A Sense of Justice

Arlinda Locklear

Arlinda Locklear ’73 knows the law. And for the last 30 years, this dedicated attorney has waged a personal crusade in the name of law – seeking justice that has proven elusive and long overdue for many issues facing Native Americans. 

by Stephanie Hunt 
Photos by John Harrington 

Home is everything to Arlinda Locklear. She works from home, but more significantly, home is why she works and what she works for. Home stirs her passion, calms her soul, energizes her long days and fortifies her for long fights. Make that very long fights, as in a century-old struggle.

Locklear is a dogged attorney and nationally recognized expert in Native American law. Throughout a distinguished 30-year career, she has represented numerous tribes on wide-ranging issues; however, one cause strikes particularly close to home – the enduring fight for federal recognition for the Lumbee Indians, a battle that has waged since 1888. Today, her primary residence and home office may bear a Washington, D.C. address, but “home” for Locklear will always be Robeson County, N.C., where her Lumbee ancestors and extended family have lived for centuries.

“Whenever two Lumbees meet, the first question is always, ‘when were you home last?’ and by ‘home,’ they mean Robeson County,” Locklear explains. “You have a place in this universe when you are Indian – a physical, cultural, genealogical place. It doesn’t matter where you actually are, that’s your place.”

Locklear’s “place” is the southeastern corner of North Carolina, where the dark waters of the Lumber River snake through cypress swamps and pine barrens. Robeson County claims its share of superlatives. It is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. Geographically, it is the largest county in North Carolina, and one of the state’s poorest. Unemployment rates are consistently high in this rural, agricultural land of turpentine and tobacco.

The Lumbee tribe is 50,000 strong – the third-largest tribe in the nation – and though they received official federal “recognition” in 1956, the legislation came without the financial benefits and entitlements given to other federally recognized tribes. Ninety percent of those on the Lumbee tribal rolls live in the small towns of Pembroke, Lumberton and the other small communities that comprise Robeson and surrounding counties. Here “Locklear” is a common surname (both her parents are Lumbee), and Arlinda’s pro bono work since 1987 to resolve the tribe’s limbo status has only elevated the family name.

Born at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, N.C., Locklear spent her school years in Charleston, where her father was stationed with the Navy, and graduated from North Charleston High School before going to the College of Charleston. Yet throughout her childhood, she traveled back and forth to North Carolina, spending summers, vacations and holidays with her grandparents and many cousins back “home.” Having a foot in both worlds was eye opening.

“In Charleston I was seen as exotic or unique because of my Indian heritage, but in Robeson County, segregation was the order of the day,” she recalls. “At the movies in Lumberton, whites sat downstairs, blacks sat on one side of the balcony and Indians on the other. The Indian-only schools were under-funded. Even at age 12, I recognized that this was not just individual discrimination, it was government-sanctioned discrimination, and was unacceptable. I knew early on that I wanted to become a lawyer and work to change this.”

A political science major, Locklear credits history professor George Heltai as influencing her intellectual and professional path. For Locklear, Heltai’s experience as a prisoner in a Hungarian concentration camp gave his history lectures particular resonance. “Professor Heltai truly challenged and engaged us,” Locklear says. “He opened my eyes intellectually and gave me confidence that I could do this work. He was everything a good teacher could and should be.” According to Nan Morrison, professor emerita of English, “Arlinda was an outstanding student. Even as a sophomore, she had an amazing frame of reference and always asked penetrating questions.”

Locklear graduated in 1973 and went on to Duke University School of Law, where she distinguished herself as a promising litigator, winning a national moot court competition her third year (against none other than Boston College student John Kerry). Her interest in Indian law intensified during a course with Professor Lawrence Rosen, an anthropologist, lawyer and expert on American society and law and the rights of indigenous peoples. Rosen, who has since taught at Northwestern University School of Law, the University of Pennsylvania, Oxford University and Columbia University, and is now on the faculty at Princeton, not only remembers Locklear, but claims that “she was the most memorable student I ever had. She was captivated by the material, and was exceptional from the outset at being able to home in on the central pulse of a complex issue and articulate it brilliantly.”

After earning her JD in 1976, Locklear went to work with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals. During her 11 years with the organization, first in Boulder and then as director of NARF’s Washington, D.C. office, Locklear represented tribes throughout the country in federal and state courts, arguing water and land treaty claims, taxation disputes with states and local authorities, reservation boundary issues and federal recognition of tribes. According to Rosen, the seventies were the heyday of American Indian litigation. “Arlinda came in at the height of the flood,” he says. “Her talents and Indian litigation were made for each other.”

In 1983, Locklear became the first Native American woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, and has twice served as lead counsel in cases in which the Supreme Court found in favor of tribal parties. In Solem v. Bartlett, she successfully challenged the State of South Dakota’s authority to prosecute a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux for on-reservation conduct, and in 1985, she represented the Oneidas in Oneida Indian Nation v. County of Oneida, in which she formulated and argued the theory adopted by the Supreme Court, holding that tribes have a federal common law right to sue for possession of tribal land taken in violation of federal law. Oneida is the landmark case for which all other land claim litigation has since been based.

Another case, helping the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona win a successful settlement of their water rights, has given Locklear particular pleasure and pride. “Most Arizona cities were built with stolen Indian water,” she explains. “When we filed the case in 1979, their desert reservation was totally arid and desolate. We won in 1990, and now nearly one third of the land is in bloom and cultivated. It’s beautiful, and the result is very gratifying.”

Despite flowers in the desert and other successes, Locklear’s work demands more in stamina and patience than it offers in immediate reward. Although she first argued and won the principal argument in the Oneida case 20 years ago, a land settlement still has not been reached. The Lumbee recognition debate continues to drag on, and frustratingly, momentum rises and falls according to political whim. Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) supports Locklear’s efforts, championing the cause in Congress, but Dole’s most recent effort at passing recognition legislation was defeated.

“Most Indian issues are long-standing disputes,” Locklear explains. “There are over 500 tribes in the U.S., and while new issues keep rising up, many old ones take generations to resolve.” Nonetheless, Locklear, a dedicated runner who logs 4 miles three days a week, is in it for the long haul. “I’m a strong believer in the Constitution and in our system of justice. I have to believe that our courts resolve matters on principle rather than on expedience or economic feasibility,” she affirms. “So I keep trying, and hope that the next time they will meet their own standards of justice.”

Life has been full for this stalwart mother of two. Her son, Garrett, was 4 and daughter, Rachel, was 16 months old when her husband, also an Indian-rights attorney, died of a heart attack in 1988. With two young children to support, Locklear went to work for the Washington, D.C. law firm Patton Boggs, LLC, but later returned to private solo practice in order to be more available to her children, both now in college. In addition to her legal practice and advocacy work, Locklear serves on the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, founded in 1887 as the first Indian-only institution of higher education and now part of the UNC system. She has served on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union, been named the Outstanding Woman of Color by the National Institute for Women of Color in 1987 and received the 1995 Carpathian Award for Speaking Out, given by North Carolina Equity. In 1990, Locklear was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York.

The recognition is no doubt deserved, but hardly the motivation for Locklear’s perseverance on all Indian justice matters, especially the Lumbee plight. “It’s very difficult for Indian communities to sustain themselves and maintain separate cultures without distinct institutions,” she maintains. And though she would love nothing more than for her people to finally receive the same benefits that other recognized tribes receive, she realizes it may not happen under her watch. “This fight has been going on for 100 years; it may just be my job to bridge it to the next generation,” Locklear says. “Still I believe that each of us has a responsibility to give back to our communities, to our place in the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to find my place,” she adds. “I consider it a blessing to be an Indian – it’s a gift God gave me. I know there’s a place I can go and be taken care of and loved by an extended family and community, and that’s a rare and precious thing in this world.”