Eighteen years ago, Danelle Smith was a 19-year-old half-breed on the Winnebago rez, pregnant and freaking out. Now, she’s a trailblazer in the world of tribal law.
You’re in a hotel conference room. It’s full of lawyers, and it’s time to schmooze.
About Ferguson making partner and problems with the Jaguar and god this coffee and low-grade amphetamines and LOL those were the days and oh, hey, let me give you my card. This is my card. Take my card, a crunching handshake. Another card, another crunching handshake.
Danelle Smith, 37, is hanging back, staying closer to the coat rack.
People probably say she’s stuck up, she tells you later. She wishes she were more outgoing.
But there’s something refreshing about the lanky woman with the sleek chestnut bob, little makeup and the slightest lilt, something about the way she passes out her business card only after you ask. As if it were the last business card in the world.
And you remember how tightly she clutched the aubergine purse on her shoulder, as if she might bolt, or fly, and didn’t want to lose her keys in the process.
The grip speaks of some inquietude, you want to say. Because Danelle Smith is a restless woman. Besides making junior partner at the Omaha law firm of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan in 2009 — three years after joining — the Iowa Law alumna also provides legal counsel for her people, the Winnebago of Nebraska, teaches the occasional business class at Little Priest Tribal College and represents Native interests on the Thurston County Board of Supervisors.
Oh, and about the law school part — she did it as a single mom raising three young sons on an achingly calibrated budget of loans, child support and food stamps.
Danelle Smith describes the problems of geographical jurisdiction on the reservations.
“Danelle is really making a name for herself nationally in tribal economic development,” said Lance Morgan, the Morgan in Fredericks Peebles & Morgan. A Harvard Law alum and Warren Buffett in-law, the Winnebago lawyer and investor oversees her work.
Lately, her work consists of helping tribes start casinos by writing their corporate regulations and negotiating gaming terms with states.
And that’s literally groundbreaking.
“Tribes historically have no real economy to speak of because they don’t own their land,” said Conly Schulte, a senior litigation attorney at the firm.
“Danelle breaks that old way of thinking by taking the unique aspects of tribal governments and using it to their advantage. It’s one of the more modern approaches to advising tribes that I have seen.”
But long before she was Danelle Smith, attorney at law, or Danelle Smith, county supervisor, or Danelle Smith, tribal negotiator, she was a 19-year-old half-breed on the rez, pregnant and freaking out.
She thought it should have been a big deal, but it wasn’t, she says. People just told her: “You can apply for welfare; you can get subsidized housing.”
But she just thought: “This can’t be my life.”
This couldn’t be her life because she was Danelle Smith, child prodigy.
The saucer-eyed nerd who skipped grades and penned stories and snubbed basketball and yes, may have biffed her first try at college. But, hey, she was supposed to be a lawyer — not a welfare mom.
So five months pregnant, she enrolled in tribal college and got a job as a payroll clerk, knocking down $7.25 an hour.
“Whatever I needed to do to become a lawyer.”
After all, that was the plan since age 12 — when she first stepped off the reservation and realized two things:
1. Everyone thinks I live in a tipi.
2. I’m Indian, and I’ve been screwed over.
Her people were swindled, she tells you, because they didn’t understand the American legal system. Hence land grabs and poverty. So, refusing the world as it was handed to her, she set upon learning the system. For herself, her child, her people..
A long road to success
Danelle Jeanine Smith was born Jan. 25, 1972, to a sickly Winnebago teenager and a white father, whom she once spotted at a football game when she was 11. Her mother, battling alcoholism and depression, gave Danelle up for adoption.
Gus and Victoria Smith, a Winnebago couple in their 50s with grown children, welcomed the baby girl into their modest home.
Danelle knew her birth mother, though. She remembers seeing her on the street, and she could tell, growing up, that she was a drunk. She tells you this over the phone, calling from Palm Springs. Business.
Meanwhile, her new dad tinkered with cars to make ends meet, and he and his wife gave Danelle a fairly normal childhood. While some Native children dealt with alcoholism and violence at home, Danelle remembers a doting mom making breakfast every morning and asking how school went every afternoon.
“Once, she made an entire multiplication table. We were in the third grade,” says Brian Chamberlain, a childhood friend and present-day colleague on the Winnebago Tribal Council, on which he is treasurer. “She stayed inside to work on it while we were at recess.”
This was in the 1980s. The B.C. Era — Before Casino. Winnebago was a poor reservation, and its schools didn’t have gifted programs for students like Danelle. So she skipped the fifth grade — the school’s solution for precocity.
“It was hard for her to be so smart,” recalls Nancy Martin, Danelle’s unofficial big sister. “Mom decided to get [Danelle] out of public school so she could get a good education.”
So Danelle spent her teen years at Flandreau Indian School, a boarding school in South Dakota.
Danelle Smith didn’t have to go to college or law school, that was not expected of her. Since expectations among her tribal community are not high, she could have done as her peers had and quit school to take care of her children.
Though it wasn’t necessarily rigorous, Flandreau was a better fit. She got to meet kids from Minnesota, Montana and places that weren’t Winnebago.
But it wasn’t the best for college prep.
In 1989, she took a bus to Fort Lewis College in Colorado. She stayed two months. Though bright, she had poor study skills. Moreover, her adoptive mother had pancreatic cancer.
She stayed home. Her mother went through chemotherapy and died the following March.
Eighteen and a bit adrift, Danelle sank into the living rooms, the meadows and the woodsy riverbanks where her peers liked to have a good time. And for a little while, the fizz of wine coolers and the howls of party talk muffled those law school dreams.
Pregnancy yanked her back to reality.
She had this baby she was fully responsible for, she says. But it kept her focused.
She describes the ’90s in a single breath: An associate’s degree from Winnebago’s Little Priest College in 1994, then marriage and two more children, part-time studies at Wayne State, followed by a bachelor’s in business administration in 1998, then divorce, the LSAT and moving with three boys — ages 3, 6 and 9 — to Iowa City for law school and some internships in between.
At Wayne, she says, her typical day was dropping off her kids at day care, working a half-day and then going to class at night.
And in law school, most of her classmates didn’t have to work. They were going to the bar, she was picking up her kids.
The stress of family and work put a dent in her grades but what mattered was getting the law degree and bringing it back to Winnebago, which she did in 2003 with a general counsel position at Ho-Chunk Inc., the tribe’s economic development corporation.
“She could be a highfalutin’ lawyer in California or New York, but she chose to raise her family here,” Martin said. “She’s one of the few people who got out and got an education and came back to the tribe.”
She rejects the status quo of Indian poverty, attorney Morgan says. And she rejects it so sweetly. “A lot of lawyers are aggressive,” Morgan said. “But she has a demeanor that’s really amenable to getting people to listen and talk with each other.”
Looking toward the future
If her story were a rhapsody, you would expect the momentous finale here. But Danelle’s career is young, and she has a slight case of “Now what?”
Sometimes, she takes her Honda Civic for a little spin around the rez.
She rolls past the older houses and recalls who lived there. She eyes the new houses and measures the change.
Then she passes a construction site. It’s Ho-Chunk Village, a tightly spaced development that will get residents walking and biking amid homes and shops.
Twelve-year-old Danelle, with her juris doctorate dreams, would be pleased. She became a lawyer, and she learned the system. Every day, she rights historical wrongs — the land grabs, the poverty — for her people, for other Indian nations.
On drives like this, the schmoozing and handshakes and Palm Springs can wait. It’s good to be home.