For Mary Pavel, staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the opportunity to immerse herself daily in Native American issues including housing, energy and land restoration is deeply rewarding, both professionally and personally.

The youngest of six siblings, Pavel, 47, grew up on the Skokomish Reservation in Washington state. Since starting work in February at the committee, chaired by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), her days have been packed with meetings with tribal leaders, work on reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act , and keeping tabs on how the Department of the Interior is rolling out a $1.9 billion land -buyback program. “I try to make sure we see the issues from all angles — making sure that we’re trying to put forth good policy.”

The land buy back is part of the $3.4 billion settlement in Cobell v. Salazar, one of the largest class settlements to date involving the federal government. “The money has to be spent in 10 years, and we’ve lost one year already,” Pavel said. The idea is to consolidate fractional ownership of reservation lands, but the challenge is in the fine points — “which lands should the U.S. make offers on, how to appraise the land and how to reach individual landowners,” she said. “Our role is to oversee” the Interior Department efforts.

“Mary is a passionate and energetic advocate for Indian Country,” Cantwell said in a written statement. “Her policy expertise and experience will help the committee advance programs that will improve the lives of Native Americans.”

Other issues now before the committee include legislation to provide restitution to the Spokane Tribe of Indians for the use of tribal land for the production of hydropower by the Grand Coulee Dam. According to the tribe, when the dam was built in the 1930s, the tribe was promised a share of the revenue from hydropower generation, but has never been paid.

Pavel confessed that she never thought she’d become a lawyer; she figured she’d be a nurse, like her mother. But after she spent a year interning for Native American law boutique Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, she was hooked. After earning her J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law, she joined the firm, where she made partner in 1999 and went on to head the legislative practice. She’s the founding president of the Native American Bar Association of D.C. “The law is an awesome thing when practiced properly,” she said. — Jenna Greene