As cofounders of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Rights (CIPR), Taino Palermo L’22 and Raymond Two Hawks Watson L’22 are working together to change lives by ensuring justice and equity for Indigenous peoples. CIPR is the East Coast’s first and only pro bono law and policy center focused on the rights of Indigenous peoples and nations, providing free legal services, policy support, and critical nation-building technical assistance to help them exercise their inherent rights.
Watson and Palermo met when both were involved with community work in Providence helping local, non-federally recognized Indian tribes understand and obtain their rights. The pair also bonded over their own Indigenous heritage: Watson is a member of the Mashapaug Nahaganset Tribe, and Palermo is a member of the Baramaya Guainia yukayeke of Puerto Rico.
“In our community work, the main issue we came up against was the notion that if you’re not federally recognized by the U.S. government, you’re not a ‘real’ Indian tribe, and you’re not a ‘real’ Indian,” says Watson, a community activist and policy director for CIPR. “There’s only one federally recognized tribe in Rhode Island, which leads to a lot of people feeling excluded from their culture and not accessing all the rights available to them.”
When they couldn’t find anyone with the right legal knowledge to help them and the local Indigenous tribes, Palermo and Watson decided they’d just go to law school themselves. They began earning their Juris Doctor degrees at RWU Law in 2019, viewing their education through the lenses of their respective indigeneities. They discovered an entire world of law and policy available to Indigenous peoples, regardless of a tribe’s federal recognition status—but the issue was that not many Indigenous communities, especially on the East Coast, really knew about it or had access to it.