Native rights champion and ‘warrior lawyer’ Nicole Ducheneaux dies
Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and Nicole Ducheneaux, attorney and member of the tribe, speak to the media outside the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Feb. 28, 2017, in Washington, D.C. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg presided at a motion hearing in Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. United States Army Corps of Engineers. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
A Lakota lawyer who represented the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in its fight against the Dakota Access pipeline and spent her career fighting to protect Indigenous rights died on Friday, July 14, 2023.
Nicole “Nikki” Ducheneaux, 44, Cheyenne River Lakota, died from undisclosed causes in Omaha, Nebraska. Her father announced his daughter’s death on the evening of Sunday, July 16.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Franklin Ducheneaux said. “Our beautiful daughter, Nikki, died suddenly early Friday night. Our lives have been shattered.”
Ducheneaux was a founding partner of the Big Fire Law and Policy Group based in Omaha. She began her legal career in Montana as a public defender. In 2012, she joined the law firm Fredericks Peebles and Morgan in Omaha, the predecessor of Big Fire Law Firm. There, she advocated for tribes and tribal entities across the United States and was a “formidable and innovative litigator,” according to a social media post by Big Fire Law Firm.
Ducheneaux argued cases before state, tribal and federal courts, as well as appellate courts of all varieties, including the U.S. Supreme Court. She quickly rose in the ranks at Fredericks Peebles and Morgan, where she became a litigation partner in 2015.
In 2019, she was one of the founding equity partners of Big Fire Law and Policy Group, serving as the head of litigation, where she established a reputation for “tireless and passionate advocacy,” according to Big Fire.
“As a founding equity partner, Nikki was constantly focused on the best interests of the Firm,” Big Fire said. “But beyond her work, she was also a devoted and loving mother who always made time for her children, to support them in their activities, and passions.”
In addition to her litigation work, Ducheneaux championed young Native lawyers by providing mentorship and guidance to them. Big Fire characterized her as “kind, compassionate, and always available to assist family or friends in times of need.”
Ducheneaux is survived by her children, Sidney Moenning, Esther Moenning and Reneé Ducheneaux; her parents Franklin and Ernestine Ducheneaux; and siblings, Patricia Jollie, Pamela Herring, Joan Doring, Frank Ducheneaux and Christopher Ducheneaux, along with many uncles, aunts and cousins.
The loss of Nikki leaves a huge hole in our heart as a family, our tiospaye, our tribe and Indian Country. We lost the epitome of the term 'warrior lawyer' and she will be greatly missed by all.
– Wayne Ducheneaux Jr.
A GoFundMe account was set up to raise funds for legal and other expenses.
Her cousin, Wayne Ducheneaux Jr., said he and his cousin both had “big shoes to fill in the legacy department.”
“From early on, we really kind of bonded over what that is like,” said Ducheneaux, who serves as executive director of the Native Governance Center.
His father, Wayne Ducheneaux Sr., was a former president of the National Congress of American Indians and two-time chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. Nicole Ducheneaux’s father Franklin served as executive director of NCAI in 1970 and as an attorney for two House committees, where he helped draft many of the most important Native laws enacted by Congress from 1973-1990.
Wayne Ducheneaux Jr. said he last saw his cousin at a dinner in April at the University of South Dakota, where Franklin Ducheneaux was being honored as the first graduate of the USD law school.
“The last thing we talked about was our families and our kids and her new baby girl being so close in age to my baby girl and our hope that they grow up together having the same kind of bond and connection she and I have,” he said.
“The loss of Nikki leaves a huge hole in our heart as a family, our tiospaye, our tribe and Indian Country. We lost the epitome of the term ‘warrior lawyer’ and she will be greatly missed by all.”
Those who knew Nikki Ducheneaux took to social media to express their shock and sadness at her sudden death:
- “I met Nikki when I was 16, struggling and disconnected from my own strength and light. Nikki shared hers with me,” said Bridget Breihan, a therapist living in Charlottesville, Virginia. “She did it without expectation or superiority. She did it without me even knowing she was doing it, lending without highlighting what was lacking, sometimes gently and other times fiercely. I’m grateful for it all.”
- Mary Farrah, who lives in Washington, D.C., shared a story about cutting Ducheneaux’s hair. “I gave her her first punk rock haircut by shaving the back of her head, which she wanted, but then she cried after the hair was gone. I didn’t realize the significance then,” Farrah said. “Then she became the closest thing to a super hero I’ve ever known. Taking on unstoppable forces and fighting on behalf of the people.”
- “Nikki, my heart is so sad for you and your family today, and will be, for a long time,” said Kate Novotny, whose husband Mike worked with Ducheneaux at Big Fire. “I have always been enchanted by you … your smile, your laugh, your red lipstick, your pantsuits, your fierce advocacy for your people, your stories, your whimsical joy of being alive.”
- “My heart is heavy. One of the truest warriors of our modern time died a few days ago suddenly and unexpectedly,” said actor and activist Dallas Goldtooth. “Nikki Ducheneaux was one of THE best Native lawyers in the country and I was proud to call her a comrade and friend. I was floored to hear of her death.”
— This story was originally published by ICT, an independent, nonprofit news enterprise that covers Indigenous peoples.
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