Fredericks dedicates life to Indian lawThomas W. Fredericks, 68, was a fourth-grader when the water of the newly constructed Garrison Dam began to flood his family’s ranch and hometown of Elbowoods.
By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press
Thomas W. Fredericks, 68, was a fourth-grader when the water of the newly constructed Garrison Dam began to flood his family’s ranch and hometown of Elbowoods.
“The water started coming up in 1952-53,” he said from his law offices in Louisville, Colo. “My dad owned a ranch on the Little Missouri River — they condemned our land — they took it from us and paid a very minor sum to Dad and Mom.”
His family’s difficult relocation as part of the Garrison Diversion Project and his work experiences on the Standing Rock Reservation inspired his life-long commitment as legal counsel and advocate for Native American rights.
Fredericks was among four Minot State University alumni who received the MSU Alumni Association’s Golden Award Sept. 22 in the MSU Conference Center.
Selections were based on outstanding service to the university or alumni association and distinguished leadership in the recipient’s career.
Fredericks was born on the Fort Berthold Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.
Elbowoods is under Lake Sakakawea along Highway 8 — south of Parshall and north of Halliday, said Fredericks.
“The tribe hired engineers who tried to relocate the dam further to the west on a better location, but the Corp wouldn’t hear of it — they wanted Garrison,” said Fredricks. “They actually started building the dam before we were paid. The Secretary of the Interior negotiated an agreement with the tribe for the Indians to get free electricity and replacement facilities, but Congress basically gutted the agreement and gave $5 million for 176,000 acres of land. They took the heart of the reservation.”
The family moved from his dad’s allotment to his mother’s allotment away from the river.
“My mother built a home with the money we got, near Twin Buttes,” he said.
Fredericks remembers the ranchers along the river were very self-sufficient.
“At the time of Garrison Dam, 80 percent of the tribe lived along the river — they had cattle, horses, pigs, chickens, milk cows,” he said.
Fredericks didn’t realize until later why his dad wasn’t interested in ranching on the new place.
“He was depressed about losing the ranch,” he said. “So us boys took over running the ranch.”
While his four brothers and sister were into the rodeo circuit, his mother wanted Fredricks to attend college.
He boarded at Killdeer where he attended Killdeer High School. He excelled in sports and attained athletic scholarships to attend MSU. Briefly, a high school teacher and coach, he was appointed the Economic Opportunity Program director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
“I was a community organizer — I worked to create an Airport Authority and worked with government entities.”
He still remembers working on a document that took him six months to complete.
“An attorney came in and killed it in five minutes,” he said. “With that much power, I thought I’d go to law school.”
He enrolled in the University of Colorado Boulder Law School, where he discovered his passion for Indian law.
“When I went to law school, it didn’t have any Indian law, and I talked one of my professors into teaching Indian law — I helped write the curriculum,” he said. “Indian law is a microcosm of all law, administrative, contract law — you have all the requirements of state law. We worked very hard getting the program started.”
His work as a liaison between the California Indian Legal Defense Fund and the law school facilitated the founding of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder in the early 1970s.
As NARF executive director, Fredericks participated in the legal strategies during the 1970s when the courts addressed Indian legal issues.
He later served as chief legal officer and policy official for Indian Affairs within the Department of the Interior as a political appointee in the Carter Administration.
Fredericks was the founding partner of his own law firm — Fredericks, Peebles & Morgan LLP, in 1979. It is dedicated to the practice of federal Indian law, he said.
“We are probably the biggest Indian law firm in the country with offices in eight states,” he said.
Fredericks negotiated for tribes with the federal government concerning its trust responsibilities and the responsibilities of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
He has gained expertise in Indian gaming — with particular knowledge of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
He has been involved in negotiations for tribes in disputes with private, state and federal agencies over water, coal and land.
Other priorities are oil and gas mineral leases.
“The tribes have difficulty because they don’t have expertise to negotiate — they don’t have the petroleum engineer or geologist to know the value of their minerals,” he said. “The tribes are at their beck and call — instead of leasing the reservation in sweep, they could do a better job to lease in pieces.”
Fredericks’ firm also addresses jurisdictional and taxation issues — who gets the revenue from the taxes, who is to build the infrastructure for the reservation.
“Our infrastructure is being torn up by development — who is responsible for fixing it, for maintaining it?” he asked.
Fredericks has mentored young associates throughout his career, particularly helping young Native American attorneys to advance in their careers.
He has no immediate plans to retire.
“As long as I’m healthy, of good mind and am valuable to the young people in the firm, I’ll keep practicing,” he said.
Fredericks and his wife, Judy, have two daughters, Michelle and Monique, and four grandchildren, Elsie, Beau, Wade and Lucas.
His daughter, Monique Douville describes her father in one word — “fair.” She works as his assistant and office manager.
“He believes in hard work — I think it’s something he expects of his associates,” she said. “He’s very dedicated to his field.”
When the award was presented to Fredericks, it was stated, “It is impossible to measure his impact in Indian law, but his influence will last for generations beyond him.”