Who is Tracey Zephier?

Board Member Q&A

Board Term: 2013-present

Tracey Zephier

Photo by Bruce Silcox.

Where were you born?

I was born on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation in western South Dakota, and other than my three years of law school I’ve lived in the area my whole life. My mother was a full blood Lakota Sioux woman, and my dad is of Norwegian descent. His family homesteaded on the reservation and that’s how their families came together. You hear this a lot, but I feel like I truly grew up with two different worlds: the Lakota way of living and also the non-Native way of living because my parents were from two vastly different worlds.

Can you share about your career and professional path?

Right out of high school I went to college and got a business administration and accounting degree. At the time I wanted to move back to the reservation (I actually wanted to be an engineer but there wasn’t too much demand), so I decided to get a degree that could be put to better use. I worked as a banker and auditor for five years and then got kind of cynical of the world. I ran into a couple experiences as a banker that made me think, “I need to be doing more with helping Native people navigate through the non-Native world.” I decided to go to law school at Yale University. It was a complete eye opener. Living in sheltered South Dakota, no lawyers in my family, it was an opportunity of a lifetime to go out there and stand alongside so many other people from different cultures. It made me realize that we are all different but we’re all equal, and we need to acknowledge that within each other.

Currently I work for a firm in Rapid City, S.D. We work with entities like tribal governments and tribal colleges. I love it because it’s not just lawyering in the traditional sense — it’s really about nation building. And that’s where my work intersected with the Bush Foundation. In 2008, the Bush Foundation started an initiative to help tribes rebuild themselves. I was a member of the first cohort of the Native Nation Rebuilders program.

Growing up I had the Indian world and the non-Indian world very much imprinted on me, and I feel like I haven’t drifted too far from that.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

My two children. I have a 13-year-old son and a 3-year-old little boy. Those are my two biggest accomplishments; my two biggest legacies that I’m very proud of. Beyond that, getting my education and going to Yale for my law degree. I was the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree and then to go to graduate school. I think the creator put me in this place, and coming from my parents I feel I’ve been given a great opportunity to bring those two worlds together. There’s a lot more work that needs to be done, but I feel like I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to contribute.

Who has influenced your life the most?

My grandmas — Grandma Red Bird and Grandma Frame. They shaped who I am today in their own particular way. Both of them emphasized the importance of education and family, which are my touchstones. Also my dad, who is a mechanic, has taught me to be pretty self-sufficient — if my car breaks down I’m pretty well set (laughs).

What is your favorite quote?

"Trouble no man in their belief, respect them, but also demand that they respect yours." I think about that a lot in my career, especially in this heated political environment. If we’re ever going to work together, we have to acknowledge and respect the different views that we have, and at the same time make sure that we are getting the respect that we deserve.

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