The Third Sovereignty
Alum Jason D’Avignon (’07) works with Native tribes, protecting their community and shedding light on their existence
by Sabi Lowder (Honors ’19)
photograph by Kodi Jo Brown
Jason D’Avignon (’07) uncovered his passion for Indian law during his time at the Gonzaga University School of Law. What started out as a law-clinic internship has turned into a six-years-and-counting career with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, where Jason works to support the tribal government.
“I work in the offices of the reservation attorney, pretty analogous to a general office for the federal or state government. My client is the tribal government, which operates through a 14-person council,” Jason says. “It’s a large reservation. It’s about 1.4 million acres, and there are four distinct districts.”
Before Jason’s time at Gonzaga, he was more resistant to the idea of authority and of working within a government. His current position has given him new perspective. “The Constitution is set up with two sovereigns: the state and the federal government. But there’s a third sovereign: there’s the tribe,” Jason says. “Oftentimes, people forget that Native Americans still exist, that their governments have been in existence for hundreds, thousands of years.”
Jason’s time at Westminster helped him to appreciate the importance of considering different viewpoints and to recognize that a multidisciplinary approach is the best way to solve large and complex issues. “Legal issues in Indian law are certainly large and complex,” he says. “They have existed since at least the founding of the country and require taking a broad view of the issue, looking not only to the law but to history, culture, identity.”
The tribes aren’t just dealing with the land disputes or sovereignty-rights issues that the external public typically thinks of, like the Dakota Access Pipeline or Bears Ears. They’re working through issues that all governments face: healthcare, taxes, and the best ways to take care of their people. “One thing interesting about working for a tribe is that you can hold the whole government in your mind and see how it works. You have the same problems that you have in every government,” he says. “There are over 500 recognized Indian tribes in the United States, including Alaska. They’re all very diverse, and they have very different kinds of government, but they are laboratories of democracy.”
The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are located about two hours out of Spokane, Washington, and made up of 12 tribes: the Chelan, Chief Joseph Band of Nez Perce, Colville, Eniat, Lakes, Methow, Moses-Columbia, Nespelem, Okanogan, Palus, San Poil, and Wenatchi. There are three languages and 9,500 enrolled tribal members between them all, each with its own unique history still shaping the reservation today.
A part of its history has to do with mass displacement of Native people by the US federal government. The Nez Perce people’s homelands were originally in Oregon, but the tribe was forced out by the US army during the Nez Perce war of the late 1800s. Chief Joseph, a renowned Native leader, led his followers through the West, almost making it to Canada in one of the most remarkable retreats in North American history. Following the war, the Nez Perce people were moved to Oklahoma, until Chief Moses of the Moses-Columbia tribe invited them to what is known as the Colville Reservation today.
Indian law is distinct in its depth, and the stories of Chief Joseph and Chief Moses aren’t the only two histories that shape the Confederated Tribes or the issues they face. That complex history is a part of what brought Jason to the Colville Reservation. Federal, state, and tribal authority all meet under Indian law, along with matters like land use and the cultural impact of dams.
“There’s a lot of issues I think that tribes are dealing with that people aren’t looking to see, like how things are being solved. You hear a lot of bad things about Indian reservations, about poverty, about substance abuse—which can be true,” Jason says. “But there’s also a lot of thinking about how to best provide healthcare services to people and what the best way to deal with crime in the community is. And tribes take a different perspective.”
Jason recommends donating to groups like the Native American Rights Fund or the National Indian Child Welfare Association if you’re interested in supporting Native causes. But mainly he suggests paying attention: “Talk to Native people—they have great perspectives on life. The United States government has spent centuries trying to eliminate the Native populations of North America, and they’re still here and they’re still strong,” he says.
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