'Heart' is theme of attorney- author's book, and his life


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

After talking to attorney Tom St. Dennis even for a short time, it is easy to recognize what he has in common with the protagonist of his new book, Heart of a Native: an emotional center capable of guiding him to do what is right.

The 142-page novel weaves an interesting tale of personal redemption with the explanation of a worldview that recognizes interconnections between all aspects of nature and may provide insight into solutions for human-generated environmental problems.

Heart of a Native tells the story of Jack Clay, a real estate developer who has lost his way in pursuit of the almighty dollar. A Native American, Clay realizes after his ruthless boss dies and he is terminated by the boss’s sons that his moments of greatest happiness were spent in the company of his family, and in particular with his grandfather.

Jack, who now finds himself in dire financial straits, reconnects with grandfather Ed, a well-respected fishing guide who introduces Jack to Lisa, a civil engineer with a masters in Native American studies who is doing some soul-searching of her own.

An employment head-hunter connects Jack with Wall Street tycoon Dawes. (Dawes, St. Dennis points out, shares his name with the reviled Dawes Act, passed in 1887 to sell off even more of the land that the government had given to Native Americans on reservations.) Dawes wants to buy up as much of the available real estate in Northern Michigan as he can afford, develop it now, and later sell off the water rights associated with it. Jack convinces Dawes that putting some of the land in conservation easement will help Dawes get Federal tax-incentive money if he develops less densely than he otherwise could.

But will Jack “sell his soul” and go to work paving the way for Dawes to swing such ill-intentioned deals? And will he then be regarded so poorly by Lisa that his chances for a relationship with her will fade?

Suffice it to say that, through a bit of a plot twist that St. Dennis artfully keeps hidden from the reader for much of his final, epilogue-like chapter, he answers those questions, but this is just the first in a series of novels. He reveals that the next book, which he is currently writing, will “escalate the role of Lisa.”

St. Dennis says that he personally identifies with something in all three of the leading characters: Ed, Jack and Lisa. He does admit to going through a Jack-like period about four years ago when he was forced to evaluate his position as CEO of a large company. “I was flying all over the country, living large,” he says, “but then I said to myself, this is fine but you’re really not making a difference for society, not making an impact. It’s time to reboot.”

The subsequent reconfiguration of his life involves practicing law on a limited basis in the Manistee area, and devoting most of his time to writing. In addition to novels, he has a blog focusing mainly on Native American issues, which can be found at http://authortjsaint.authorsxpress.com/.

It is abundantly clear that St. Dennis’s heart is firmly with the Native American philosophy best expressed in the “Seventh Generation” ethic. This approach dictates that decisions be made based on how they will affect the people living seven generations from now.

“As I wrestle with writing a book versus practicing law,” St. Dennis says, “a key question I ask myself is how I can best try to influence and educate people about the values of the Native American culture.”

He also purchased a fishing lodge near Manistee, another echo of the novel. “My wife and I purchased this resort as a semi-retirement place that didn’t need a lot of attention,” he says. St. Dennis is currently 57 and has been with his wife Julie for 37 years.

As far as the law, he does continue with a “very limited practice, mostly consulting,” but he also has accepted a position on the Michigan Indian Legal Services (MILS) board of trustees.
MILS “provides civil legal services to low-income Indian individuals and tribes to further self-sufficiency, overcome discrimination, assist tribal governments and preserve Indian families.” It is located in Traverse City, and the bulk of its services are on civil cases.

However, according to the MILS Winter 2011-2012 newsletter, “Michigan Indian Legal Services has continued to provide representation to criminal defendants in tribal court since November 2009 through a Criminal Defense Pilot Project. MILS has since expanded the project and now provides representation in Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Tribal Court, Grand Traverse Band  of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Tribal Court, and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians (LRBOI) Tribal Court.”

Comments St. Dennis, “I happen to think that devoting more of my time to being on that board, as opposed to representing individual clients, will do more for my personal life mission.”
St. Dennis praises the organization for not only taking on court cases but also helping tribes receive Federal recognition, an often-complex endeavor.

He has studied Native American culture since high school, and says, “I chopped a huge portion out of my book about how a chief stayed as a chief or was replaced. Traditionally, if they
didn’t like you, they just threw you out.  As politicians become more about how do I get elected or how do I keep the power I have rather than trying to do what’s right, it may be time to tune up
a bit.”

Something else St. Dennis shares with the characters in his novels is a deep concern about environmental degradation. He talks in a most lawyerly way about water withdrawals, the public trust, and how difficult it is to make determinations where the conflict is between one or more societal benefit.

“When you look at things through the Seventh Generation lens, decisions become easier. I hear a lot about sustainability, but after all what is sustainability? Respect for what’s around you and a commitment to doing what’s right for the future.”