Photo: Legal Resource Center advocates Wesley Martin Jr. and Tsyolake House.
By Lorenzo Funmaker
Oneida’s Legal Resource Center opened to the public on Wednesday, August 1 giving Tribal citizens and employees the opportunity to garner legal advice, representation in cases coming before the Judiciary, and to represent the Oneida General Tribal Council (GTC) at GTC meetings. Back in November 2016, GTC directed the Oneida Business Committee to establish a legal office equipped with advocates and an advising attorney. The GTC also required the law office positions to be determined by election through the General Election process, which was held on July 8th 2017. Before the election, the Oneida Business Committee was given a mandate to develop the Legal Resource Center and a law, which was ultimately adopted in September 2017. The Legal Resource Center (LRC) was set to open February 1st, 2018, however a BC resolution was made in January 2018 to give staff time to prepare the office for business, hence the new opening date for August 1st, 2018.
The candidates elected to advocate at the LRC were, Wesley Martin and Tsyoslake House J.D., with the advising attorney position presently vacant. Notably, Wes Martin has provided many years of experience practicing law in various regions of Indian Country, ranging from criminal, civil, probate and guardian ad litem cases. Martin has experience as a prosecutor, a public defender and also ran a private practice based in Keshena, Wisc. Tsyoslake House, a product of the Oneida Nation School System, has his Bachelors in Legal Studies (Northeastern State University – Oklahoma), successfully completed the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians, and received a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) with an emphasis in Indian Law at the University of South Dakota School of Law. House also was an intern at the Oneida Judiciary.
Given the nature of the LRC, the office is unprecedented leaving various directions uncharted. “This is the first in what we’re doing” stated Martin, “we researched, and there is no other tribe that has a public defenders office. Especially for civil cases.” Granted there are tribes with similar law offices, however, “They’re under federal guidelines” says House, “so, they have an income limit that you need to qualify for their services, and our office doesn’t have that.”
With the creation of the Oneida Judiciary, and now the Legal Resource Center, both are paving a way for broader possibilities of autonomy. “One of the true paths to being sovereign is having that tribal court, and having an office like this strengthens that” says House, “our office is open to every tribal member for anything (legality) under the Judiciary.” A connection to sovereignty is the act of exercising rights, “That’s what we (Oneida Nation) have the ability to do; write our own laws and our own codes to fit our reservation. The State of Wisconsin Laws are to fit all of Wisconsin, and it might not fit here,” Martin stated.
Having said that, anything new is not without growing pains and the LRC is surely to face such challenges. However, Martin and House are ready to roll up their sleeves and take on a task which has little reference to take from, “If we do it right, we can use this as a template for other tribes” says Martin. Moreover, being equipped with only two advocates, there is uncertainty as to how many people will utilize the LRC’s services, “There is forty to fifty hearings a month of just family court” explained Martin. House also added, “Ninety-five percent of those cases don’t have representation.” With the concern of an uncertain case load, there is the issue of ineffective council being a possible reality “We want to represent all tribal members, but we want to make sure we’re equipped to do it,” says Martin. “There may be time consuming cases, and to be effective we might have to limit our case load…not because we can’t, but it’s to basically to do a good job,” added Martin. House also stated “It’s unfair to the representation, it’s also unfair to the client because they won’t get adequate representation.” Further expressing the morale of the LRC, House continued, “We want to run it professionally and ethically; just like any other law office…people can have confidence in us to take these cases and represent them in an efficient manner.”
The Legal Resource Center is located at 3759 W. Mason St., Oneida WI 54155 Ridgeview Plaza, Suite 8.