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Debra Gee was born in San Jose, California along with her older brother, Randy Gee and her younger sister, Quannah Gee Dallas. Her mother, Estherlene Gee, who is a Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen, and her late father, Bill Gee, who was a Navajo Nation citizen, met at Haskell Institute. As a young girl, seeing both her parents pursue higher education was one of the key factors that eventually led her down the path toward law school.
“They were both part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Urban Relocation Program that moved young Indian people to major metropolitan cities,” Debra Gee said. “My parents selected San Jose, California. However, we did not live in San Jose for very long because my parents felt that San Jose was getting too large. My family moved to Okemah, Oklahoma around the time that my sister and I started public school.”
It was in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a rural town with a population of about 12,000 people, where Gee and her siblings attended public schools from elementary to high school.
“I had an interest in civics and government in high school, but I didn’t make the connection to Indian law until I pursued an internship with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) during my junior year at Smith College,” Gee said.
Her further pursuit of education would only continue to grow with the experiences she would have during that time of her life.
“Growing up, I didn’t realize I was learning the concepts of property law and Indian law because my maternal grandmother had property interests in Five Tribes restricted land,” Gee recounted. “I was also learning about the individual rights of American Indians as a child growing up in rural Oklahoma.”
After graduating high school, Gee attended Smith College and began her pursuit of a law degree.
“While I was an intern at NCAI, I realized that law school was the next step for me to accomplish my dream of helping Indian tribes and their citizens,” she said.
Gee was set to attend a private law school in Oklahoma and was about to mail a check for her room deposit when she received a phone call from the former director of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University’s Indian Legal Program (ILP), informing her about the opportunities. After comparing both programs, she made the decision to make the move.
“It was not a difficult decision for me to select ASU Law,” Gee said. “Even though most of my colleagues attended law schools in Oklahoma, that has not hindered my ability to pursue an Indian law career in Oklahoma.”
Instead, her experiences while in law school have only helped her achieve the success she has today.
“Each law student selected to attend ASU Law has something unique to offer the law school community,” Gee said. “For Native students, it may be their unique perspective as tribal citizens, tribal leaders or traditional leaders. It is important to share your own perspective with the law school community, both academically and socially, so the law school community and experience are more enhanced and informed.”
Throughout its 29 years, the Indian Legal Program has fostered the diversity of its students and the ideas that they bring to the law community. Its supportive staff and academic environment sets it apart as one of the leading Indian law programs in the nation, and it is manifested in its students.
“The ILP exposed me to other law students from across the country, both Native and non-Native, who ultimately graduated and now practice Indian law as a career. Having access to this network of lawyers helps me even today when I need to research or address novel issues of law,” she said.
After graduating from law school, her first job was at DNA-People’s Legal Services in Shiprock, New Mexico. During her time there, Gee gained experience in legal aid and worked with other attorneys who shared a similar passion for public interest law.
“My experience working at DNA solidified my decision to pursue an Indian law career working as a government in-house attorney,” she recounted. “First, I worked for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation for four years. Then, I worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in the Violence Against Women Office and the Office of Tribal Justice. After returning to Oklahoma, I began working for the Chickasaw Nation and have completed 15 years of service.”
Today, those experiences have helped her reach the leadership position she holds at the Chickasaw Nation Legal Division. As the general counsel and executive officer, she provides legal consultation and advice to the various departments throughout the Chickasaw Nation’s executive branch, while ensuring the protection of the Nation’s tribal sovereignty. While doing all this, and overseeing a staff of 10 attorneys and four administrative staff, Gee continues to have a passion for the issues she advocates for.
“One of the things I love about my job is that I get to work on a variety of legal issues, including health law, criminal jurisdiction, the Indian Child Welfare Act and code drafting, just to name a few,” she said. “These issues have a significant, long-term impact on the Chickasaw Nation and its citizens.”
Her work and legacy will also continue to have an impact on the Indian Legal Program’s current students as well as its growing alumni community. In fact, she hopes that students seize the networking opportunities available to them from those professionals.
“The ILP has now graduated hundreds of law students who have a variety of careers in law, not just Indian law. It just takes initiative and one phone call, email or social media contact to connect with an ILP graduate who can provide support, encouragement and career advice,” she suggested.
Gee is only one example of the shining array of alumni that the Indian Legal Program has advanced throughout the years.
“I am thankful and give credit to the ILP program and ASU Law faculty and staff for building my legal education foundation that has prepared me for this position,” she said. “That is why I continue to financially support the ILP program and its mission, so that future Native students can realize their dream of pursuing an Indian law career.”
Written by Paulina Verbera