Honoring an Indian Law Trailblazer: Colleagues Remember Professor Alex Tallchief Skibine

Aug 21, 2023 | Faculty

By Andy Faught

Professor Alexander "Tallchief" Skibine, a white man with light brown hair wearing a taupe blazerThe new 1Ls sat in their torts class at Utah Law in 1998, unsure of what to expect. One of them, David Hill ’01, recalls his sentiments exactly: “I was terrified, and I know a lot of other people were pretty terrified as well.”

In front of the classroom stood Professor Alexander Tallchief Skibine, the S.J. Quinney Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Utah, detecting the nervous energy before him.

“I’m about to tell you what you need to do to survive in law school,” Skibine told his students, some grabbing pencils to transcribe what was coming. The advice, Hill remembers, induced gasps: “Choose a class on your schedule and fail it, just go ahead and aggressively fail it,” Skibine said.

“He went on to talk about the logic of it being that … in an effort to fail that class, maybe you’ll actually do quite well in there,” says Hill, now a clinical professor at the law school who teaches legal methods and contract drafting. “We understood that he didn’t necessarily mean that, but it helped puncture the stress of the moment. It made us feel better about the challenges that we were confronted with.”

To those who knew Skibine, who died Feb. 4, 2023, at age 70, the moment played to his strengths. Skibine could leaven difficult moments – both as a lawyer and a teacher – with a trademark humor.

In March, family, colleagues and students joined at the law school to celebrate Skibine and his 34-year teaching career at Utah Law. Skibine was a member of the Osage Nation and served on the board of directors of the Osage Nation Foundation, and he gained national distinction as a leading scholar in Indian law.

When he arrived at the law school in 1989, there were no more than five Native scholars nationally who taught Indian law, says Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and an expert in Indian law herself.

“By just his very existence, he was a trailblazer,” she says.

Skibine worked at the College of Law as the S.J. Quinney Endowed Professor of Law until just shortly before his death from a reoccurrence of glioblastoma. In his memory, the Alexander Tallchief Skibine Indian Law Endowed Scholarship has been established to support Utah Law students with an interest in Indian law.

Throughout his career, Skibine was self-effacing and he didn’t draw attention to himself, Kronk Warner says.

“He never took himself too seriously, and I think that allowed him to really meet the students at a level that sometimes faculty can’t,” she adds. “He respected his students and really enjoyed engaging with them. And he was just brilliant. He had a way of digging in and thinking deeply about topics in new ways.”

Skibine’s family history suggested that a career in the arts, not law, might be in the offing. His parents were Marjorie Tallchief and Georg Boris Skibine, principal dancers with the Paris Opera Ballet; his aunt was the American prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. During rehearsals, Skibine and his twin brother George would play in the theater seats. When a student once asked Skibine why he didn’t follow the family’s path to the stage, he drolly responded: “I guess I wasn’t very good.”

Skibine was born in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, on July 3, 1952. His family moved to the United States when he was 14. Skibine went on to earn political science and French literature degrees from Tufts University, and a J.D. from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

After graduating from law school in 1976, Skibine was a researcher at the Institute for the Development of Indian Law in Washington, D.C. He was later deputy counsel for Indian Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. Skibine played a major role in creating the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. The law provides the basis for which Indian tribes can run gaming operations to promote tribal economic development, self-sufficiency, and strong tribal governance. He also was a prolific writer, composing articles on such topics as sacred site protection and religious freedom. Skibine also taught summer programs for Indian law students at the University of New Mexico and Lewis & Clark College.

Skibine’s sense of humor wasn’t just fun and games, says Eric Eberhard, a University of Washington law professor who worked with him at the House Interior Committee. Skibine patterned himself after committee chair Mo Udall, who similarly used jokes to defuse stressful situations.

“Mo Udall had the ability to walk into a room of people who were at each other over issues of policy, and he’d sit down and tell a couple of jokes and get everybody to laugh,” says Eberhard, who worked with Skibine on a land dispute between the Navajo and Hopi tribes. “Next thing you know, what was a big difference melted away, and everybody was working together to find solutions. Alex was similar. He could take a tense situation and a tough problem and put it into perspective using humor.”

Skibine was an important resource to his peers, including Rebecca Tsosie, a law professor at the University of Arizona. In the mid-1990s, Tsosie worked with tribal communities as they feuded with the state over the contentious Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. A tribal attorney suggested that Tsosie reach out to Skibine to get his take on matters.

“He was smart and thoughtful, and he understood everything, like what we should do,” Tsosie says. “We ended up hosting a symposium, and he was so good at bringing everybody together. That conference never would have happened without him. Arizona politics eventually settled down, and everybody survived it.”

At Utah Law, Skibine cast himself the “quintessential dapper professor,” donning tweed jackets, corduroy pants and a woolen driver cap, recalls Kronk Warner. His passions extended beyond the classroom, and included playing soccer and riding his motorcycle. Skibine once arrived to class sporting a black eye, which he suffered after taking an elbow to the eye on the playing field.

Former student Chris Peterson, now the college’s John J. Flynn Endowed Professor of Law, worried that Skibine was in “some trashy bar fight.”

“It didn’t faze him a bit, and he wasn’t the least bit concerned or embarrassed,” Peterson recounted at the March remembrance event. “At the beginning, when he came in, I was embarrassed for him. But at the end, I was jealous that he had a black eye. The Alex that I knew was cool.”

Skibine is survived by wife Jackie Stahl Skibine; children Alexandre (Sasha) and Nathalie; his brother George; and his cousin Elise Paschen.

Colleagues and friends of Alex Skibine have established an endowed scholarship in his name to support future students interested in studying Indian Law. Learn more about contributing to the Alexander Tallchief Skibine Endowed Scholarship in Indian Law.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 Res Gestae issue.