Get Big Pivots


Eulogists gathered at the University of Colorado in Boulder remembered the visions, passions, and well-grounded mentoring by the law professor who knew how to use words and make a difference


by Allen Best

Charles Wilkinson arrived in Boulder during 1971 as a young staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. In 1975 he left Boulder to teach in Oregon, but then returned for good in 1984 and, according to his eulogists at a memorial on Saturday, created a lasting legacy on the human and physical landscape of the West.

He did so with his words, said Terry Tempest Williams, paraphrasing what she heard Wilkinson tell his own law school students many years ago.

This was on a field trip to Utah’s Canyonlands, such field trips being a crucial part of Wilkinson’s instruction, she explained.

“It felt like family, so much more than a class,” she recalled. “He told his students beneath the stars along the San Juan River, ‘As an attorney, all you have are your words,’ he said. ‘Remember that what you say and how you say it will become truths. Your words may begin as aspirational, but if you back up your word with ground-truthing the beauty and brokenness of the land, the waters and the people you represent, those words will become law, horizon-bidden truths that will come to you from the land itself if you listen and live with an open heart.”

Williams, explained that she had consulted her journal from that trip, which reminded her that his words had felt dangerous She asked for clarification.

“He looked at me. ‘As a writer, you surely know this,’ he said. I didn’t. And then he said, ‘If you say something and know where your words are rooted, and the words will become alive and become true. Aspirational words have the potential to become facts of the future.’ He paused. ‘We just have to make certain  the words we choose come from the depth of an ethic of place.’”

The lesson she drew was that there can “be a straight shot from writing to real-world results.” “That,” she added, “changed everything for me as a writer.”

Wilkinson died at the age of 81 in early June, just days before the annual Western water conference sponsored by the academic institution that partly bears his name: the Getches-Wilkinson Law Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. This year might have been special for him had he lived as there was a lengthy afternoon panel with representatives of many of the tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

John Echohawk and David Getches had founded the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder in 1970. They had some success, but “nobody knew anything about us, and Charles really picked up on that and decided he needed to go into teaching and writing and scholarship,” said Echohawk (seen in the photo above) in his eulogy.

In that, he succeeded. Returning to Boulder, Wilkinson became affiliated with the law school in 1987. In time, Wilkinson and Getches put the University of Colorado Law School on the map as “basically the greatest law school in the West when it comes to federal Indian law. That is the reputation of this law school,” said Echohawk during the sunshine-swathed memorial held outside the architecturally-commanding four-story CU Law School building.

“Our friendship spanned 50 years,” said Echohawk. When I would think about trying to draw tribal leaders together to develop consensus about building a political agenda for Indian country or planning education or institutes focusing on specific topic areas important to tribes, I would call Charles to see his advice. When we talked, he would listen for a while and suggest what we had to do. He was always spot on. He was always supportive and somehow made time to be an essential part of the many meetings we held across Indian country and Washington D.C.”

Wilkinson, said Echohawk, “always knew how to laugh and joke and appreciate life.”

All 11 of the speakers told stories or shared observations about Wilkinson’s boundless enthusiasms, including the outdoors. He taught Echohawk how to flyfish. His enthusiasm could be traced to a love for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“You have to pay attention to nature, every piece,” he had instructed.

This enthusiasm extended to his family. One of his sons told about Wilkinson’s efforts to get another son into an elite summer camp designed for high school basketball stars. Wilkinson succeeded and then traveled to New York so he could watch the proceedings courtside. That was not something parents normally did. He did that with most everything.

“My dad was very good at being a dad,” said his son Seth. “He was emphatically present with us.”

Those enthusiasms continued into his more advanced years. Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the CU Law School and former director of the law school’s American Indian Law Clinic, told of meeting him as he walked up the law school steps a decade ago. She asked him how he was doing.

“Life just keeps getting better and better,” he replied. “But only up to a point.”

Colorado Attorney General Phil Wieser, a former l dean of the law school, reported that as a law professor he only once got a 6.0, the highest course evaluation possible, from his students. It was for a course he co-taught with Wilkinson.

“All the students knew that he cared deeply about them,” Weiser explained.” He respected them. He empowered them. And that’s something I will carry with me.”

It was not, he went on to say, just in the classroom. “Charles made everyone feel important. Charles cared about everyone and people loved working with Charles, and that is something else that will stay with me. His presence and his ability to be present were truly exceptional. “

And Wilkinson could be determined. Weiser said he was there as Wilkinson lobbied Mike Conners, then an undersecretary in the Interior Department, for designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. “He was persistent, and he was going to win.” He also credited Wilkinson with leading the fundraising effort for the law school building, a very challenging task. Students — not just law students — voted to raise their own fees to pay for the building built to the highest green-building standards of the time.

Wilkinson’s optimism was a theme noted by many speakers. “Charles Wilkinson was an unwavering optimist,” declared Lolita Buckner Inniss, the current dean of the University of Colorado Law School. “ He never tempered his enthusiasm in any way.”

Several identified a link to the late writer Wallace Stegner who taught at Stanford University when Wilkinson graduated from law school there in 1966.

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope,” wrote Stegner in one of his most celebrated essays. “ When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Said Weiser, “Light in time of darkness is precious. It always matters. Charles, through his optimisms, through his humbleness, through his romantic spirit and aspirational spirit for a better West, for a better humanity, made us better.”

Allen Best
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