‘Cultural Healing’ and the Search for Justice in Tribal Lands

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Soon after Michelle Anderson was appointed Sixth District Judicial Judge in Minnesota’s Iron Range region, where she operates a hybrid court that offers alternatives to jail for individuals with substance abuse problems, she found herself presiding over the case of Jason Drift.

A 44-year-old enrolled member of the Bois Forte band of Chippewa, Drift was pleading for a stay of adjudication to one felony count of fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine.

But there was something special about his plea to the court.

tribal justice

Two of the leading players in developing new approaches to tribal justice in Minnesota: Megan Treuer, chief judge for the Bois Forte Tribal Court (L) and Sixth District Judge Michelle Anderson. Photo courtesy Hibbing Daily Tribune

“He spoke about how he damaged his relationship with his tribe,” Anderson recalled.

“Our treatment court team started talking about the need for a cultural advisor, because we aren’t set up the best we can be to manage his goals.”

That conversation was one of the factors that persuaded Anderson to discuss with leaders of the Bois Forte reservation establishment of a court that would address that offer “cultural healing” in tandem in place of traditional judicial approaches.

Planning for such a ‘Wellness Court,” tailored to the needs of Native Americans, is now underway.

As a former county prosecutor, Anderson had recognized the “distrust from Native defendants in the state system.” She participated in “training on historical trauma” during bench meetings on the Fond du Lac Reservation near Duluth, the seat of St. Louis County.

The training sparked an idea of having Drift “work with tribal elders, rather than doing standard community service” on the Iron Range.

The idea has now taken wing among state authorities, police and tribal elders.

The idea of restorative justice has long been a topic of conversation among band members, especially as they and other tribes across the state face increasing numbers of alcohol, drug and mental health-related cases.

This year alone, the state of Minnesota reported that Native Americans were six times more likely to die from drug overdoses than the general white population statewide.

Peggy Flanagan

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan

Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers and other have been building trust with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan — the first indigenous woman to hold statewide office — who promised to provide millions of dollars in funding for traditional healing to combat opioid addiction.

In June, Chavers joined tribal council members and David Bryant, manager of community member development for SMSC at a ribbon-cutting event to unveil a long-needed new courthouse for the Bois Forte band.

“Everyone wants this place to be a place of healing,” said Megan Treuer, the chief tribal judge on the Chippewa reservation.

In the state of Minnesota, there are seven Anishinaabe — Chippewa and Ojibwe — reservations and four Dakota — Sioux — communities. The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa is set north of the horizontal sliver of iron-ore mining cities of the Iron Range, roughly 45 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border.

Since entering into treaties in the mid-1800s with the American government, the band has lived on 200 square miles of a reservation divided into three sections of Deer Creek, Vermilion and Nett Lake.


Chippewa elders 

The namesake of the Bois Forte comes from the French words “strong wood” used to define the band which survives in the densest forests spread across what has become Koochiching, Itasca and St. Louis counties. Today, less than 1,000 people reside here on land painted with maple trees and wild rice where they own and operate Fortune Bay Resort Casino.

Band members say they hold true to their culture and traditions in the celebratory forms of powwows and sacred ceremonies. They have made advances to the reservation when it comes to improving infrastructure and educational needs. They are striving to expand their economic opportunities, while improving connections to medical and internet options.

In the isolation of the Northland, the band continues to make great strides, but also struggles with a lack of resources.

For example, they do not have an addiction treatment court. But when considering options for a wellness court, they do have the benefit of looking to their westbound neighbors in Leech Lake, where more than 10,000 people live on a reservation covering 1,309 square miles of land across four counties.

In 2006, when Leech Lake made the historical jump in partnering with Cass County to create the first, joint-government wellness court in the nation for both tribal and non-tribal members. In 2007, Leech Lake opened a second collaborative wellness court in Itasca County.

The wellness courts are similar to treatment courts throughout the state, using intense supervision and rehabilitation in an attempt to stop the revolving door of people with misdemeanors or felonies related to alcohol and drug offenses from wasting away in jails and prisons.

Sweat Lodges for Rehabilitation

However, some of the main differences with the joint efforts include the courts using tribal culture in the forms of sweat lodges and other ceremonies to help rehabilitate people suffering from substance abuse issues and multi-generational trauma.

A Bois Forte Wellness Court would address the complicated jurisdictional issues that arise in dealing with justice-involved native Americans.


Map of Chippewa lands, Minnesota. Courtesy Kmusser

In 1953, U.S. Congress passed Public Law 280, which gave Minnesota and at least five other states criminal jurisdiction over all the reservations, except the Red Lake Reservation. In 1973, the state approved the retrocession of the Bois Forte Reservation from the law.

Aside from the two reservations, all of the other federally-recognized tribes in the state are subject to state criminal jurisdiction.

For context, here is one report from the Minnesota Legislature trying to explain the matter of jurisdiction:

“The federal government has criminal jurisdiction over federal crimes of nationwide application on all American Indian lands and felonies committed by an American Indian against an American Indian or non-Indian, or by a non-Indian against an American Indian on the Red Lake or Bois Forte Reservations…

 The state has criminal jurisdiction over any state crime committed by a non-Indian against a non-Indian on American Indian lands and, with certain exceptions, any state crime committed by or against an American Indian on American Indian land, except on Red Lake or Bois Forte Reservations…the tribal governments…have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors committed by an American Indian against an American Indian on land owned or controlled by the bands.”

The complications extend to the lines drawn between native law enforcement and state police.

The county sheriff’s office currently has a cooperative law enforcement agreement with the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose police have concurrent jurisdiction with his office on tribal lands and in some instances of that land. They can enforce state statutes and can lodge arrested individuals in the St. Louis County Jail.

“Our attorney’s office prosecutes crimes that occur there on behalf of the band,” St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman wrote to the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

“They have some of their own ordinances which they handle. The FDL Tribe is an open reservation and they agree to subject themselves to Minnesota law.”

Competing Jurisdictions

On the other hand, the Bois Forte “is not an open reservation” and remains only subject to federal laws and federal law enforcement agencies in the form of its police governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In some cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation takes on their cases.

“Neither can enforce nor arrest under Minnesota statutes,” Litman wrote. “They do not use our jail or lockups to house their detainees. We are in the process of negotiating a contract to allow them to. Our deputies can arrest on tribal lands but only under certain circumstances.

“We use a matrix basically to determine which agency handles a situation and which prosecutorial division handles it—either the county attorney or the U.S. attorney.”

Treuer represents the band’s best hope for kick-starting a wellness court.

A descendant of the Leech Lake band, she grew up under the roof of her late father, Robert Treuer, an Austrian-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who taught on the reservation, and her mother, Margaret Seelye Treuer, a Leech Lake tribal member who went to nursing school before becoming the first female Indian attorney in the state of Minnesota, the first Native American judge in the U.S. and mother of four accomplished children.

Treuer now presides over 50-plus cases spread over three sessions per month in the new Bois Forte courthouse.

“The bulk of the cases are criminal and child protection and then we do domestic violence orders for protection,” she told the Tribune.

She also works part-time for the Leech Lake and Fond du Lac bands and even does some “conflict work” on the White Earth Reservation in western Minnesota.

The joint efforts between Leech Lake and Cass and Itasca counties are “pretty groundbreaking,” she says.

“All of our tribes and all our communities are facing the same problems with addiction and the resulting crimes that come from it,” she added. “Most of the people committing crimes in our communities are addicted or have a mental health disorder and still have historical trauma to overcome.”

As Truer points out, “Everybody is looking for new approaches.”

For the people of Bois Forte, the Wellness Court is an approach whose time has come.

 Eric Killelea, assistant editor of the Hibbing (Minn.) Daily Tribune, is a 2018-2019 John Jay/Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and edited version of a story produced for his fellowship reporting project, the last in a six-part series examining the state of rural justice in Minnesota. The full story is available here. Other articles in the series can be accessed here.

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