Inside Track: Meet Dennis Puzz Jr.: Serving Tribal Communities, Indian Law Section:

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  • January
    06
    2021

    Meet Dennis Puzz Jr.: Serving Tribal Communities, Indian Law Section

    Dennis Puzz Jr. is leading the State Bar of Wisconsin Indian Law Section during a year of pandemic. Find out more about Puzz and the section.
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    Dennis Puzz and father

    Dennis writes: “This is a picture of me and my dad after filling my truck to prepare for a long, cold, COVID winter. I adore my father, and this picture shows us working together outside to provide a warm inviting shelter this winter. My new-to-me house has a fireplace that I really enjoy using. One of my great joys in cold weather is to sit by a crackling fire, read a book, or just daydream for a minute to be thankful for the warmth as I wait for warmer weather activities.”

    Jan. 6, 2021 – Wisconsin lawyers practice in every aspect of law – and their backgrounds and skills encompass the great variety of life in Wisconsin.

    This year, we are introducing you to the leaders of Wisconsin law-related organizations that serve diverse communities.

    Meet Dennis Puzz Jr., chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin Indian Law Section and general counsel for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. He is also former executive director of his Tribe, the Yurok of northern California, who grew up in the Rhinelander area.

    Where did you grow up?

    I grew up mainly in Rhinelander. My grandfather came to Wisconsin from California in a move with the Weyerhauser Corporation to the Marshfield plant. When my dad got out of the Army (he was military police), he came to Wisconsin to be with his parents. He met my mom and stayed.

    Why did you pursue law?

    My first career was teaching high school in Stoughton, Wisconsin. I was also a diversity advocate in the district, and I created a new class entitled “Multicultural America.” Through this work, I came to appreciate the role lawyers and the law played in advocating for equality.

    This inspired me to apply my skills and intellect to the practice of law in the hopes of playing a small role in promoting and protecting tribal sovereignty.

    What events in your life shaped your career?

    I went to law school specifically to practice Indian law. During law school at the University of Minnesota, I was lucky enough to be a research assistant to Kevin Washburn (assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in the Obama Administration), participate in the law school’s Indian Child Welfare Act clinic, and clerk for the Hon. Lenor Scheffler at the Upper Sioux Community Tribal Court in Granite Falls, Minnesota.

    These experiences gave me the connections to land a prestigious associate position with Best and Flanagan LLP, Minneapolis, in their Indian law practice group. The training I received was second to none from dedicated practitioners in my area of focus, along with many others.

    Ultimately, I decided the best and most rewarding use of my skills was working directly in-house with tribal clients. I am lucky enough to have served the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (east central Minnesota), the Forest County Potawatomi Community (northeast Wisconsin), and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in various in-house attorney roles.

    I also served my own Tribe (Yurok) as executive director. This was a special time early in my career when I learned invaluable lessons on what being a Native professional and what serving a Native community means.

    Yurok is the largest tribe in California by membership. We are stewards of the Klamath River environment including salmon, eels, and redwoods. We bring balance to the world through our ceremonies.

    motorcycling

    Dennis writes: “This is a photo of me with my dad and his wife on a fall color ride from Wausau up to Rhinelander, at a snack stop at Hodag Park on the beautiful Boom Lake. I largely grew up in Rhinelander, so it was a bit of a nostalgia ride. They are Harley Davidson riders. I ride a Yamaha Royal Star Tour Deluxe.”

    What does serving a Native American community mean to you?

    Practicing law in a Native American community is the best way for me to contribute to the tribal community I am serving. In a larger perspective, it is the best way I can protect and promote tribal sovereignty. This is what drives me. I am able to practice in a commercial arena (e.g., gaming law and business development) knowing that all the revenues and jobs generated sustain the health of the Tribe and its members. I have a fulfilling and rewarding career serving tribal nations every day, and through this service I am able to further the goals of the community.

    Serving a Native community also means remembering to check your own ego and needs, staying humble about your accomplishments, and assisting your clients in achieving their own goals. That is the heart of sovereignty and self-determination. The tribal leadership makes the decisions. My job is to assist in gathering information and providing guidance when requested. There is rarely a decision point that lands squarely in my jurisdiction. To truly serve, you must remember your role and fulfill it to the best of your ability.

    What should we know about the Stockbridge-Munsee Community?

    The Stockbridge-Munsee Community has about 1,500 members, with a reservation located in Shawano County, northwest of Green Bay. The Tribe is currently bringing broadband internet service to the reservation area with a fiber optic project in partnership with Wittenberg Telephone Company. Like many tribes, we are constantly managing COVID-19-related safety programs, while also receiving decreased revenue from its businesses – the casino, golf course, and others – due to the pandemic.

    What should we know about the Indian Law Section?

    The section supports Indian law practitioners through fellowship, mentoring, and education, and it encourages law students to join the practice.

    The annual Indian law conference, usually held in August or September, is one of the greatest services we offer the State Bar and our section members. It highlights the latest developments in the law while offering fellowship and professional development to all who attend.

    snow tubing

    Dennis writes: “Here we are during winter break in 2019, while tubing on Sylvan Hill Park in Wausau with my kids Marek (now 15), Maleah (now 11), and Asher (now 9). Great winter fun!”

    What lead you to take a leadership role in this section?

    A dear friend in the section asked me to consider running for chair-elect. I was honored by her request and felt obligated to participate in an organization whose members over the years have been critical to my development as an attorney and in the development of Indian law in Wisconsin.

    I hope to create a space where everyone feels comfortable, valued, and heard so that, collectively, we can chart a path forward as a board.

    Looking ahead, I am intently focused on planning a high-quality Indian law conference that not only is the best and most affordable CLE content in the nation in this area of practice, it is also an extremely valuable way to network and reconnect with friends.

    I am also proud of the work we do to encourage law students to practice in this area of law – by offering scholarships and assisting with internship opportunities. These are perfect examples of values in action that is funded completely by the proceeds from the annual conference.

    On a personal note, what do you do in your free time?

    During my free time, I love to hike, paddle, sit by a crackling fire, and imbue a love for the outdoors into my children. When I crave a little time alone, I fire up my motorcycle and explore a ribbon of asphalt curving through the many great landscapes Wisconsin has to offer.

    I am happiest when I am spending time with those I love (family and friends). This has been one of the powerful lessons the pandemic has taught me. If you surround yourself with those you love and who love you in return, nothing else is truly needed.

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