Margaret Treuer: A Life of Achievement


One of five children, Margaret Treuer (troy-er), Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, who just won the National Association of Women Judges' Lifetime Achievement Award, started out in an 8-foot by 14-foot cabin in Bena on the Leech Lake Reservation in north-central Minnesota, never dreaming that she would become the first female Indian attorney in the state, a tribal judge and mother of four very accomplished children. "We had five kids in the family," Treuer says. "We were pretty poor. We lived on a subsistence diet of rice, deer, partridge and rabbits."

Treuer graduated from high school in Cass Lake, Minnesota, went to St. Luke's Nursing School in Duluth, and then worked as a nurse in St. Cloud for a year before coming home to run her tribe's health program. She married and moved to Washington, D.C., for her husband's job.

There she met Ada Deer. In 1961, Congress had passed the Menominee Termination Act, revoking the tribe's federal recognition and the rights that went with it. "Ada Deer and other Menominee women had set up a small lobbying group to restore the tribe's federal recognition. I volunteered to work for her. It was a really successful effort. The tribe was reinstated by Congress in 1973 under President Richard Nixon with only one vote in Congress against restoration," Treuer said.

"Because of my work on Menominee restoration, I came to see how important the law was to Indian people. I'd decided that since I was living in D.C.—I would rather have been home—I would do something that I couldn't have done at home." Her older children, David, now a writer, critic and professor of English at the University of Southern California, and Anton, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, were three and four years old at the time she started law school at Suffolk University in Washington. Treuer's younger children are twins Megan and Micah. She is an attorney and executive director of the Regional Native Public Defense Corporation in Cass Lake; he just graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and is doing his residency in Washington.

Margaret earned her law degree and worked for a short time for the Bureau of Indian Affairs evaluating tribal courts and for the non-profit Housing Assistance Council as the tribal advocate for the low-income housing program.

In 1979, Margaret took her young family back home where she set up practice with attorney Paul Day, which continued for four years until he was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota. "We handled run-of-the-mill issues for our Indian clients," she says. She was also the attorney for the Red Lake schools. In the 1980s she started working for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa as a contract tribal judge, expanding to the Red Lake Band in the 1990s and to Leech Lake in 1998. "The Minnesota Supreme Court had ruled that the state did not have jurisdiction over traffic offenses on the reservation, which was a public safety issue. We wanted to expand the jurisdiction of the tribal court. I got the court designed and wrote all the codes between 1999 and 2005. The court handles everything except criminal work."

Jurisdiction remains one of the biggest issues facing tribal courts, Margaret said. "There's still a lot of infighting. The Minnesota State Supreme Court has made some bad decisions that I don't think were justified under PL 280."

Another is child protection. She sees little improvement since the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. "A lot of American Indian kids end up in non-tribal homes." According to Minnesota Public Radio, American Indian kids are 14 times more likely than others to be placed in out-of-home care than white children—the widest gap in the nation. Of those, a full one-third are not placed with relatives or American Indian foster parents.

On the Violence Against Women Act stalled in Congress in part because of amendments pertaining to tribal courts prosecuting non-Indian perpetrators of crimes against Indian women on reservations, Margaret said, "It's a shame that it's stalled. Indian woman are highly impacted by domestic violence, a lot of it perpetrated by people who are not tribal members." Even if that Senate provision does get passed by the House, tribal courts can still impose maximum sentences of only three years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

"I bridle at the restrictions Congress puts on tribal courts," she said. On the other hand, "I think jail time has to be used judiciously. It's a mixed thing. It should be used as a last resort. I don't think it's the best way if there are no rehabilitation programs offered. There is very little available to try to rehab batterers. No good programs to help people understand the damage they are doing to their children and families."

A major impediment to tribal courts is funding. she explains, "We could do a lot more if tribal courts had steady, reliable funding. Several years ago there was a big study on how much money was needed for tribal courts, but that money never materialized. There are a few competitive grants under the Department of Justice, but they are more like start-up grants. You cannot get the grants unless you show you can sustain the program."

Today's challenges are different for Margaret than those at the beginning, but she remains dedicated to her work as a tribal court judge and innovator.