Montana State University

Killsback finds success in life and legal career by following 'Mom's Code'

August 24, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


Dion Killsback is a successful attorney and a mentor for MSU American Indian students, but he said his most important mentor was his mother, a single-mom who instilled in her six children the importance of an education. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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Dion Killsback has been a good example for a long time, but the 31-year-old attorney now living in Albuquerque, N.M. said that's because he had the world's best mentor -- his mom.

"My mom was a single mother who raised six children by herself," said Killsback, 31, who with his twin was the eldest of Jackie Tang's children. The family lived in Busby on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. "She instilled in us the importance of higher education."

Killsback is now an attorney in Albuquerque working with New Mexico's American Indian tribes.

"My mother sent all of us to school in Colstrip so we didn't go to school on the reservation," Killsback said. For those not familiar with the trip, Killsback and his siblings had to drive 40 miles each way through Lame Deer on the way to Colstrip. "She wanted us to be accustomed to a non-Indian environment. She wanted us to learn to excel in that environment. And we excelled."

Killsback often talks about his mother and her lessons when he speaks as a legal expert or motivational speaker. Recently he returned to Montana State University during the annual American Indian Council Pow Wow and spoke at an MSU seminar on Indian law and was selected as the head man dancer at the pow wow, a great honor in which he led all dancers in the grand entries.

Killsback said another lesson he learned from his mother was not to put too much stock in basketball, a sport that is hugely popular on the reservation. While he was successful playing the sport in high school, she reminded him that "basketball doesn't get you a job or put food on the table." She likewise told her children not to put too much importance in a high school degree.

"She told us that you should have a high school degree. She said you should feel proud about a college degree." Tang herself earned a master's in social work in 2002 while raising her children.

Another mom mandate was getting off the reservation in the summer to attend enrichment programs on college campuses, which was what originally brought Killsback to MSU. As a high school student, he enrolled in MSU's Minority Apprenticeship Program, and worked on research with Mark Jutila, an accomplished researcher in MSU's prestigious Department of Veterinary Molecular Biology.

"So when we got to (college) the culture shock of (leaving the reservation) wasn't as drastic as someone who had stayed there all of their life," Killsback said.

After graduating from MSU in 2000 with a degree in land resources and environmental science, Killsback worked as a reclamation specialist at the coal mine near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation before being accepted to law school at the University of Montana where he studied environmental law. There he also met his wife, Evelyn, a social work major who is a member of the Blood Tribe of Canada. Together, the two of them have four children. After graduation from law school, Killsback worked as a lawyer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Lame Deer before he moved to New Mexico with a national law firm.

"I love it," Killsback says of his work, representing Native Americans in New Mexico in large cases and small ranging from personal to environmental law. "I think I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was small and it's even more rewarding than I thought it would be."

Killsback's siblings are similarly accomplished. His twin, Damian, has a doctorate in pharmacy and is the chief pharmacist at the Indian Health Service unit in Lame Deer. Brother Lawrence graduated from the University of California-Berkeley and is a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council. His brother Leo, who graduated from MSU in 2003, is in a Ph.D. program in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. His sister, Zhona Tang, is a student at MSU majoring in education.

"When I speak, I say that as Indian people we are not striving for the American dream. As Indian people we are striving to maintain our cultural identity while establishing economic stability and self-sufficiency. And the best way to do that is through education."

Contact: Jim Burns (406) 994-4880, jburns @montana.edu