Former high school dropout Heather Kendall-Miller got her GED and a degree from Harvard Law School. Now she's preparing to face the U.S. Supreme Court.
By Sheila Toomey
Daily News reporter
Heather Kendall-Miller, a high school dropout born in Seward, raised there and in Fairbanks, was 27 when she decided she better quit having so much fun and get serious about life.
With a GED in her backpack, an early marriage and a sojourn at a New Age seminary in California behind her, she enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, graduated with a 3.9 grade point average and went to Harvard Law School.
Now 42 and a lawyer for not quite five years, she's the reigning queen of Indian country litigation in Alaska, gearing up to argue the Venetie case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
''I have had the most amazing luck in my life,'' she said.
People who know Kendall-Miller, now married to fellow Native rights attorney Lloyd Miller, are more likely to attribute her success to independence, intelligence and an edgy intensity she brings to her work.
Before returning to school, she spent seven years working construction with her first husband -- making money, traveling around Europe and the Middle East, building a homestead on a hot springs in the Ray Mountains west of Fairbanks. ''It was just this magical wonderful place,'' she said.
Married at 17, mother of a daughter at 20, divorced at 23, she enrolled at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1983 intending to become a teacher. It seemed like a good career for a single mother in the middle of a recession.
It didn't last. ''I quickly got bored with the curriculum,'' she said, and started taking courses in Native politics. ''I think I was drawn into this as a way of learning about my past.''
Kendall-Miller is a shareholder in the Bristol Bay Native Corp. and a Dillingham tribal member, one of three sisters raised by a non-Native father and adopted mother after their Athabaskan mother died. All three sisters are now lawyers.
When she got to UAF, ''the sovereignty movement was really taking off. For the first time I really thought this is something for me. This is something I can get involved in. I really enjoyed the intellectual challenge that Indian law offered.''
She also met a teacher who recognized her potential and ''just kind of reeled me in. He made me go off to law school.
''I saw him as someone who was my age and was already making a contribution. I thought, what have I done with my life? What have I done except have fun.''
Her years at Harvard were an education in more than law. ''It was the first time in my life I had been around so many smart people,'' she said. ''It came as a big surprise.''
She graduated from Harvard in 1991. After a term as a law clerk for Alaska Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, she went to work for Alaska Legal Services and then the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit legal agency based in Boulder, Colo., with offices throughout the West.
The Venetie case was already under way thanks to her predecessor in the NARF office here, Bob Anderson, a pioneer in Alaska Indian law who left for a job with the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.
Kendall-Miller was five months pregnant during oral arguments before the 9th Circuit and nine months pregnant during the battle in Juneau earlier this year when the Legislature and Gov. Tony Knowles appropriated $1 million to fight her in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Her second daughter, Ruth Miller, was born on Valentine's Day, exactly 21 years after the birth of her first daughter, Asha Kendall. Her husband, summoned to Juneau the next week to address the Alaska Federation of Natives, handed out Baby Ruth candy bars.
Two weeks ago she became a grandmother.
Kendall-Miller's job is to persuade at least five of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices that the 9th Circuit decision in favor of Indian country was essentially correct. It will be her first appearance before the high court, and a Herculean task, according to experts in the field.
Her opponent, hired by the state, is Washington, D.C., lawyer John Roberts, another Harvard graduate but with 25 Supreme Court cases under his belt.
''I checked him out ... when the state announced his name,'' Kendall-Miller said. ''I thought, uh-oh, the big guns.''
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