Chickasaw attorney exchanges high-pressure career for academia, family life
Back in Oklahoma teaching Indian law, connecting with heritage
January 7, 2021
NORMAN, Okla. - Chickasaw citizen Alex Pearl traded a grueling law career for the classroom - and he couldn't be happier with his decision.
Mr. Pearl dedicated long hours to his practice of Indian law in Washington, D.C., but he and his family yearned for a change of pace. The family sought a lifestyle that would accommodate more time devoted to each another.
This change of pace steered Mr. Pearl toward a career in academia, one where he could still put his knowledge of law to use. Eventually, the teaching life led him back to his roots in Oklahoma. Beginning in August 2020, Mr. Pearl started his new journey at the University of Oklahoma School of Law as a professor.
"Academia was a place where I could continue to impact tribal communities by teaching people about tribal sovereignty and teaching Native students without the significant toll it takes on you physically, mentally and emotionally," Mr. Pearl said. "Academia really gives you the space to think about those things you want to think about rather than only about those things the clients pay you to do."
Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Mr. Pearl attended the University of Oklahoma as an undergraduate and graduated in 2003. He went on to graduate law school at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007. After passing the bar, he began practicing law at Kilpatrick Townsend in Washington, D.C.
There, he practiced Indian law exclusively. He represented Native American tribes, individual Native Americans, and a variety of different claims. During his time in Washington, he married his wife, Tracy, who was also practicing law. The couple eventually started a family, adding daughter Lily Faye Ollali, and son Wyatt Edwin Kilimpi.
"We realized that working as private lawyers in D.C. wasn't conducive to a real robust and connected family life," Mr. Pearl said.
In 2012, Mr. Pearl and Mrs. Pearl took their first academic jobs at Florida International University in Miami. They were there for two years before moving on to Texas Tech University for six years.
"I've crossed the country since I left Oklahoma at 22," Mr. Pearl said.
The pull to return home wasn't the only thing that called Mr. Pearl back to Oklahoma. The opportunity to allow his children to learn about their heritage and culture in an up-close-and-personal way, was hard to turn down.
"I went to law school wanting to be an advocate for tribal communities and indigenous people, wherever they may be," Mr. Pearl said. "I had a chance to do that at a really high level in D.C. But I think what I learned quickly being in Florida and D.C., and even in Lubbock, which is a five-hour drive from Oklahoma City, is that being Chickasaw and being Native is about connecting to your community."
Now, a short drive from the Chickasaw Nation boundaries, Mr. Pearl is able to do just that - connect.
When Mr. and Mrs. Pearl started their family, they wanted their children to have a connection to the culture and language, so they contacted Chickasaw linguist Josh Hinson.
"When we were naming our children, I was able to connect with Josh and he was helpful in picking out names and thinking about that so there would be some cultural connection that way," he said. "That's a testament to him and a testament to all Chickasaw people who believe our culture is alive and well and we have to support it and live it."
Mr. Pearl is already reaping the benefits of being closer to his culture. Fellow faculty members teach Indian law and are more familiar with the inner workings of Indian Country.
"I've never been in an (educational) institution that had ever heard of federal Indian law or knew that tribes had tribal sovereignty," he said. "Being able to work with these colleagues and to speak that same language is really intellectually stimulating for me."
He is surrounded by colleagues who are invested in Native American law and tribal citizens. He's also seeing more Native students - specifically Chickasaw students.
This year, he has four Chickasaw students in his class, and that has been a moving experience for him.
"I was nearly brought to tears," Mr. Pearl said of his Native American students. "Having gone so long from being extracted and separated from Native students, that was really encouraging to me."
Some part of Mr. Pearl may see a younger version of himself in those Native students, just beginning the journey toward their professional careers. But time has shown him what matters most, and that being Chickasaw is a part of himself he's grateful for.
"Now, as a 40-year-old with kids, I understand how important it is to be grounded and connected to something that is significant," Mr. Pearl said of his Chickasaw heritage. "I think that's what's so great about this. About our community and our efforts to show off our culture. You can really rely on that. You can lose jobs and you can lose your house. That stuff is built on sand. Our culture is not."
Reconnecting to his Native American heritage has reignited his motivation to help the Chickasaw Nation grow and thrive.
"I want to contribute," he said. "I want to be a contributing tribal member to improve the capacity of the Nation. I want to give back to the community and be a part of that and have my family be a part of that. That's the thing I can do here that I can't do anywhere else."
Though his journey from state to state proved beneficial in many ways, Mr. Pearl is excited to see what the future holds for him in Oklahoma.
"We live in an incredibly divisive time," he said. "But when you can say you're proud to be a member of whatever community you're a part of, it really says something. I'm so glad to be back."