As Lee Redeye began his career as an attorney, he started to hear from more Native Americans in Western New York who needed legal help.
“They just didn’t have the money to pay for it,” said Redeye. “There’s just not a lot of awareness about where to go or where to get some help with these issues that they may have.”
Redeye, associate at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP, had the idea to open a legal assistance clinic where Native Americans could get answers to local, county or tribal legal questions.
He reached out to the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and convinced them it’d be something it should add to its repertoire.
“All low-income populations are under served, but I think the Native American community in Western New York is particularly under served,” said Robert Elardo, VLP’s executive director.
The clinic’s first session is set for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday night in the Native American Community Services offices at 1005 Grant St. in Buffalo. Following the May 14 opening, the clinic will be open at the same time the second Tuesday each month at NACS.
“I want it to be successful and I want to help as many people as we can,” Redeye said. “If we can help out one family with this initiative that would make it all worth it.”
Redeye, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, was raised on the reservation in Irving and in New Mexico. He knew early on he wanted to be an attorney because it was one of the ways he could best help his people in the modern world, he said.
At Lippes Mathias, he focuses on Indian law and litigation and dispute resolution.
The clinic, though, is open to people who wouldn’t be able to afford the firm’s services. It will operate as a partnership of the firm with VLP and NACS.
Native Americans of any descent may use the clinic, he said.
“Everyone deserves justice, regardless of their financial means, and the Native American Legal Aid clinic will help Native people navigate complex and foreign courts so that they are not overwhelmed by the legal system,” Redeye said.
Four of the eight federally recognized tribes in New York have a presence in Buffalo and the surrounding area – the Cayuga Nation of Indians, Seneca Nation, the Tonawanda Band of Senecas, Tuscarora Nation. A federally recognized tribe, nation or pueblo is an entity that has a relationship with the U.S. government that possesses certain inherent rights of self-government and also is entitled to federal benefits, services and protections.
There are over 19,000 Native Americans living in Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genesee, Niagara and Orleans counties, according to data compiled by Partnership for the Public Good.
Elardo said, though, not many who would be eligible for free legal services, have sought assistance.
Of the over approximately 4,000 people VLP served in 2018, only 17 were Native Americans, he said.
“We think it’s a great opportunity to reach an under served population and we’re excited about it,” Elardo said.
Local, state and federal laws apply to Native citizens in different ways.
A report from PPG outlined some of the following key legal differences:
- On federal reservations, only federal and reservation laws apply.
- Individual Natives pay federal income taxes just like every other American.
- Most tribes have established tribal courts.
- Similar to state governments, tribal governments are not themselves subject to taxation by the federal government.
- Tribal governments use their revenues in a similar fashion as state and local governments to provide services to citizens. Tribal governments, however, generally cannot levy property or income taxes because of the unique nature of their land tenure and jurisdictional restraints.
- Income from tribal businesses is the only non-federal revenue source for most tribes.
- States cannot directly tax a tribal government, but they can collect taxes on sales to non-members that occur on tribal lands. Conditions on such are often established through intergovernmental agreements.
The clinic will use the same income guidelines as VLP, Redeye said.
Serving the clinic’s clients will be volunteer attorneys along with a paralegal from VLP and staff attorney Vanessa Guite, also Native American.
If the demand is there, Redeye said he aims to look for ways to expand to multiple monthly sessions and different locations, such as in Niagara County.
“I just want to make a difference in people’s lives,” Redeye said. “I hope to have a long career of helping my people; this is just the first.”
He credited VLP, NACS and Lippes Mathias for be instrumental in helping him make the clinic a reality.
“They’re the ones that made it all happen,” he said. “Without all three partners, this wouldn’t have worked.”