Knowing where you want to go makes it a lot easier to get there. Michael Harralson ’06 has proved this with his career in Native American law with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
He became interested in race relations while growing up in Chandler, a town of 3,000 in southern Indiana. He majored in political science at Wheaton College outside Chicago, and as a junior took a course called Race and American Politics. “That class never mentioned Native Americans,” he said. That omission helped focus his interest on Native American race relations.
He became a man on a mission. After graduation, he moved to Minneapolis to facilitate his involvement in Native issues, and he became a youth worker at the Little Earth of United Tribes housing development in south Minneapolis. Believing that government is the best way to address social change that positively impacts race relations, Harralson knew law school was in his future. “Law is a primary tool of government,” he said.
School of Law is a Good Fit
Harralson wanted to stay in Minnesota, a state in which approximately 54,000 American Indians live. While he was researching law schools, the University of St. Thomas School of Law captured his attention. “I came from Wheaton, where the mission similarly combines intellectual pursuits with spiritual ones,” he said. “It was consistent with the UST Law mission. Social justice falls in, as well, and that was appealing. So it was the mix of location and mission that brought me to the School of Law.”
The decision proved to be a good one. Harralson speaks highly of his experiences at the School of Law. “I met great friends on all sides of political and religious issues. Those kinds of debates outside of class really helped me learn,” he said. “Being in only the third graduating class, we were all there at the beginning. Everybody had a say in how the mission was fleshed out.” He valued that process.
Sovereign Nations Have Their Own Civil Regulations
Harralson began his career with the Band as in-house counsel in 2007. For two years, he practiced as a deputy solicitor general. During that time, he worked in many human resources investigations and unemployment issues. He now serves as director of human resources for the tribal government.
In this capacity, he manages a department of seven that handles human resources for the tribal government’s more than 800 permanent and 200 to 300 part-time and seasonal employees. In addition to staffing and benefits, his department handles employee relations, unemployment issues and risk management.
Harralson’s group supports each department of the tribal government. Much of his time is spent dealing with situations at the request of Band commissioners, gathering facts and making recommendations. For example, he could provide direction or clarify a policy for a department dealing with an employment issue. Harralson and his staff ensure that situations like these are addressed properly.
Harralson likes the variety of his responsibilities, and he enjoys working with the commissioners, who are political appointees. He’s been given opportunities that have allowed him to stretch. “I was asked to facilitate strategic planning for the Band, a function that involved both HR and organization development,” he said. “It was a great opportunity and learning experience.”
Even more, Harralson considers it a privilege to work on issues of tribal sovereignty, something in which he believes deeply. “I have an opportunity to uphold my country’s obligations and promises by working within the Band to enforce its sovereignty,” he said.
Some of the position’s challenges are inherent in human resources work. “There are two sides to any given situation, and a decision needs to be made,” he said. “I’m usually in an advisory capacity, but both sides can point fingers. I really just try to treat everyone fairly.”
Other challenges are more specific to Harralson’s situation. As a non-member in a leadership role in the Band, Harralson is an outsider. While that can be uncomfortable at times, it can be an advantage. Because he isn’t a member of the community, he can make decisions without family and other relationships clouding his judgment.
The legal challenges can be significant as well. As a sovereign nation, the Band has its own civil regulations, including those related to employment, rather than following state laws. Federal law is more of a question, and varies by situation. In some cases, tribal interests are written into the federal law. For the most part, however, the tribes are left to their own devices.
“Take the Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, for example,” Harralson said. “The statute itself does not say that it applies to tribes. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the statute does not apply to tribes.”
Opportunities Pointing in the Right Direction
Harralson’s experience at the School of Law prepared him well for his career. Studying federal Indian law with Scott Taylor gave him a solid grounding, he noted. “My mentor experience was fantastic,” he said. “Lenore Scheffler was a partner with Best and Flanagan whose main area of practice was federal Indian law, and she was a tribal judge for the Upper Sioux Community. The tribal court experience I gained through the mentor program was invaluable.”
Harralson also took advantage of the flexibility UST Law offers. He took a course on gaming law at the University of Minnesota Law School, and attended Lewis and Clark School of Law’s summer Indian law program. “St. Thomas was the place to be to allow me to gain experience from as many places as possible within a supportive environment,” he said.
Extracurricular activities, including Harralson’s participation in the Native American Law Student Association (NALSA), provided important opportunities. The chapters at the four Twin Cities law schools collaborated to host the National NALSA moot court competition. “The Opening Ceremony was held at the U of M, the competition was held at William Mitchell, Hamline hosted a CLE and St. Thomas held the awards ceremony,” he said. “It was a great experience.”
What the Future Holds
The career path he set out on years ago continues to lead Harralson in the direction of Native American issues. His goal is to remain working for a tribe or within a firm representing tribes.
“Working for the Band confirms that I like the way this government works,” he said. “I hope to work in government, either as an in-house tribal counsel or in a federal or state position.”
He wants to make a positive impact as he works to ensure sovereignty.
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