Chief Justice


For Henry Sockbeson '73, a career spent advancing American Indian rights leads to tribal supreme court

By Suzanne Merkelson '09
Photography by Mary Schwalm '99

Henry Sockbeson
Henry Sockbeson ’73 at his home on Cape Cod. He is holding a hand-carved gavel he was given when he assumed the post of chief justice of the Mashpee Wampanoag Supreme Judicial Court.
Chief justices need the right gear. Robes, bench, jury, years of law experience. And a gavel, of course. For Henry Sockbeson III ’73, a unique gavel reflects his singular position as chief justice of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s supreme court, created in 2007.

The wooden gavel was carved by a tribal artisan, just as Indian law, in large part, has been shaped by Sockbeson over his long and successful career. “It’s kind of an exalted name,” Sockbeson said of his new title as chief justice. Along with the two other newly sworn-in supreme court justices, he will hear cases and help shape the tribe’s new sovereign judiciary.

For Sockbeson, a member of the Penobscot Indian Nation, it was a given that he would work to advance American Indian rights. “I always knew I wanted to work for Indian tribes and Indian people,” he said. After studying government at Colby, he became the first American Indian from Maine to attend law school. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1976 and spent his career on Indian law—including land claims, tribal taxation, religious issues, and gaming.

According to Sockbeson, his career has been “varied, interesting, different, new, unpredictable.” And he has the evidence to justify this description. “I’ve had the opportunity to win and establish significant rights for people who didn’t previously have those rights,” he said.

The cases speak for themselves.

After Harvard he worked at the California Indian Legal Services, a federally funded provider of legal services for the poor, specializing in representing Indian tribes. “The judiciary was liberal then,” he said. “It made sense to pursue novel theories of Indian law.”

Like whether preventing Armageddon broke the law.

In California a Karok medicine man shot a partially albino deer off the reservation, both out of season and without a license. Responding to a citation by California’s fish and game department, Sockbeson was called in to assist the public defender, arguing that the Karok Indians believed that the White Deer dance must be conducted annually or the world would end. They needed the hide of an albino deer to conduct the ritual. “We said they had a right based on aboriginal religion,” Sockbeson said, describing the two-day dance from dawn until nighttime along the banks of northern California’s Trinity River.

Sockbeson lost that case—other medicine men were reluctant to testify, apparently jealous that the man was able to hunt the elusive albino deer, and there was no money to hire an expert. “We fought the good fight,” he said. “I should have won that case.”

In the late 1980s Sockbeson was in touch with the Larsen Bay Tribal Council of Kodiak Island, Alaska, where, in the 1930s, more than 700 artifacts had been dug up and carried away by an archaeologist, Ales Hrdlicka, without the consent of the community. The artifacts were on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Larsen Bay community wanted them back.

Sockbeson initiated landmark legislation arguing that the Smithsonian must return human remains and cultural objects to contemporary American Indian groups. In 1989 Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act, followed by Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, which extended these regulations to cover all federal agencies and other museums.

Sockbeson Gavel
Sockbeson's gavel, which was carved by a tribal artisan.
The artifacts were shipped back to the Larsen Bay community—by UPS. According to Sockbeson, the reburial ceremony was “the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” First, Russian Orthodox—the adopted religion of most of the people—priests did a reburial ceremony. Then came a more traditional ceremony, featuring drumming and, later, dancing.

“You have to feel conflicted,” Sockbeson said about the reburial of these artifacts. “I saw some of them. There was this perfect little spoon. A walrus tusk with incredibly graceful lines. They were thousands of years old.”

Now Sockbeson’s work takes him back to New England, where he worked from 1993 until 2007 as a tribal attorney for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. He then accepted a buy-out offer from the tribe and took a year off, pursuing his passion for sailing. In October 2008 he was honored with Colby’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

He noted that much progress has been made for American Indians in education. When asked about the American Indian experience as a student at Colby in the early ’70s, he laughed. “I was the only one,” he said. “It was a little lonely.” Now Colby and other schools strive to enroll Native Americans. A spring break program brings high school students from several Maine tribes to visit the campus, and a Jan Plan sends Colby students to Maine reservation schools.

Maine’s Native American community is far more educated today. According to Sockbeson there are now about a dozen American Indian lawyers in the state.

“When I graduated high school, my father threw me this big party,” Sockbeson said. “I was the first one from my entire family to graduate high school. It was a big deal.”
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