Halterman, of the Seneca Tribe, based on the Allegheny Reservation in Salamanca, New York, saw the issues effect women in her tribe as well as the impact of drugs on her community. It inspired her to pursue a law degree.
“It's really important to me that Native Americans are treated equally. That's why I came to law school. [I hope] to become a prosecutor so I can be in a position to address that,” she said. “It's really important to me because there's a lot of overdoses in my community. I have had a lot of friends and family members who have passed away from fatal overdoses.”
Gougeon, of the Ojibwe tribe, which spans most of the upper peninsula of Michigan and into Canada, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, worked as a domestic violence advocate for several years before she decided to go to law school.
“I worked in domestic violence advocacy for my tribe. And I also worked in Indigenous victim services for the Métis Nation of Ontario. And I enjoyed that. But I noticed that there were issues that I couldn't address in my position there,” she said. “I wanted to have a bigger impact on what was going on in the criminal justice system. I still don't know how I'm going to do that, but I do know that it's going to be within my tribe at least to start.”
As students introduced themselves in Professor Lynch’s class back in August, Halterman heard Gougeon mention she worked at her tribal office, so she reached out.
They immediately connected on their Native backgrounds.
“There's a lot of similarities, there's some differences, but I think we really can understand each other and where we come from. For me personally, it was really nice to have that. I don't have any family out here in Albany. To have a Native connection with someone who shares my culture, it's really important to me. And it's been really nice to have Ariel as a friend,” Halterman said.
They have also been able to connect with other Native women in the local legal community through the Albany Law School alumni network.
Gougeon met Brenda Baddam ’17, who then said she needed to meet her friend Jennie Marie Durán, Assistant Vice Chancellor and System Wide Affirmative Action Officer at The State University of New York (SUNY). Durán is of Indigenous and Mexican descent.
Durán was extremely welcoming and has remained a resource to both of them and has even invited them to her home, they said.
“When I got there, it just felt like home. Because she's so much like my family and people from my community. There are similarities and there's differences [among Native people]. I think the similarities are so noticeable no matter where a Native person is from,” Gougeon said.
“When we visited her, it felt like home right away. It really meant a lot to me,” Halterman said. “It felt like a home on the reservation. The decor, the vibes. I felt comfortable there. It was nice because I don't always have that feeling in Albany.”
Making an Impact
Both Gougeon and Halterman are making a difference on campus as well. Halterman was recently elected as Diversity Senator for the Student Bar Association.
“I am definitely hearing student concerns, because I feel like a lot of times, and not [only] here, but broadly in every area, people will hear your concerns and sympathize with them, but nothing gets done. I want to be the person who makes sure that things get done,” she said.
Things are already getting done. Several students have asked for dedicated prayer space on campus so they would not have to travel between home and school to pray. The space accommodates multiple religions.
In February, the pair collaborated with the Muslim Law Students Association to collect donations for earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria.
And both are hoping to bring Native culture into more conversations and help the Albany Law School community learn about their history and how their lives look in the present.
“I think that Native people are often excluded from the diversity conversation or inclusivity conversation or [when we talk about] racial disparities. In courses like Property, there are things sometimes glossed over. And those things have had a direct impact on our lives,” Gougeon said.
For example, in her Property course, when a case about Native property ownership was discussed, she saw an opportunity for students to learn more detail about the history. In some cases, she said, Native people still don’t own the land they live on and it is often discussed as an idea of the past.
“Some family members own their land now, but many do not. It’s still in trust with the federal government. It's not something that only affected my grandma or my great-grandma. It's something that still affects us today, and people don't realize that,” Gougeon said.
Gougeon worked as a survivor advocate before coming to law school. She’s tapping into that experience and gaining courtroom experience within the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office. The experiences, so far, have helped her become stronger in standing up for others, as well as her heritage.
“A survivor of violence knows best how to keep themselves safe. And we can't replace our judgment for their judgment in a lot of situations. I think it comes down to prosecutors thinking that they know what's best. I think going through this experience and from the lens of domestic violence, it can be transferred to [help victims of] other types of crimes. And I think that that is just a really important skill to have. And just to be cognizant of that fact,” she said.
Halterman is working in the Albany City Court’s Domestic Violence Unit focusing on arraignments.
“I learn a lot from how to speak to the survivor and to be sympathetic and empathetic, but to also be professional and gather the facts that you need,” she said. “ I think it's important to be professional and address the issue, but to also be empathetic to what the person is going through and offer services to them to help them and to just do your best to address the situation.”
Speaking up for others takes courage. Speaking up for yourself can be an even tougher. But both encourage anyone curious about Native history or lives to ask. They both hope to take the opportunity to correct things as they come up, like when Native terminology such as powwow or spirit animal is used casually. Or using the term tribe to describe a group of people.
“My tribe is my home. [They are] my people that don't only support me now, but they also have supported me my whole life. And I wouldn't be the person that I am if I didn't have my tribe, which people can say the same about their friends, but it's different. It's a lot different,” Gougeon said.
“I'm a hundred percent open because [many] people don't know. I want to inform them. I want people to ask me about my culture and share with them how are things similar or different from theirs,” Halterman said. “It’s important to mention we're still here, Native Americans aren't in the past with the pilgrims. No, we're still here. We're current. That’s so important, for us to be represented.”