in the area of tribal law," she says.

She was caught off guard once again in December 2002 when representatives for Gov. Bill Richardson called and requested she attend a meeting in Santa Fe. "I didn't know what it was about, but I assumed it was to talk about Native American issues. After the meeting started, I realized I was being interviewed for a job. Good thing I wore a suit that day."

She accepted the offer as deputy counsel and has been chief counsel since April 2005. Tompkins has worked on issues ranging from the governor's constitutional authority to his appointment authority. She has provided legal guidance on legislation, litigation and gaming compact negotiations. And she has helped set up state/tribal working groups to address issues of mutual concern.

That Hilary Tompkins is "walking in beauty" is because she hasn't lost sight of the important stops along the road.

After all, she muses, "I'm just a Jersey girl with Navajo pride and Quaker sensibilities."

Journal CopyrightCopyright 2008 Albuquerque Journal