Chickasaw law student completes degree, plans associateship on West Coast
August 26, 2020
Many would describe Mari Hulbutta as a "briefcase warrior." According to Hulbutta, the term refers to a modern protector of tribal interests using contemporary, analytical tools.
"It's about defending your people," Hulbutta said. "(Chickasaw Nation Under Secretary of Senior Counsel) Stephen Greetham describes tribal sovereignty as a shield and a sword at different times, and I think the law works in a similar way. It's something you use to protect yourself but also something used as a tool to defend yourself."
Beginning with the tribe's first encounter with Europeans during the 1500s, Chickasaws gained a reputation, which remained for centuries, and still remains today – "unconquered and unconquerable." It is a warrior tradition alive with men and women now answering a call to serve and protect, Hulbutta among them.
With nearly a decade dedicated to higher education on the East Coast, multiple internships and fellowships across the country, a handful of esteemed mentors to help guide her and a juris doctor degree in hand, Hulbutta is well equipped.
Hulbutta, a Chickasaw citizen, and Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) descendant, completed her studies May 20 at Columbia Law School in New York City, adding doctor of law to her list of titles.
Reared just north of Oklahoma City by a single mother who was also an educator, Hulbutta knew from an early age she was going to earn a college degree at a minimum. Thanks to her family and the people around her, she became interested in law and policy as a youth.
It was a curiosity fueled by both historical impact and family knowledge. Mainstream history left gaps, which she filled in with the words of her family – stories of personal and ancestral trials and tribulations.
"My great-grandmother on my mom's side ran away from a boarding school. She and her brothers escaped when they were elementary school aged. They went to the allotment in Hughes County. They built a house," Hulbutta said. "She never spoke English, never had a car, fully gardened all her food. Her son, my maternal grandfather, was later directly impacted by the federal First American relocation policies in the 1950s, which served as an attempt to terminate relationships between tribes and their tribal citizens. Once my mother was born, my grandfather realized the importance of raising a child closer to our tribal communities, so he returned to our family's allotment in Oklahoma. Together, these decisions showed my family's independence and resistance against the federal policies imposed upon First American people across generations."
These stories became a bit of resistance Hulbutta echoed as a child, feeling inclined to not participate in her school's Oklahoma Land Run reenactment. It was a flame fanned by the First American people, educators and leaders she grew up around.
"I became interested in the historical relationships between the tribes and state. Lawmakers, judges and other decision makers have a powerful role in society to develop, shape and change laws. It was very present in my life, and I wanted to know exactly what these laws and their varying interpretations mean."
By studying psychology and political science at Columbia University, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, she was well on her way.
After graduating, Hulbutta turned insight into practice in Washington, D.C., as a legislative fellow at the National Congress of American Indians. She also worked as a policy specialist in the American Indian Law and Policy practice group at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP.
When she was selected for a temporary secondment to Facebook's Global Compliance and Political Ethics team, Hulbutta opened a door to a new interest.
"It was at Facebook where I became aware of privacy concerns and intellectual property disputes," she said. "That was right around the 2016 election, a really important time for Facebook to evaluate what its purpose was as a media company and social platform for engagement."
Her drive to specialize in First American law was already well established. And her new experiences with intellectual property law led Hulbutta to consider where those two worlds combine.
"I think it is important and beneficial for First American people, law professionals and academics to explore this field of tribal intellectual property law," she said. "Just as tribes have an interest in governing their real property and land, it's becoming more incumbent on tribes to treat their intellectual properties in a similar manner and protect the unique branding of the tribe's economic entities as well."
During a graduate school summer internship with the Chickasaw Nation's Office of Senior Counsel, Hulbutta worked with and learned from Greetham and Debra Gee, executive officer of legal in the Chickasaw Nation Department of Interior Services.
This experience allowed Hulbutta to explore firsthand how the types of law intersect.
"I got to delve into IP (intellectual property) from a tribal perspective with a tribe, which is so economically diverse and sophisticated, a tribal government with over 100 business enterprises, chartered under tribal, state and other laws," Hulbutta said. "It was a nice convergence of my interest in serving tribes as well as an interest in intellectual property."
These combined specializations placed Hulbutta in a unique position, understanding both the tribal side and IP side of issues, with expertise to help resolve disputes in those realms.
Her continued growth as a law professional followed these dual specialties as guiding lights. She rounded out her studies at Columbia Law School with mentorships, internships and fellowships.
She said she is grateful for getting to work with and learn from many mentors, both from within the Chickasaw Nation and out in the broader world. Her supporters and advisers have included Greetham, Gee, Jefferson Keel, Dakota Cole and Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, among others.
"Having this great cohort of people to look up to, in positions of leadership I hope to one day have, has been very influential for me," Hulbutta said.
Those influences become clear with the amount of advocacy and accolades Hulbutta has gathered. She served as Native American Law Students Association (NALSA) president at Columbia, liaised between East Coast Native law student chapters and the executive board of the National NALSA organization as an area representative, fulfilled a congressional internship with the Udall Foundation, worked with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services writing wills for elders, protected the constitutional rights of Standing Rock protestors, oversaw externs at the New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts as a teaching fellow for Columbia's arts and entertainment externship program and edited academic publications as a staff editor for the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts.
"I am grateful for all of the educational scholarships and support I've received from the Chickasaw Nation," she said. "I appreciate the embrace of pursuing whatever it is you are interested in. Even if your path doesn't lead to a job directly with the Chickasaw Nation, I am confident that the tribe is still going to support you and will ensure that you still play an important role as a Chickasaw citizen."
Hulbutta said she does feel personally driven to come back and serve the Chickasaw Nation – once she has equipped her warrior's briefcase with more experience and knowledge.
The path ahead
As a Doctor of Law, Hulbutta traveled back to Oklahoma City for the summer, anticipating a professional relocation westward.
She chose a firm based on the flexibility to practice both intellectual property and First American law. It was a natural fit to link up with Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP's intellectual property litigation practice group in Century City, California, as an associate. The firm has a First American law practice group where Hulbutta will also serve.
"They saw a good niche for me to fulfill a space representing tribes as a tribal citizen, while having expertise in intellectual property. It really worked out," she said.
Looking further into the future, some time back on the East Coast doing tribal advocacy work in Washington, D.C., is also part of Hulbutta's plan. She said she hopes to broaden her range of advocacy.
"I'm very proud of my Chickasaw heritage. I'm also proud of my Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) heritage. My family is very important for me. I'm the first person in my family to attend or graduate from law school. I want to give back and pay it forward for all the sacrifices my parents and ancestors made so that I could be in the position I am today," she said.