Keith Harper (LAW ’94)
The First Native American US Ambassador
By Wook Kim
Portrait by Gabriella Demczuk
San Francisco native Keith Harper, the son of a Cherokee father and a Portuguese mother, headed off to UC Berkeley to major in electrical engineering. Discovering he was less than enamored with numbers, he changed his studies to sociology and psychology. But then a depressed job market convinced him to enter NYU’s School of Law—“a great place,” Harper recalls—and he never looked back.
After clerking for a US circuit court judge, Harper joined a New York law firm while also working as a litigator for the Native American Rights Fund. There, he joined a class-action lawsuit against the federal government over the mismanagement of tribal trust funds—“an utter disaster,” Harper says. Settled in 2009, it was a $3.4 billion victory now considered a landmark case.
While Cobell made its way in court, a friend asked Harper if he had interest in working on Native American policy and community outreach for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. In 2013, Obama nominated Harper, then a partner in the DC office of Kilpatrick Townsend, to become the US representative to the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. His tenure was a transformative experience, Harper says: “Working on a global stage means you can have a huge impact on the world.”
Now back at Kilpatrick Townsend, Harper has a variety of clients and continues to work on cases involving Native American affairs. Asked what advice he’d give to someone considering a career in advocacy, Harper says: “Let your path go in a way that allows you to maximize the way you can impact the issues you care about.”
“Let your path go in a way that allows you to maximize the way you can impact the issues you care about.”