Person to Know: Theresa Rocha-Beardall

Theresa Rocha-Beardall stood at the front of the compact, upstairs room of the Native American House, the bright blue glare of the projector light spilling onto her navy and white polka-dot dress that was as structured and poised as her words. She was the featured speaker Friday afternoon during “Chat ‘N Chew,” a series offered by the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations, that provides free food and culturally-oriented talks to University students and faculty. This particular presentation was centered around influential Native American women in law.

“Thank you to my fellow classmates at the law school for always listening to me talk about Federal Indian Law,” she began with a smile, “because it’s not taught at all (in the law school) right now, so they have to listen to me in every class bring up that there were and are Native people with their own sovereign legal systems.”

Rocha-Beardall, mother of two, is in her third year at the University’s law school, breaking into the field of law, where men outnumber women more than 2-to-1. She has Mexican, Oneida and Sault Ste. Marie roots and was born in the United States, where the government is still struggling with its legal relationship with immigrants and sovereign American Indian nations. And she is determined to give all of these parts of her background a voice.

Rocha-Beardall focuses on bringing awareness to federal law and its relations with the sovereignty of American Indian Tribal Law, a field she characterizes as complex because it is a “body of law built on stolen land, broken treaties and forced assimilation.”

While she said that to some of her law school classmates these viewpoints may seem radical, she also has American-Indian friends who criticize her for being “too soft” in her discussions of the federal government. But Rocha- Beardall said she “operate(s) in the middle” not only because it is more within her character, but also because she believes this is where negotiation happens.

“I see the law as a place for negotiation, but you have to get people to be willing to sit at the table first to negotiate,” she explained. “And that’s a lot of what I do in the law school, is to get people to listen and to think differently about the law than they ever did before.”

Nicole Stringfellow, also a third-year law student, said that her classmate’s point of view is valuable and eye opening.

“There aren’t many voices expressing those same types of opinions and perspectives, so (her voice) is definitely unique and definitely necessary,” Stringfellow said.

In law school and in her work as a graduate assistant fellow in the American Indian Studies program at the University, Rocha-Beardall is making an impression with her distinctive approach to the field of Federal Indian Law.

Vicente Diaz, associate professor in the department of American Indian Studies, was part of the committee that hired Rocha-Beardall as a graduate assistant, and said that she is an asset to the American Indian Studies program.

“I was not just proud of the presentation she gave, but it helped confirm why I came here to the University of Illinois,” Diaz said. “This is a place that is doing native studies in a very compelling and different way, and I think she shows that.”

Before she came to Champaign-Urbana, Rocha-Beardall graduated from San Francisco State University with bachelor’s degrees in Latin American Studies and American Indian History. After earning her master’s in Federal Indian Law at the University of California – Los Angeles, she then went on to fulfill a personal commitment to contribute to education by becoming a high school science teacher in Los Angeles for three years. Her experience with the public education system revealed inconsistent teaching staff, inadequate funding for classroom supplies and even textbooks, and an overall inability to meet student needs.

“I made a promise to myself that if I went to school that I owed a service to public education,” she said.

In the end, this promise ended up impacting her in two important ways: she met her husband, Dr. Josh Beardall, an English teacher who taught down the hall at the time — and now also a current third-year law student at the University — and she discovered her passion for teaching.

In the future, Rocha-Beardall said she wants to become a professor and continue to advocate for women and Native Americans in government and education. She was selected as one of 18 women to be a 2013 Fellow for Ms. JD, an organization that promotes women’s interests in the legal profession. As a female law candidate, Rocha-Beardall said she has been learning more about what it means to achieve success as an attorney.

“(It means) speaking up for yourself in class, about carving out a space for yourself the way you want to be an attorney without somebody telling you that you have to do it like a woman,” she said. “For rising female attorneys, it is a challenge to blur the lines of what a female lawyer is and can be because there continue to be strong gender biases in the profession.”

Diaz said that as Rocha-Beardall works toward her law degree and pursues her interests in Federal Indian Law and American Indian Studies, her contributions will continue to be valued in both fields.

“She talked about what she called these ‘rock star’ Native American women who are rising very quickly to positions of power both in the federal government and in the tribal court system and the difference they’re making,” Diaz said. “And I couldn’t help but wonder if we were watching a rock star in the earliest moments of her training.”

Maggie can be reached at [email protected]