USD law professor Frank Pommersheim, who recently received the Distinguished Achievement for the Humanities from the South Dakota Humanities Council in November, has been teaching Indian law at USD since 1984.
While this is one of many awards Pommersheim has received, he’s known best on campus for his engaging teaching style and passion for Indian law.
His interest in Indian law was sparked by a trip to Alaska to work with the Volunteers in Service to America, where he worked as an attorney to protect Native rights.
“(My Alaska trip) was my first experience kind of meeting Native people and I enjoyed it in terms of legal issues and challenges that presented more of a powerful introduction for me to live with, work with, (and be with) people from another culture,” Pommersheim said.
After Pommersheim finished his work in Alaska for VISTA, he went back to New York City and was involved in Vietnam War opposition, until a new opportunity presented itself.
“There’s a lot of luck in one’s life and through a friend of a friend there was a college starting on the Rosebud Sioux reservation here in South Dakota,” Pommersheim said.
Pommersheim said he was aware that the college was looking for a law-trained person to develop some courses for the college around treaties, tribal law and tribal government. After the interview process, Pommersheim and his wife bought a new car and moved to Rosebud in 1973, where he would work for 10 years before starting at USD.
Pommersheim said he makes a point to take his law students to a reservation each year in order to help them learn about the culture of indigenous people.
“Sometimes (reservations) have a (stereotype) of being dangerous places or a lot of alcohol problems. There are alcohol problems. But there are (also) a lot of significant, healthy, terrific things happening,” he said. “I not only wanted my students to hear me say that, but to go out there. I have started that field trip 25 years ago, and I have done it every year since.”
Cody Raterman, a former student of Pommersheim, said he has benefited from Pommersheim’s teaching methods.
“Pommersheim is the type of professor that commands attention throughout his class; students don’t mindlessly surf the internet, daydream or doodle. It is 50 minutes of active listening,” Raterman said. “Of all the professors, his was the only (class) I voluntarily sat in the front row.”
Another former student, Moreau FourBear, said Pommersheim gave him insight into Indian Law.
“Taking Federal Indian Law under professor Pommersheim has taught me to think deeper about issues (and) be willing to discuss issues by looking at both sides,” FourBear said.
Law school dean Tom Geu said Pommersheim has been an asset.
“Frank is a vibrant, engaged scholar and faculty member, and all I can see him doing (in the future) is what he is doing now (because) of the passion he has to help the tribal governments, university, state and the nation,” Geu said.
Pommersheim said he always tries to leave a piece of lasting advice with his students, children and grandchildren.
“You have to be ready in life for unexpected opportunities and be willing to take the plunge to do something that maybe you might not envision doing,” Pommersheim said. “In my life it made all of the difference.”
Correction: The Volante incorrectly stated that Pommersheim worked at the Rosewood Sioux reservation, not the Rosebud Sioux Reservation. The Volante regrets the error.