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July 8, 2010

John-Michael Partesotti ’09 Helps the Navajo Represent Themselves

John-Michael Partesotti '09 Helps the Navajo Represent Themselves

John Partesotti is an Oregon Law Class of 2009 graduate who manages the Chinle, Arizona, office for DNA-People’s Legal Services, a nonprofit organization working to protect civil rights, promote tribal sovereignty, and alleviate civil legal problems for people who live in poverty in the Southwestern United States. John-Michael Partesotti

DNA, which is the abbreviation for the Navajo phrase, “Dine Beiina. Nahiilna Be Agha’diit’ahii” or “Attorneys who work for the Revitalization of the People,” is the largest provider of legal services to Native Americans in the United States. Partesotti’s office serves the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., covering more than 27,000 square miles and larger than ten states.

“For indigent people living in this remote part of the reservation, DNA is the only access to justice for civil matters,” Partesotti explains. “There is enormous demand for our services.”

Twenty-five years old and fresh out of law school, Partesotti was put in charge of the six-person Chinle office. He was up for the challenge though, having interned at DNA’s headquarters in Window Rock, Arizona, on an Oregon Law Students Public Interest Fund (OLSPIF) stipend.

“That stipend provided a direct line to a permanent position,” Partesotti notes. “Without it, I would have never interned at DNA-People’s Legal Services three years ago. My experiences as an intern inspired me to take all of the Indian Law classes offered at the law school and ultimately lead me to apply for a staff attorney position here last year. It was very intimidating at first because there are no other attorneys providing this type of legal service in the area. We’re the only non-profit.”

While the majority of the services provided are in family and consumer law, Partesotti and his colleagues keep their eyes open for corporate and environmental abuse, all too familiar issues for the Navajo. As an intern, Partesotti proofread a brief sent to the Ninth Circuit concerning the San Francisco Peaks, a volcanic mountain range in north central Arizona sacred to the Navajo. The mountains’ ski resort sought to expand and began creating snow using reclaimed sewage water.

“Having the opportunity to proofread that brief was a big deal to me,” he notes.

The New Orleans native admits that Indian Law wasn’t something that piqued his interest until he got to law school. During his first semester, the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics was embarking on the second year of its two-year theme, “Indigenous Peoples: National Policy and International Human Rights.” Partesotti was intrigued by the subject matter and later that year attended a job fair in Portland where he interviewed with DNA-People’s Legal Services, and later received the OLSPIF stipend that allowed him to work there over the summer.

“It’s remarkable that it all panned out the way it did,” he says. “If I had not gone to law school at Oregon, none of this would have happened.”

In order to actually work for DNA, however, Partesotti first had to pass the Navajo Bar Examination, which he admits was no easy task. According to Partesotti, the exam covers the same subjects as most state bar exams, but with the added focus on issues specific to the Navajo Nation and Federal Indian Law.

“I remember there was an essay question on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which I knew nothing about, and I was expected to write for an hour about it,” Partesotti recalls.

Having gone through the experience himself, Partesotti now is helping students at the Navajo Technical College prepare to pass the Navajo Bar. In the past, students have had a difficult time passing the bar exam and Partesotti hopes to change that. He taught Evidence in the fall, Criminal Law in the spring, and currently is teaching Legal Research & Writing.

“There is an extremely high turnover rate in this line of work simply from burnout. A lot of outside attorneys come in and can’t handle the demands,” he says. “The goal with teaching law classes is to get some homegrown advocates working in the offices.”

While the day-to-day is sometimes too much for some, Partesotti thinks it’s the best part about his job.

“A lot of these people have nowhere else to turn, and helping them represent themselves, maybe it sounds trite, but the idea that you’re making a change, that’s my favorite part.”

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