On an early morning in late February, she’s heading down a deserted Highway 20, on a 55-mile trek to work, a large gas-station coffee with four pumps of pumpkin spice creamer in her cup holder. It’s not Starbucks, but it’ll do.
Peering into the rearview mirror, the one with a dreamcatcher dangling from its neck, she swipes on the last of her makeup, then brakes as she enters the village of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
To the side of the dusty main road, she sees the remnants of a burned-out grocery store, the one where the owners once tailed her mother around the aisles to make sure she didn’t steal anything. Ahead, crushed beer cans and empty plastic bags litter the landscape. Across the street, slumped against an abandoned building, head drooped on his chest, a Lakota man recovers from another night of drinking hope from a 24-ounce can of malt liquor.
Just three months earlier, the 38-year-old woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation would have been cruising down Maple Road, a bustling thoroughfare in Omaha, to her job at the prestigious law firm of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan. In her eighth year there, she was well on her way to becoming a partner.
That night, she might have gone to a rock concert with her friends at the Waiting Room Lounge in trendy Benson, or out to eat with her husband at Joe’s Café, or grabbed drinks and appetizers with coworkers during happy hour at the fashionable 7M Grill. Except she always ordered iced tea.
Now, she is leaving Whiteclay, crossing the border into Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, home of the reservation, and the poorest county in the U.S., where life expectancy for men and women ranks among the lowest in the world.
She parks her silver 2016 Hyundai Elantra on gravel in front of the prefabricated home that serves as the office of the tribe’s executive director. Her black heels click up a wooden ramp and through the door, stopping at the last room at the end of the hallway.
A standard sheet of white printer paper is taped to the door:
“Jennifer Bear Eagle | In-House Counsel.”
Her sacrifices — the stimulating Omaha job and the roomy three-bedroom house it paid for, a Starbucks and Target within driving distance, internet that streamed BBC radio without buffering — have all been made in pursuit of a dream she had as a child. A child whose clothes came from yard sales and whose food was bought with “Indian money,” as her white classmates called food stamps. A child who struggled to fit in, always the outsider. To build businesses, to create jobs, to serve as a role model — this is the dream that brought her back to small-town Nebraska and the Pine Ridge Reservation, a life she left two decades earlier to get an education, to find a place where she could fit in.
Now, the Lakota woman with highlighted hair, French-manicured nails and an unlikely obsession with the boy band One Direction once again finds herself an outsider. But this time with the confidence gained from earning a law degree and excelling at the largest Native law firm in the nation.
When she has to, when she sometimes questions her decision, she reminds herself: “You come from warriors.”
Far too much furniture fights for space in Jennifer Bear Eagle’s new residence — a pale-green trailer home in Eagles Nest Estates just outside Chadron, Nebraska, population 5,787.
Her mother, Bernadine Egger, sits on a tan couch that once graced the family room in Omaha. On another comfortable couch, Jennifer cozies up to her 2-year-old cat Panthro.
Jenny, her mom recalls, always wanted her own space, even as a baby. The other five kids would always cuddle, but not Jenny.
When Jennifer was 12, her parents divorced, and her mom moved her six kids from the reservation community of Wounded Knee and to the Nebraska border town of Gordon. Her new home opened Jennifer’s eyes to something she’d never noticed before: She was poor. On the reservation, with unemployment at 55 percent, everyone was poor. In Gordon, as late as the 1970s, stores posted signs saying, “No dogs or Indians allowed.” This was not the Rez. She didn’t fit in.
She wanted the white kids to stop making fun of her free school lunches and second-hand clothes, so the 16-year-old got a job at the local grocery store, one of the few in town where owners didn’t tail her as she shopped.
The money provided some independence and self-esteem and it helped mom, too. She could easily charge the family groceries to her paycheck. And whatever was left over often went to her younger siblings — payment for doing household chores listed on a chart Jennifer had made for them.
As a child, Jenny was shy and bookish. And she hated summers. There wasn’t a public library on the reservation, so when school closed, so did the library.
Once, she tried to read all the books in the library, starting with the A’s. When she couldn’t find anything new, she read Harry Potter books over and over. Her dad, Elmer Bear Eagle, read to his children every night before bed. Sometimes he’d just make up stories.
Jennifer’s mother and father never graduated high school. But their six kids did. And they all graduated from college. At one point, all six were simultaneously pursuing college degrees. Two of the Bear Eagles now have advanced degrees, and another two are pursuing them.
“For a bunch of kids from Wounded Knee,” her dad said, “that’s really special.”
In 1996, at her graduation from Gordon Public School, Jennifer wore something she’d received at a traditional Lakota honoring ceremony the day before. She tied it to her blue cap. The other kids didn’t understand the eagle feather. But she didn’t care. She’d beaten the odds. It wouldn’t be the last time.
She hates the Socratic Method.
Hates being called on in class. Sometimes she just sits there for minutes, not knowing how to answer. She dreads the thought of speaking in front of the entire class. She steels herself, remembering what she’s been told: Just make it through the first year. No one drops out of law school after that.
Just a year and a half earlier, Jennifer had been sitting in an English class at the University of Missouri, on course to a master’s and Ph.D.
And then it hit her.
“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘How is what I’m learning in this class going to help people on the reservation?’” she said. “I think I’m going to go to law school.”
She’d never dreamed of being a lawyer or even really wanted to be one. But that didn’t matter. She dreamed of helping her tribe, and to her, law school was the best way to do it. So she bought a study book, took the entrance exam and applied to the Nebraska College of Law. Acceptance and a full scholarship followed.
She’s not like a lot of her classmates, the ones whose parents or aunts or uncles or cousins are attorneys. She’s never met a Native attorney in her life. Law school, she soon discovers, isn’t like Gordon. Her classmates and teachers welcome her. Yet she remains an outsider, she doesn’t feel she fits in.
Still, she makes it. In 2008, despite the odds, she graduates, as the only Native American in a class of 122.
Now she needs a job, so she buys a plane ticket to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference. While she waits to transfer in Denver, snow shuts down the airport. So she rents a car and drives the rest of the way. She’s too late.
By the time she shows up, she’s missed the networking crucial to finding a job. But Lance Morgan is still there. A member of the Winnebago Tribe and Harvard Law grad, Morgan is CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of his tribe, and a partner at the law firm of Fredericks Peebles & Morgan. He notices Jennifer. And so does his colleague, Danelle Smith, the first female Native lawyer Jennifer has ever met.
That evening, they take her to P.F. Chang’s, one of Morgan’s favorite restaurants. He can tell Jennifer is shy.
“I was curious about a woman from Pine Ridge who would get a law degree,” Morgan recalled. “The kind of drive that takes to do. She was so quiet, it was different. I wanted to get to know her because I was just impressed of what she was able to accomplish.”
So impressed he offered her a job.
“Somebody said, ‘What were her grades like?’ And I was like I don’t know. I didn’t ask. To have somebody who claws their way up from the bottom, in my experience, that means they’re going to be very successful in life. I look for those kind of people.”
Jennifer and Danelle are very similar, Morgan said. Both grew up in poverty on reservations and made it through law school. They’re both shy.
But, of everyone on the reservations, why them? Why are they the ones who made it?
“I think it’s an inner drive to not settle and to always question things,” Smith said. And having parents and mentors who told her, “you’re smart enough and you can do whatever you want and hard work pays off.”
Overcoming her shyness was a challenge. Morgan said he constantly had to push Jennifer out of her comfort zone. But she figured it out.
Today, she serves as the northern panhandle representative on the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and took the lead in establishing the Indian Law section of the State Bar Association.
Stepping into her new role at the law firm was tough. It was a demanding job, and the stress took its toll. For a while, Jennifer slipped in and out of depression. She struggled, but eventually realized, “Hey, you don’t have to be super strong and will your way through it.”
So she called her doctor and started taking anti-depressants.
And then she discovered the British boy band One Direction.
“I’ve always liked boy bands. Even when I was a teenager and wasn’t supposed to like them because I was too cool for that.”
While coping with a new, high-stress job, her new obsession played a key role. Counseling and medication helped, but pop culture and a musical escape were critical at the end of a hard day. She’s aware of how it may sound coming from a successful 38-year old lawyer, but Jennifer says she learned to enjoy what makes her happy — with no apologies.
“One Direction saved my life,” she said. “I’m not going to deny it.”
She can name all her favorite songs and has been to four concerts, two on the same weekend. She knows all the band members’ birthdays. If she ever went to Los Angeles, she could likely find their houses.
So one day at work she decided to just do it — to “come out” to her coworkers as a One Direction fanatic.
“I decided I’m going to start talking about this, and it never stopped.”
The day after the 2016 election.
Her last day at Fredericks Peebles & Morgan. She would miss her tribal clients, who had come to respect her, and her coworkers, whose friendship she had come to value. And she would miss the birthday boxes, an office tradition she had initiated. In her box this year, not long before her last day, she found a pencil sharpener and a role of One Direction Duct Tape — 360 inches of packaging fandom.
Now, three months later, she and husband James McCave, a lawyer in the Sheridan County Attorney’s Office, hope to move from the trailer home into a fixer-upper.
Every Tuesday, it’s date night. The two meet at Twisted Turtle Pub in Rushville where she says the pizza is good and the location convenient — it’s on her way back from work and on his way to his bowling league in Gordon.
In her new office, a copy of “Damned Indians,” Jennifer’s favorite book, is smooshed between a photo of her in cap and gown at her law school graduation and texts on Indian law. A tan rock holds her door open for passersby. BBC Radio 1 plays Whiz Khalifa and Lil Wayne in the background.
On her desk, a stack of contracts awaits editing and approval. The to-do list on a wall-mounted whiteboard grows longer by the hour. Not the stuff of TV courtroom dramas. But necessary and valuable work for her tribe. And the first step to realizing her life-long dream.
Lance Morgan and Danelle Smith say she had all the skills to become a partner in their firm. But she told them early on she wanted to go back to Pine Ridge someday to help her people. “You can do so much more,” Morgan told her.
As a little girl on the reservation, longing for a good summer book, she drew the library she wanted for Wounded Knee on a scrap of paper. Adding to these scraps over the years, her sketches became more elaborate and ambitious: Business plans and laundromat models, a gourmet burger dive and a movie theater, a fine-dining restaurant and coffee shop. And a library in the shadow of the cemetery that honors the 300 victims slaughtered in that terrible massacre 127 years ago.
This is her way of fighting back. She’s tired of the good of her tribe often overshadowed by the bad, like all those that alcohol has slaughtered in that shameful town of Whiteclay, the one she drives through each work day. She says she wants to be the Lance Morgan of her tribe. Under the umbrella of Bear Cave, LLC, (a combination of her and her husband’s last names), she would create businesses and jobs for the Lakota just as Ho-Chunk has done for the Winnebago.
And why not? Her parents always told her there was nothing she couldn’t do. Lance, Danelle and her former Omaha coworkers were proof that it could be done. As was her cousin, her tribe’s first female president. And her Lakota ancestors.
Sometimes, Jennifer Bear Eagle says, she can hardly recognize herself: the bookish little girl in Wounded Knee; the ostracized adolescent in Gordon; the shy law student in Lincoln; the stressed out but persevering Omaha lawyer. She’s different today. More confident, more assertive.
Yes, like her ancestors, she is a warrior — just one in a charcoal gray Calvin Klein suit and black Coach purse.