The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa needed a larger courthouse.
“Attorneys were meeting with clients in cars and people charged with crimes and their alleged victims were in the same one room together,” Tribal Chairwoman Cathy Chavers told the Hibbing Daily Tribune in recent phone interviews. “It was bad. It was just bad.”
Several years ago, another federally-recognized Native American tribe, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community near the Twin Cities donated a $1.25 million grant to the band, which sought out the remaining funds needed from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to begin work on the $2 million facility. Construction lasted eight months, a time in which a judge handled court cases in the tribal government building in Nett Lake.
In June, Chavers joined tribal council members and David Bryant, manager of community member development for SMSC at a ribbon-cutting event to unveil the new courthouse. Spiritual Advisor Gene Goodsky led the prayer and blessing, while seven other members of the Bois Forte Singers welcomed more than two dozen visitors and belted out the pipe, eagle, veteran, healing and traveling songs. There were special guest singers from the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Chippewa from Wisconsin.
“We needed to build a better and safer courthouse,” Chavers told the crowd. She expressed thanks to Megan Treuer, the chief tribal judge, Wendy Morrison-Thompson, the director of judicial services, and Andy Datko, the former director of planning and community development. “There were a lot of band members who worked on the project. This could've never happened without all the assistance.”
Treuer added, “This beautiful facility will help serve the community. Everyone wants this place to be a place of healing.”
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. Chavers and tribal leaders say they have been building trust with 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.
Meanwhile, the relentlessness of this dire reality has motivated the Bois Forte to consider opening a wellness court. Still in the research phase, band members are talking over options with officials from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, which has joint-effort agreements with Cass and Itasca counties for multi-jurisdictional wellness courts. Bois Forte officials have also reached out to Sixth District Judicial Judge Michelle Anderson, who presides over both the North St. Louis County Hybrid Treatment Court in Virginia and the newly sanctioned Mental Health Court in Hibbing.
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.
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.
It was back 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. 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.
Cass County District Court Judge Jana Austad, Itasca County Judge Korey Wahwassuck and Leech Lake Tribal Court Judge Megan Treuer now preside jointly over wellness court hearings. The courts remain the only two drug and DWI courts in the state with a joint-powers agreement between the state and a tribe.
After being appointed to the district court bench in Virginia in 2017, Anderson traveled north to observe the Child in Need of Protection or Services Court on the Bois Forte Reservation. There, she met with Treuer for the second time after her cousin, Ninth Judicial District Judge Annie Claesson-Huseby previously made the first introduction.
More recently, Anderson found herself presiding over the case of Jason Drift, a 44-year-old enrolled member of the Bois Forte who entered the Hybrid Court after pleading for a stay of adjudication to one felony count of fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine. “He spoke about how he damaged his relationship with his tribe,” Anderson told the HDT. “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.”
As a former county prosecutor, Anderson saw the “distrust from Native defendants in the state system” and now makes it a point to take as much training as possible on related legal topics. Most recently, she participated in a “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.
In January, the Bois Forte tasked Adam Vake to travel south and attend Anderson’s treatment court hearings. A non-tribal former track star from the nearby city of Chisholm with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, he had just become the band’s chemical dependency coordinator. “My job was to learn how we could take what counties or organizations were doing and tie in the spiritual aspect into it to benefit people on the reservation,” Vake told the HDT.
In hopes of furthering a relationship with the Bois Forte, Anderson has reached out to Chavers and Treuer and attended the celebration of the new court two months ago. The judges have since planned several warrant resolution events together for Silver Bay and Nett Lake.
Sure enough, a Bois Forte wellness court would differ from the existing courts.
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 Amerian 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.”
In a recent email, St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman prefaced his description of the matter, “It’s very complicated.”
The 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 off 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,” Litman wrote to the HDT. “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.”
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.”
Bois Forte is experiencing lots of headaches not being able to hold people in either of the temporary lockups about 55 miles south to either Hibbing or Virginia or even in the county jail 116 miles south in Duluth. Currently, people charged with crimes in the tribal court must be transported 228 miles south to the Sherburne County Jail, roughly a 4.5 hour one way car ride.
Officials from both the Bois Forte and St. Louis County say they have worked on an agreement for nearly three years, but they continue to get the run-around from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “There’s a lot of bureaucratic tape,” Chavers said. St. Louis County Undersheriff David Phillips told the HDT that the tribal chairwoman has “been fantastic to work with, but we’re entrenched in massive bureaucracy in trying to get this agreement done with the BIA.” He continued, “It’s a very frustrating experience and I’m sure it’s excruciating for Bois Forte. But we’re trying everything we can do.”
As Chavers told it, tribal officers and those from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have trouble balancing the time needed to transport individuals the long way south, which gets even longer when the snow falls in the Arctic winters. Recently, there were two brothers fighting on the reservation and a pair of officers had to drive them down to Sherburne County in separate vehicles since they could not be in the same squad car. That meant two officers off the reservation for about nine hours. “You can’t put a price on safety and by them not having a jail agreement in the county is putting the reservation at risk.”
Bois Forte members are backing Treuer as a strong-minded judge who can help kick-start 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 Holcaust, 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. Her mother started working for the Bois Forte as a contract tribal judge in the 1980s and branched out to Red Lake and Leech Lake in the 1990s.
Following in her footsteps, Treuer graduated from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul in 2005 and worked as an attorney for Anishinabe Legal Services and the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation, both in Cass Lake. She went on to become an associate judge for Leech Lake in 2013 and replaced her mother on the bench for the Bois Forte in 2015.
Treuer now presides over 50-plus cases spread over three sessions per month in the 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 HDT. 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.
On the topics of the joint-efforts between Leech Lake and Cass and Itasca counties, she says, “it’s pretty groundbreaking and we’re at a critical time as an Ashinabee people and in many ways we are stronger than ever and it’s time to step up.” She continued, “All of our tribes and all our communities are facing the same problems with addiction and resulting crimes that come from it and everybody is looking for new approaches. Most of the people committing crimes in our communities are addicted or have a mental health disorder and still have historical trauma to overcome.”