Where There’s a Will

Columbia student Andrea Johnson led a Care-A-Van to Native American tribal lands

Published in 2012 New York — Metro Rising Stars — September 2012

Spring Break: rural Wisconsin!

It was a novel idea, Andrea Johnson knew: persuading fellow Columbia law students to spend their 2011 holiday on Wisconsin’s tribal lands assisting the population with legal issues. The experience, she wagered, would have a profound impact on both the Native Americans in need and the East Coast law students.

“I’d researched it and realized how underserved the population is by the legal community,” says Johnson, who graduated this May. “I wanted to get those students to work with a population that probably didn’t cross their radar, even if they are committed to civil rights and human rights.”

After graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., Johnson worked for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum researching women’s and American Indian rights issues. She became inspired to do more.

“I started the Midwest Society at Columbia and was determined to do pro bono care that would get people working in the Midwest,” she says. She eventually got in touch with Wisconsin Judicare, which assists the state’s Indian tribes and needed help drafting wills.

“There’s a lot of land fractionation on reservations throughout the U.S., but in Wisconsin in particular,” Johnson says. “Property is being divided up into smithereens, basically, because people are not drafting wills.”

No will means property is turned over to the tribe.

With Judicare, she organized an Indian Wills Care-A-Van to shuttle 11 Columbia Law students to five northern Wisconsin tribes. To drum up interest in the trip at school, she partnered with the Native American Law Student Association. “A big energy developed pretty quickly,” she says.

Once on the reservations, the students, led by Judicare’s David Armstrong, set up shop in community centers and invited tribal members to talk wills.

“The first time was in a firehouse,” says Johnson. “My little office was a folding table set up by a fire truck. We had a set of questions based on a template that we asked each client: What is the property that you own? Who do you want your house to go to?” As students, they could inform their clients; only Armstrong could legally advise.

It often took persuasion to get clients to participate. “They have a cultural aversion to planning for death,” she says. “I think the idea was: If you plan for death, then death is more likely to come quickly. … We had many clients who would start working with us, then 15 minutes in, stop and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ We would talk them through it and explain the benefits and the negative consequences that had resulted to their communities economically and socially because wills had not been drafted for so many years. Usually, they’d come around.”

Johnson says a highlight of the trip was a potluck that Judicare hosted one night, complete with fresh venison and green bean casserole. “It was a very Midwestern potluck,” she says. “It was this sort of wonderful cultural collision with people from many different tribes and many different regions of the U.S.”

The Indian Wills Care-A-Van wrote up 75 wills in four days—more than Wisconsin Judicare can do in a year and a half, says Johnson.

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