Why KU? Tribal law + community

Jacob Wamego, L’14


Jacob Wamego, L'14“A lot of my relatives were elected officials growing up so I’ve seen how they tried to protect tribal sovereignty, and it was something I wanted to do as well. I figured learning how to use the law is a good avenue to pursue that.”

By the time Jacob Wamego started law school, he had a wife and three kids, a criminal justice degree and a career in Indian gaming. A citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Wamego had worked with the tribe’s gaming commission for six years. He knew the regulations and issues but wanted the analytical perspective and legal expertise that comes with a law degree.

“A lot of my relatives — my grandparents and aunts and uncles — were elected officials growing up, so I’ve seen how they tried to protect tribal sovereignty, and it was something I wanted to do as well,” Wamego said. “I figured learning how to use the law is a good avenue to pursue that.”

Wamego found his opportunity through KU’s Tribal Law and Government Center. The program trains students to represent Indian nations through an understanding of indigenous tribal legal systems. Wamego worked with center director Professor Elizabeth Kronk Warner to develop his skills and knowledge of federal Indian law. He participated in the Tribal Judicial Support Clinic, drafting laws and working with tribal attorneys and judges to pass new legislation.

“There are a lot of complex issues when you’re working with Indian tribes,” Wamego said. “It borrows from other areas — property, contracts, constitutional law — but has its own special place.”

One of Wamego’s most rewarding experiences was helping a local tribe implement provisions of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. In 2013, President Obama signed the act into law, giving tribes jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit domestic and sexual violence offenses against Indians in Indian country.

“It was groundbreaking because in the ’70s the U.S. Supreme Court said tribes don’t have jurisdiction over non-Indians, so there was a lot of domestic violence and rapes against Indian women by non-Indians,” Wamego explained. “Through the Tribal Judicial Support Clinic, I worked on code revisions so that the Tribe we were working with could exercise jurisdiction and impose harsher punishments. I also developed a sentencing guideline by surveying how other tribes were punishing these offenses and developed a model to see if tribes wanted to adopt it.”

Wamego also interned at the National Indian Gaming Commission’s General Counsel’s office in Washington, D.C. “I’d just gotten to D.C. and finished my 1L year. My first day they said, ‘We’re thinking of fining this company, and we want you to write the memo.’ They were fining the company several million dollars. I had just finished Constitutional Law and got to apply it right off.”

Wamego also landed an externship with the Prairie Band Economic Development Company, where he worked with property, contracts, secured transactions and Indian law.

“I have the best things to say about the clinics: deposition skills, tribal law, moot court, externships,” Wamego said of his time at Green Hall. “It’s good to learn the law, but it’s also good to gain practical skills.”

As for his career, Wamego plans to use his expertise to give back to the community that supported him.

“I’m not aware of anyone else that grew up on the reservation and has gone to law school,” Wamego said. “The support of the community was really important. I would like to work for my own tribe, as general counsel to tribal leadership or something in that capacity. I’m not looking for a big firm.”