Thomas Fredericks: A leading expert in tribal law
Attorney Thomas W. Fredericks is one of the nation’s leaders in fighting for the rights of American Indian tribes. He’s spent his career undoing the damage of past injustices and preventing future injustices.
An enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Fredericks is considered one of the leading experts in tribal law, with considerable experience in legal and political issues that tribes have with state and federal governments.
Fredericks is a senior partner with the law firm, Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan LLC in Louisville, Colo., the largest firm in the nation that focuses exclusively on federal Indian law.
He has practiced law for four decades. He said a case that he considers rather unique was early in his career. He was involved in a case to sue President Nixon to appoint a National Advisory Committee on Indian Education. Fredericks represented a coalition of Indian-controlled school boards.
“I was the only Indian working on the case,” he said. They argued that the president was usurping Congress’ authority by not appointing members to the advisory committee when the law said they should be appointed.
Fredericks said Indians have been overlooked in past years by state and federal government officials who would never think about tribal governments. He said it’s been a hard time putting tribal governments into the federal laws. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and banking are examples of it.
“Now we’ve got better lobbyists and we’re more focused, and we’re getting a lot of attention in Congress,” he said. He said not many bills are passed now that Indians are not involved in.
One thing he sees that tribes need is to have their own energy companies so they are not depending on the other oil and gas companies, but it is a capital-intensive investment. He said the Southern Utes and the Navahos have their own oil and gas companies. The Northern Ute tribe had its own energy company but sold it.
He also said tribal governments should have full authority with regulations. For many regulatory problems, he said, the states will try to apply their laws, and there are some regulatory hassles that companies get confused over by not knowing if tribal law or state law applies.
Charles Wilkinson, a professor at the University of Colorado, has known Fredericks for some 40 years. Both were attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. Fredericks helped facilitate the organization’s founding.
“In the revival of Indian tribes in the past couple of generations, Tom has been one of the most courageous and distinguished leaders. He has held high offices in the Interior Department and performed admirably there, and had the dream really of building an Indian law firm that was truly Indian,” Wilkinson said. He said Fredericks’ firm may be one of the largest employers of American Indian lawyers in the country.
“It’s a first-rate outfit for sure,” he added.
Fredericks’ firm, Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan, has 43 attorneys plus three of-counsels in 10 offices across the country. Of those 43 attorneys, 19 are in the Louisville office.
“Tom has worked for a number of tribes individually,” Wilkinson went on to say. “He has such good judgment.” He said Fredericks is one of those people who has deep knowledge and street smarts “always looking at the big picture and always being practical.”
Wilkinson also noted, “What tribes have accomplished in modern times is amazing, but on their own they have rebuilt Indian Country and brought back traditions.” He said on many reservations the economic conditions are difficult.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, has known Fredericks throughout his life.
“Our tribal nation family has always known that Tom Fredericks is an extraordinary talent,” Hall said. “Tom grew up in the Elbowoods and Twin Buttes area and showed promise early. He is a child of the Garrison Dam and the flooding of our homelands. After college, while working as the economic opportunity program director, he saw injustice all around him, especially in the flooding of the reservations, and decided that perhaps he could do good by becoming an attorney. From there he progressed to working with Indian tribes all across the United States. Tom has never forgotten his people or his culture and continues to come home each summer. It is amazing that the Garrison Dam flooding started this remarkable man on his journey of justice. We are very proud of him and continue to use his talents here at the MHA (Mandan, Hidata and Arikara) Nation.”
Hall said Fredericks is a member of the Prairie Chicken Clan and his Indian name is “Bears Image.”
“The name was given to him by the late Pete Coffey Sr.,” Hall said.
Hall said Fredericks’ parents were John and Catherine (Medicine Stone) Fredericks.
“His wife Judy (Hass) is originally from Bowbells, and he has two daughters: Michelle (Fred) DuBray of Mobridge, S.D., and Monique (Ryan) Douville of Boulder, Colo.,” Hall said. Fredericks and his wife live in Erie, Colo. They also have five grandchildren.
Fredericks’ work with the Three Affiliated Tribes includes as the attorney for its Thunder Butte Petroleum Services, a refinery project, near Makoti. It will be one of the first refineries built in the United States in many years, the first one built on an Indian reservation and 100 percent tribally owned.
Fred DuBray of Mobridge, S.D., founder of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, who also is Fredericks’ son-in-law, said, “The Intertribal Bison Cooperative was formed in 1992, and Tom was quite instrumental in helping with the organizational structure, policies and other legal issues involved in starting a new organization. His expertise was quite valuable to the organization and was all done as pro bono work.
“He also did pro bono legal work for Pte Hca Ka, Inc., which was a tribal corporation owned by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. In both situations his work was extremely beneficial to these tribal organizations in helping them get started as well as get through some complicated issues.
“Tom has a brilliant mind and that, coupled with his unique background and experience, give him the ability to provide solutions to very complex problems that often arise in Indian Country,” DuBray said.
Reflecting on his early years on the Fort Berthold Reservation, Fredericks said, “I was born in the Elbowoods Hospital and I came home in a sleigh.” He said the hospital was about 20 or 30 miles away from his family’s ranch on the Little Missouri River.
When he was in grade school, his family had to leave the Elbowoods area because the Garrison Dam was to be built and the reservoir Lake Sakakawea would flood the land. They moved near Twin Buttes to ranch.
Fredericks remembers all the hard work on the ranch, such as digging post holes and hauling bales. He wanted to get off the ranch and get more education.
“And then my mother was a real pusher for education so she had a big influence on me. My dad died when I was 20,” he said.
He attended reservation schools and graduated from Killdeer High School. He went on to graduate from Minot State University with a bachelor of science degree and for a short time was a high school teacher and coach at Bowbells.
When he was the Community Action Program director at Standing Rock Reservation, Fredericks said, his job was to bring the community out of poverty by doing economic development work. He said that job gave him a lot of insights into intergovernmental agencies resolving problems.
“When I came there as director, I had 40 employees. When I left to go to law school, we had 400,” he said. “I’d sit in the office all day long and there’d be people lined up outside to tell me about problems (housing , etc.) and I’d try to resolve it. I was a good listener, and I had a lot of people helping me,” he said, naming federal agencies, state, county and tribal governments.
“They all knew I was trying to help. It was a very successful program,” he said.
Fredericks took part in the University of New Mexico’s Summer Indian Law Institute and graduated from the University of Colorado School of Law in Boulder in 1972.
He was president of the first American Indian Bar Association, a nationwide organization that formed when 28 Indian attorneys gathered together in a room.
He has successfully litigated hundreds of cases as well as served as a staff attorney and later director of the Native American Rights Fund, associate solicitor for Indian Affairs and served as assistant secretary of Indian Affairs within the Department of Interior under the Carter Administration. The latter is the highest policy position for Indian affairs in the U.S. government.
His achievements include authoring the first compact for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the first solicitor’s opinion dealing with the issue of tribal gaming and formulating the Indian Water Settlement Policy related to securing tribal reserved water rights for Indian tribal nations. He was instrumental in getting Congress to consider and pass the Indian Mineral Development Act.
Fredericks has guided and mentored many attorneys during his career, as he continues to do.
When he recently gave a speech to accept a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Fredericks said he told those attending that when he started in law, his goal was to have Indians run Indian affairs at federal, state and reservation levels.
“What I preach to my young attorneys is that you’ve got to develop laws and you’ve got to have tribes develop agencies within the tribes that are competent and capable of regulating water, oil and gas,” he said. He said there’s no reason for another entity to come in and regulate or try to assert jurisdiction over them.
Dale White, general counsel for the Tarbell Management Group in Hogansburg, N.Y., Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, worked with Fredericks in his law firm.
“I’ve known Tom Fredericks since 1983 when I moved from Washington, D.C., as a young Native American lawyer (Mohawk tribe from N.Y.) to work in Tom’s firm in Boulder, Colo. It was Fredericks & Pelcyger at the time one of the first, if not the first, Indian-owned law firm in the country. The firm grew, and I became a partner in the early 1990s before moving back East to work as in-house attorney for a tribe in Connecticut.
“I enjoyed working with Tom and in his firm. He was very supportive of all the young attorneys in his firm and really wanted the firm to be an ‘Indian law firm’ that was owned by natives and included Indian lawyers. I was impressed by that. He gave me and other young attorneys a great deal of responsibility and trusted us. I happened to be lucky enough to work on a case as the lead attorney for one of Tom’s clients that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Tom was the first one to encourage me to argue the case in the Supreme Court, which I did (and won the case). Tom’s legacy will be as a pioneer in the field of Indian law, having started and built a successful Indian law firm that has grown to become the largest in the country,” White said.
Martha King is a partner with Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan in Louisville. She said, “Mr. Fredericks’ daily commitment of his mind and body to the practice of federal Indian law brings forth justice and fairness to Indian country and he requires the same degree of commitment from each and every one of us.
“In doing so, he has not only advanced Indian communities, but has created a multiplier effect through his mentorship of new attorneys who also advance justice and fairness for Indian Country and for the betterment of society and to the community as a whole,” she said.
Fredericks has been honored in North Dakota, including with the Minot State University 2011 Alumni Association Golden Award and last year by the North Dakota State Bar Association for 40 years of distinguished service to the legal profession and the state of North Dakota.