A passion for law

Tulalip tribal member working towards Juris Doctorate

By Brandi N. Montreuil, Tulalip News

TULALIP – For Michelle Sheldon, law has always been visibly present in her life. As a member of a tribe that borders the I-5 corridor in Snohomish County issues regarding jurisdiction, treaty fishing rights, and Indian gaming helped shape the environment she lives in. When it came time to choose an area of study, law was a natural choice.

Encouraged by her parents and with funding help from her Tribe’s higher education department, Sheldon enrolled in Seattle University School of Law’s evening program as a part-time student to earn her Juris Doctorate, which she will receive in December 2016. She plans to use her education in law to aid in the continued development of her Tribe.

“I have always wanted to learn more about the laws that govern the Tulalip Tribes. Because both my undergraduate and graduate studies were in criminal justice, it seemed like a natural fit to pursue a law education and to see how I can help benefit the Tribe one day,” said Sheldon, who currently works in the her Tribe’s legal department and previously was a court clerk at the Tulalip Tribes Tribal Court.

As a legal manager with the Tulalip Tribes, Sheldon sees first-hand how law is used to make contracts, enforce treaty rights, enact justice in criminal proceedings, and resolve housing issues. “I am exposed to a variety of different areas of legal work on a regular basis,” says Sheldon. “As I begin to advance in my legal studies, I am starting to understand how the law factors into each of these practice areas, which in turn, provides me with exposure and opportunities that I would not otherwise have if I worked elsewhere. I am very fortunate to be able to work in this department and apply what I learn from school to my everyday profession. It is truly a rewarding experience and opportunity that I am grateful to have.”

Discovering a passion for law while in her graduate studies, Sheldon says it is important for tribal members to know the laws that govern their tribe. “By having our tribal laws available online, for example, this provides a great resource and opportunity for the membership to read these laws and to perhaps to see what type of legal remedies are available to them.”

A law issue she is enthusiastic about is the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was recently spotlighted in the Supreme Court in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl in 2013, commonly known as the ‘Baby Veronica Case.’

“I have always been interested in the area of Indian child welfare as well as issues pertaining to tribal sovereignty, because of what they entail and what they promote, which are our rights to tribal children and the rights to maintaining and protecting our tribal sovereignty,” explained Sheldon.

Tulalip tribal member Michelle SheldonPhoto/ Brandi N. Montreuil, Tulalip News
Tulalip tribal member Michelle Sheldon
Photo/ Brandi N. Montreuil, Tulalip News

Sheldon explains that because lands on reservations, or Indian country, fall under tribal jurisdiction, these laws can differ from laws outside of Indian country.

“I think what is most interesting about laws that govern Indian Country is that they are created based on their community and enforced to meet the traditions and needs of the community,” said Sheldon. “A good example is our Tulalip Court Elder’s Panel, who offer first-time, non-violent offenders the opportunity to have their charges dismissed in court once they have successfully completed the one-year requirement of this panel. This panel is a healing panel of sorts, by often requiring many of its participants to write letters of apology to those they have wronged and to sometimes engage in substance abuse treatment for example. Most importantly, these individuals are required to be accountable to our tribal elders, who have taken the time to voluntarily participate on this panel. I think this is an excellent example of how Indian country can differ from our non-Indian country counterparts.”

Despite juggling full-time employment in a busy legal department and her part-time studies, Sheldon says she is determined to finish school and credits her biggest motivators, her parents, in helping her continue.

“They provided me with the inspiration to pursue my goals by always encouraging me that I could do it, no matter how hard or challenging it was. Once I decided to pursue a degree in law, they offered me endless amounts of encouragement and support, which in turn gave me the confidence to pursue my goals. I will always be thankful to them for this,” said Sheldon, who also credits the educational opportunities provided by her Tribe as a factor in her ability to obtain her Juris.

“I will always be thankful to the Tribe and to the Higher Education department for always looking out for me and for making sure that I have everything that I need to have the most beneficial educational experience as a student, so that I can continue to pursue my educational goals,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon advises anyone embarking on their own higher education goals to talk with the admission office at the school they are interested in, as they can help you prepare for critical documents you will need while applying.

“Another opportunity that I think would be beneficial for any tribal members who are thinking about attending law school is to ask your school of choice to visit an actual class session. It is also a great way to interact with the law professors and other law school students who are always willing to share their experiences with you and to share great tips on what to expect once you are admitted to the school.”


Brandi N. Montreuil: 360-913-5402; bmontreuil@tulalipnews.com