This is the perfect place to use the environmental skills I developed at VLS.”
Alicia Seyler has always had an environmentalist's heart, thanks in part to long childhood days spent in the woods of southeastern Oklahoma. She's recently come home to Oklahoma, bringing the skills of an environmental lawyer as well.
Seyler, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, earned her Master of Studies in Environmental Law (MSEL) from Vermont Law School while holding a VLS First Nations Environmental Law Fellowship. "Without that fellowship I wouldn't have been able to come to Vermont," she says. Her VLS training, and her JD from the University of Wisconsin, prepared her for the high-stakes role she's playing now: taking on an international corporation alleged to be polluting Indian lands. Seyler's an associate with the four-person Aamodt Law Firm in Tulsa that specializes in environmental and Indian law. "You usually don't think of Oklahoma as a hotbed of environmental law firms," she says. "Oklahoma is the nation's third-largest oil producer, and Tulsa is home to many oil and gas companies and pipelines. Most of the environmental law firms are advocates for the polluters," she explains. "And that makes us the renegades here. This is the perfect place to use the environmental skills I developed at VLS."
Seyler's desire to immerse herself in environmental law and policy developed during the four years she spent in Washington, D.C., working as the first-ever Indian liaison for the National Parks Conservation Association and with the Morris K. Udall Foundation. "It was my first exposure to environmental regulations," she recalls. She decided to pursue that area at VLS, which she first visited when invited to speak at a conference on American Indians led by Professor Bruce Duthu, an expert on Indian law and a member of the Houma Tribe of Louisiana. Professor Duthu became a mentor-"he's a great professor, and someone really experienced in the Indian community," she says- and she credits Professor David Firestone with giving her the foundations of environmental law. She also found the VLS community warmly welcoming, which helped her create a balance between pursuing her studies and raising her young son, Sage.
After a rigorous year finishing her MSEL at VLS, Seyler took on two journeys that touched important moments in American history and inspired her for the tough assignments ahead. She attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver with a colleague and fellow Choctaw, Kalyn Free, who was one of a handful of American Indian superdelegates. "We sat on the convention floor representing Oklahoma. For a small-town girl, that was inspirational." She also spent two weeks on The Longest Walk II, a march from Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay to Washington, D.C. The first Longest Walk, 30 years before, mobilized Indian people and supporters to protest-and ultimately defeat-11 congressional bills that threatened indigenous sovereignty. This time, marchers from 100 tribal nations and their international supporters walked two cross-country routes, visiting sacred sites and gathering signatures for an environmental manifesto presented in the capital. "We declared that all life is sacred, and that we must protect Mother Earth with immediate, responsible action," Seyler says. Her own walk ended in Philadelphia, Mississippi, now the capital of the Mississippi Choctaw Tribe. Known as the town where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, Philadelphia is also the place from which Seyler's people were forced to depart their native lands in 1832 and follow the Trail of Tears to southeastern Oklahoma. There she met Choctaws whose forefathers and mothers refused to leave and who hid out in bayous and forests, struggling to survive.
Now Seyler and her Tulsa colleagues are taking on their own challenge, conducting a class-action suit of American Indian plaintiffs, principal among them the Ponca tribe, one of the poorest in the nation. The defendant is a Taiwan-based corporation whose owner is the 40th richest man in the world. For years, the plaintiffs allege, his corporation's carbon black manufacturing plant has been spewing the stuff over tribal homes and property, and refusing to clean it up. (Think of copier toner-aka carbon black-raining down on you day after day.)
Seyler's firm is up against about a dozen attorneys led by an Oklahoma icon, the attorney who prosecuted Oklahoma City bombers Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. But Seyler is not cowed. "They have all the money," she says of the opposing side, "but we're confident we're going to have a positive outcome. We've made a really strong case." At the heart of this case is an ethic that echoes her childhood experience. "We want to see that Oklahoma is protected for future generations," she asserts, "and not exploited for current gain."