Monday, March 4, 2024

Green shoots: A corporate lawyer supports his tribe’s quest for recognition

Cary resident Joshua Richardson wakes up before sunrise several times a week to head 70 miles to his hometown of Hollister in Halifax County. His workday typically begins when he arrives at his office in the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Government Building.

Richardson’s day job is as a business and litigation lawyer for Buckley LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm with more than 160 attorneys. He represents clients on a variety of government enforcement, litigation and compliance matters.

But starting about 6 p.m. several days a week, Richardson is working as the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe’s legal counsel on a pro bono basis. The work sometimes runs until midnight before he heads home to Wake County.

“Attorney Joshua Richardson has provided an invaluable service as a pro bono legal counsel to the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. Our tribe is truly grateful for his support,” says chief Brucie Ogletree Green Richardson.

Joshua Richardon, citizen of the Haliwa-Saponi tribeJoshua Richardson, 34, earned a law degree at N.C. Central University. He became licensed in October 2020 but was sworn in the following month in recognition of Native American History Month. “I chose to be sworn in during the month of November because of the special dedication and meaning of this month celebrating my heritage, my ancestors and sending a strong message that we [Native Americans] are still here.” 

He also recently earned a master’s degree in indigenous peoples law from the University of Oklahoma. Much of his work is to help the tribe achieve federal recognition that would create a “government-to-government relationship” with the United States. North Carolina recognized the tribe in 1965.

The Haliwa-Saponi Tribe settled in an area referred to as “the meadows” in the 1700s, Richardson says. The name “Haliwa” is derived from the counties of Halifax and Warren, where a majority of  approximately 4,300 enrolled tribal citizens live. Saponi means “red earth people.” The tribe’s building is in Hollister, a town with a single traffic light and fewer than 700 residents, most of whom know each other by name, Richardson says.

Gaining federal recognition, which involves the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, has been a goal of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe since the 1980s. It wants the right to self-governance and to gain eligibility for certain federal benefits, services and protections, he says.

“We don’t have a reservation — I have to clarify that for people all the time,” Richardson adds. “But we are working toward achieving federal acknowledgement to be able to ensure that our tribal governance continues to grow.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Richardson says, Zoom and other digital capabilities have enabled him to limit his commute to Hollister two to three trips per week. Along with the recognition work, Richardson assists with information requests, employment
issues, investigations, monetary reports and audits. “You name it, I help with all of it on a pro bono basis,” he says. 

There are three lawyers in the tribe, one of whom works for the government and the other for another tribe. “I am basically the only one who has the capacity and the ability to be able to help lead, in a sense, from a legal perspective,” he says. An 11-member council governs the Haliwa-Saponi.

During the third weekend in April, the tribe hosts one of the Southeast’s largest annual powwows, attracting thousands of visitors interested in learning about its culture. Various local institutions help the tribe preserve its culture and heritage, including the Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School.

“If the native tribe were not there, I do not believe the community would be the same,” Richardson says.

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