Dan Press traces how legal work for Native Americans led to advocacy to uproot trauma

In 1964, Dan Press was in his first year of law school and was not liking it; he wanted a way out. He applied for a volunteer spot with AmeriCorps VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, and was intrigued by a position on an Indian reservation.

Dan Press

“I knew nothing about Indians, but it sounded like a good opportunity,” says Press, who was raised in Flushing, in the Queens borough of New York City. “So, I signed up and the next thing I knew I was on a plane to Montana,” he says.

It was a move that changed the course of his life.

Press, an attorney and now 78 years old, has spent his entire working life fighting on behalf of Indian tribes. He helped found the Tribal Employment Rights Officein 1977, which now has 300 offices around the country. His first legal battles involved pushing for enforcement of laws passed a half a century earlier to give Native Americans preference in hiring for employment on Indian lands brought by outside agencies and firms, but until Press challenged practices and won, those laws were largely ignored.

During his long legal career from working for The Navajo-Hopi Legal Services Program for the Navajo Nation in Arizona to his work at Van Ness Feldman, a law firm in Washington, D.C., he’s also counseled Indian tribes in advancing legislation that’s resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in land settlements and the procurement of new health facilities. He helped found the first intertribal bank in the nation. Press has also been a champion of promoting trauma-informed initiatives, which in 2018 earned him a Public Advocacy award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies for “Outstanding and Fundamental Contributions to Advancing the Social Understanding of Trauma.” In addition, he is the author of “A How-To Handbook on Creating Comprehensive, Integrated Trauma-Informed Initiatives in Native American Communities.”

Press is the general and legislative counsel for the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP), which helps local, county and state initiatives advocate for legislation to expand trauma-informed practices across the country. He also served as general counsel for The Roundtable on Native American Trauma-informed Initiatives. Both organizations are pro bono clients of his law firm. He has taught classes on tribal government at Columbia University, including “The Holocaust and Genocide in America”, in which students looked at common themes that arose in the genocides of Native Americans and of Jews.

On his first foray into Indian land in Montana, Press tutored children and coached basketball on the Crow Indian Reservation in the southern part of the state. While there, he was approached by Joseph Medicine Crow, the last living war chief of the Crow tribe, an oral historian and writer, who chronicled the living stories of the Crow. Medicine Crow asked Press to translate Crow treaties with the federal government into everyday language. (Medicine Crow, who won a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his war time service during WW II and for his work chronicling Crow history, died in 2016). The project was a turning point for Press. “It made me interested in Indian law,” he recalls.

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