UM Law Graduate Receives Posthumous Honorary PhD

The late Bonnie Heavy Runner’s daughter, Aislinn Roux, accepts the honorary PhD from President Seth Bodnar

Photo:  Bonnie Heavy Runner’s daughter, Aislinn Roux, accepts the honorary PhD from President Seth Bodnar (right)

The late Bonnie Heavy Runner, who was a tribal court judge and staunch advocate for Native American causes, received a posthumous Honorary Doctorate of Law at the University of Montana Commencement ceremony on May 1, 2021.

Heavy Runner earned her bachelor’s degree in social work in 1983 and law degree in 1988, both from the University of Montana (UM). Heavy Runner was one of only a few women in the School of Law in the 1980s. As a Blackfeet tribal member, she was also the only law student in her class to be an enrolled tribal member.

After earning her J.D., Heavy Runner served as a clerk and a then judge on the Blackfeet Tribal Court. She returned to the University of Montana in 1991 to become the founding director of the new Native American Studies program. Despite receiving a cancer diagnosis a year after starting the position, Heavy Runner didn’t let her illness slow her down. She mentored hundreds of Native students and worked tirelessly to create a more inclusive environment at the University.

In addition to championing UM’s Native American Studies Department and the creation of a Native American Studies major, she also served on the University’s Diversity Council, the National Indian Justice Center board and Montana’s advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

In 1997, at the age of 46, Heavy Runner succumbed to ovarian cancer, but her legacy continues on. She was named one of the Missoulian’s 100 most influential Montanans of the Century in 1999. In 2010, when UM opened the Payne Family Native American Center housing the Department of Native American Studies and American Indian Student Services, the building’s “Bonnie Heavy Runner Gathering Place” was named in her honor.

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