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KU Law alumna receives ‘genius grant’ for advocacy work on behalf of Native American victims of gender violence

Wednesday, September 17, 2014
Sarah Deer, L'99, recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship

LAWRENCE – University of Kansas alumna Sarah Deer, a national leader in the effort to protect Native women from gender violence, has been named a 2014 MacArthur Fellow by the MacArthur Foundation.

Often called “genius grants,” MacArthur Fellowships are awarded to individuals who exhibit exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. Deer is among 21 individuals in the 2014 class of MacArthur Fellows who will receive a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 over five years.

“The MacArthur Fellowship will change my life in a number of ways, but more importantly it will allow me to do more focused work on the passion that I have for justice for Native women,” Deer said in a video interview with the MacArthur Foundation.

A professor at the William Mitchell College of Law and a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Deer has documented in her scholarship a history of inadequate protection for victims of physical and sexual abuse in Indian Country. She has simultaneously worked with grassroots and national organizations to reform federal policies that hinder the ability of tribes to prosecute offenders. Her efforts were instrumental in the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Deer, who earned a bachelor’s in women’s studies and philosophy from KU in 1995 and a juris doctor from the KU School of Law in 1999, said she had been interested in women’s issues from a young age.

“I remember finding out when I was 6 or 7 years old that women didn’t have the right to vote in the United States until 1920,” she said. “Somehow as a young girl I just couldn’t get my mind wrapped around that. I think that sparked the passion that became my career.”

It wasn’t until she arrived at the KU School of Law, though, that she made the connection between federal Indian law and a history of injustices against Native women.

“Taking Federal Indian Law with Rob Porter the fall of my second year was a pivotal point in my career,” she said. “I suddenly realized, ‘This is my calling.’ Right there in one of the small KU law seminar rooms, things changed for me.”

After law school, Deer worked for three years at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and then became a victim advocacy legal specialist and staff attorney at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute in Los Angeles. In 2009, she joined the faculty of the William Mitchell College of Law, where she is currently a professor and co-director of the Indian Law Clinic.

A native Kansan who grew up in Wichita, Deer maintains loyal ties to KU. She served as the keynote speaker at the 2009 Diversity in Law Banquet and spoke about “Native Women, Violence and Reproductive Justice” at a law school forum in 2012.

She described winning a MacArthur Fellowship as “overwhelming” and said she’s still brainstorming how she will use the award to advance her work. One possibility is taking some time off to immerse herself in learning her tribe’s endangered Muscogee language.

“I’m particularly interested in how legal concepts and legal norms are reflected in the Muscogee language,” she said. “That’s a project that I’ve been dreaming about for a while, and it might be possible now.”

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