It took me about a year of thinking about it until I got the courage to approach Heather Kendall-Miller for an interview. To me, Heather is way up there with our top Alaska Native leaders of today. I went to an event at the First Alaskans Institute where Heather was the featured guest. It was a coffee time event, where we had a chance to learn more about Heather. I told her I was intimidated to approach her, and she told me just to reach out. I met with her not too long after that to learn more about her.
Heather is Dena’ina Athabascan with family ties from the Dillingham, Alaska area. She has been a staff attorney in the Anchorage, Alaska office of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) for the past 23 years. Heather’s legal experience includes cases involving subsistence, tribal sovereignty, human rights, and taxation. She is well-known for being instrumental in winning the Katie John subsistence hunting and fishing rights case in 2001. Heather has worked with other Alaska Native communities like the Native Village of Venetie, the Native Village of Kluti Kaah, the Native Village of Barrow, and the Nome Eskimo community.
I asked Heather if she has any advice for Alaska Native women who have goals aspirations and challenges to overcome. Heather received a history degree, magna cum laude, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF) (1988). She received her M.A. J.D. from Harvard University Law School (1991). This did not come easy because she left a tough relationship in order to succeed in law school. She said, “My desire to achieve an education was detrimental to the relationship.” The closer she got to achieving her educational goals, the more threatened he became. Heather was 33 year old when she started school.
With a deep passion for learning more about federal Indian law and social justice, Heather worked hard to earn her law degree as a single mother. The summer before law school, she attended a pre-law summit in Albuquerque for Native American woman. She saw other women struggling with domestic violence issues. One lady was even dragged down the hall at a hotel. It made her realize she had a decision to make. Heather tells her story not because she’s looking for sympathy, but to give hope to women who may be in a similar situation.
“I had a goal of getting an education for years. Going to school and studying was a way to maintain control of my life. It gave me a focus. This is what I want to do.” – Heather Kendall-Miller
In her junior year at UAF, Heather took a master’s degree class on federal Indian law. She connected to the history of federal Indian law and the political relationships. Heather researched why Alaska Native people are beneficiaries of services and the role they have in relationship with the federal government. She thought to herself, ‘This is something I can do.’
When Heather started school, her daughter was in junior high school. Heather grappled with the potential impacts of moving her daughter out of state when she went to law school. School and career changes can impact children and it was a challenge to maintain balance in her life. It was a struggle, but she persisted. After earning her law degree, her goal was to pass the bar and get a job.
Heather met and married Lloyd Miller and they had a child. Her first daughter had a child and Heather and Lloyd raised her. Both girls are now earning their college education. Heather hopes to retire by the end of the year. Her mom and dad are 103 and 93 respectively and she wants to spend more time with them.
Heather’s Dena’ina mother died when she was very young and she was raised by her her white father and later on her white stepmother. Although Heather didn’t grow up in a traditional Native household, her father instilled in her the value of helping people. She is driven by issues and the needs of her clients, which makes her an effective advocate. Heather has a strong interest in serving Native people and standing up and defending Native rights.
Working as a staff attorney for NARF was her dream job because it provide her an opportunity to focus on the issues of institutional racism. Heather is concerned about the global changes taking place right now and what it means to Alaska Native people, culture and the traditional way of life in respect to their connection to land and resources. Heather respected the late Katie John for insisting on continuing her way of life. She said, “It’s a story about resilience, survivance. Survival is more than just surviving – you do survive by moving forward.”
I asked Heather how can people put culture into their lives if they weren’t raised in a traditional Native household or who live away from their people. Heather maintains relationships with people and observes Native culture and how people relate to each other. She incorporates Native values into her life. Heather’s daughter connects with other Native American students at college, and is finding ways to learn the Dena’ina language.
For those who are aspiring to be lawyers, Heather says, “Be clear in your head what aspect of lawyering you want to do.” She compared lawyers with doctors, and how they can specialize in many areas. For instance, ask yourself if you want to focus on tribal rights, Alaska Native corporations, or non-profit organizations, etc. How you see yourself is also important. Think of ways you can attend law school for three years with expenses. Once you earn your degree, you still have to pass the bar exam.
Maintaining balance with a family and career has not always been easy, but Heather strives to inspire others to move beyond their circumstances to achieve their goals. She recommends focusing on balance and wellness and finding ways to replenish energy especially when your life is busy. I appreciated and enjoyed getting to know Heather a little bit. Chin’an to Heather for sharing your story!