For centuries, indigenous people and native nations have fallen victim to an oppressive system deeply rooted in European elitism.
As a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Samantha Maltais has been exposed to these racist sentiments all her life. Her mother, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, currently serves as tribal council chairwoman, and has extensively advocated for the rights of her people, and all members of Indian Country.
After an extensive application and interview process, Maltais was accepted into Harvard Law School, and was awarded the prestigious three-year American Indian Law School Scholarship, which covers all costs directly associated with her attendance, including tuition.
The goal of the American Indian Law School Scholarship is to eliminate the financial hurdles to earning a juris doctor degree at Harvard Law School. The scholarship is open to American Indian or Alaska Natives who are an enrolled tribal member or lineal descendant of an enrolled parent or grandparent. Preference is given to tribal college and university graduates.
Maltais said she recognizes that federal law and policy impact every person in America, but growing up as a Wampanoag, she gleaned a different perspective that allowed her to see some of the implicit (and sometimes more blatant) flaws in the system.
“For tribes and for native peoples, our existence has been and remains directly impacted by federal Indian law and policy,” Maltais said. “I never had any sort of epiphany where I realized a legal education was important, because it has always been so deeply tied to who we are as tribal citizens.”
Maltais said the values instilled in her by her mother and father since a young age are the same driving principles that have gotten her to this point.
As she grew older, Maltais continued to involve herself more and more in tribal affairs, and noted that being a part of such a supportive and loving community allowed her to push herself, and be confident in her abilities to effect meaningful change.
“Her father and I are so proud of her and honored that all her hard work and potential has been recognized,” Cheryl Andrews-Maltais wrote in a text message.
Maltais left the Island to attend boarding school, at which point she set her academic ambitions in motion, and applied herself wholly to her schooling. After being enrolled in Dartmouth College, Maltais double majored in Native American studies and government, then modified her major to include anthropology.
“That was actually what got me on a foreign studies program in New Zealand during the winter of 2016,” Maltais said. “That was really cool because it gave me the international focus to indigenous rights, which is obviously important when you think about an increasingly globalized society.”
Currently, Maltais works for an international indigenous rights organization called Survival International, which often focuses on helping tribal peoples retain their ancestral lands, among other initiatives.
According to Maltais, her time at Dartmouth was “formative” because she was extremely passionate about her area of study, and knew the things she was learning would impact her community, and her life down the line.
When Maltais graduated Dartmouth, she entered the Peace Corps. Her service was supposed to last until this fall, but was cut short due to COVID.
“The Peace Corps evacuated 7,000 people. That’s when I thought, ‘ok, what do I do now?’” she said. Maltais had always intended to get her law degree, and figured it was the perfect opportunity.
She studied extensively for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and passed in the top one percent. Her experience preparing for and taking the exam, she said, exposed her to some of the gatekeeping mechanisms that make it so difficult for marginalized individuals to attend law school.
“That’s definitely a big concern when you are talking about diversifying the legal profession because the test itself is expensive, the resources are extremely expensive — a lot of it is very much out of reach for a lot of bright minds,” she said.
After being accepted into Harvard and into the scholarship program, Maltais said her first feeling was one of disbelief. But, when considering all the possibilities such a high-tier law education would afford her and other native people, she said a “wave of overwhelming gratitude” for all the support from friends, family and community members washed over her.
Although Maltais said she will focus on federal Indian law and policy as the most natural trajectory for her, she stressed how multi-faceted and intersectional that area of law really is.
As a native person who practices law, Maltais said, there are specific precedents and foundations to the legal system in America that she finds “very problematic.”
“When you look at the Declaration of Independence, it refers to us as merciless Indian savages, and that sentiment is really the same racism that grounds a lot of the foundational documents of our country and our constitution,” Maltais said. “You have all these really questionable precedents rooted in that initial intent to essentially systematically eliminate native people.”
As those oppressive ideologies get recycled and passed through the generations, they take different forms, but those same sentiments are still prevalent in foundations of law and policy today, Maltais said.
“My intent as a lawyer and somebody who practices law is to address some of those precedents and make sure that we dismantle the racism that is implicit and inherent to a lot of the legal doctrine we operate on in this country,” she said.
And the historical significance of Maltais’ position is not lost on her.
She noted that Harvard is part of the colonial framework intended to push tribal nations in the area into the “backdrop of New England, into the backdrop of privilege and elitism.”
Maltais said she is proud to have exemplified the values that her family worked so hard to instill in her, and is intent on exploring the possibilities that a Harvard education provides.
“Part of me feels like my mom should have been where I am a long time ago. Now here I am, pursuing the education and opportunities that weren’t afforded to her, and weren’t afforded to her mother or her grandmother,” Maltais said. “I am looking forward to fulfilling her legacy of service to our community and service to Indian Country. Maybe some young native women or other people from marginalized backgrounds can see where I have come, and where I have come from, and imagine themselves in my same position, sitting next to some of the brightest legal minds in the country, if not the world.”