Melissa Tatum

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The Tribe’s the Thing

Native American law has captivated this alumna who devotes her professional life to tribal law and personal life to Celtic music.

By Donna Parker


Melissa TatumAsk Melissa Tatum what she does for a living and within moments, it's clear that she is one of the lucky few who never works a day in her life. She received a double degree in philosophy (legal theory) and economics from Trinity in 1989, and tribal law is her passion. As a research professor of law and the director of Indigenous Peoples Law & Policy Program at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, Melissa helps bridge the gaps between tribal and U.S. government law.

"I picked this as a specific topic during my second year of law school," explains Melissa. "I'd intellectually known about tribal governments but hadn't realized there was this whole other system that isn't taught in law schools. I just feel like it makes a huge difference in people's lives."

"The biggest issue that has hit the media concerns domestic violence protection orders. It is a huge problem because the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't recognize the rights of Indian women, and since much of the violence is committed by non-Indian men not bound by Indian rules, protection orders are not being enforced."

That is but one issue for which Melissa is seeking a creative solution. She served on Michigan and New Mexico task forces. They created procedures for both tribes and the state to more efficiently educate police on implementing the solutions.

Melissa's other primary interest is Celtic music, and she hosts several house concerts each year for other enthusiasts to enjoy the songs in an intimate setting.

"I'm producing a CD right now that will benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research," says Melissa, who herself was diagnosed with Parkinson's eight years ago.

She's a songwriter and wrote or co-wrote all 12 of the songs which are either Celtic or heavily influenced by Celtic music.

"I'm by nature an optimistic person and have been lucky because my disease was diagnosed very quickly. Because I love my job and it's a part of who I am, if it ever does impact my ability, it's just something I will cope with."

Melissa's husband is a web developer and they parent a dog, named Mystery, adopted from a rescue group in Tulsa, their former hometown. The couple loves to attend concerts, and Melissa also unwinds by reading, playing the flute, and writing songs.

She is grateful for what she learned from Trinity professors Peter French, department of philosophy, and John Huston and Richard Butler, both from the department of economics.

"They all taught different subjects but all engaged my thinking in new and different ways than before. All three were gifted teachers, and I wouldn't be doing what I am if not for them."

"Every day I use things I learned at Trinity, especially critical thinking skills and writing. They really had a huge impact."

Melissa, who describes herself as hard working, inquisitive, and laughingly a meddler, embraces every new challenge and never lets the hard times deter her from her chosen path because as she remarks, "Those challenges are what make life interesting."

You may contact Melissa at

Story posted:  October 2012