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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

Inside a Minneapolis courtroom is a row of flags representing tribal nations who called the land home well before Minnesota became a state.

Flags from Ojibwe and Dakota nations were gifted to a Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center courtroom that hears many of the state’s Indian Child Welfare Act cases. The center is a branch of Minnesota's Fourth Judicial District.

The flags were part of a project Terri Yellowhammer, Standing Rock Sioux, helped bring to fruition in an effort to build a better partnership with the 11 tribes in Minnesota and the judicial system. Many of the 11 tribes presented a flag in individual ceremonies, she said, and more flag ceremonies were expected but the COVID-19 pandemic put it on hold. Native art and traditional medicines for smudging are also inside the courtroom.

“The whole point was to make it less scary and more welcoming and acknowledge the heritage of the families that go in there,” Yellowhammer said. “So it was especially satisfying for me.”

The recent project was perhaps a fitting ending for Yellowhammer and her role as Hennepin County’s American Indian community relations development manager. The longtime legal expert and former tribal judge is heading back to the bench, but this time as a judge in the fourth district, the largest trial court in the state.

On Oct. 2, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, announced that he appointed Yellowhammer to fill the seat of retiring Judge Fred Karasov. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth, said she was thrilled by Yellowhammer’s appointment.

“Ms. Yellowhammer has the experience and heart that will serve the bench well,” Flanagan said. “Her work as a tribal court judge and as an advocate for Native children and families brings a much needed perspective to the fourth judicial circuit.”

A row of tribal flags behind the bench are displayed in a juvenile courtroom in Minnesota's Hennepin County. (Photo courtesy of Hennepin County website)

Yellowhammer’s legal system and public service experience includes being an attorney and a White Earth Nation Tribal Court judge on the homelands where her mother is from. Her father is from Standing Rock.

White Earth’s connection to the justice system doesn’t stop with Yellowhammer. Minnesota has state Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig and Federal Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois, both from White Earth. Robart Blaeser, who retired in 2012 from the state’s Fourth Judicial District, also has ties to White Earth.

On the district court level, Yellowhammer joins two Native women judges already serving. Judge Jeannice Reding, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, serves in the fourth district. Judge Korey Wahwassuck, Cree, serves in northern Minnesota in the ninth district. Reding was appointed in 2006 and elected in 2008 while Wahwassuck was appointed in 2013 and elected a year later. Both Reding’s and Wahwassuck’s terms expire in January and both are on the Nov. 3 general election ballot seeking reelection. 

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A map of the nine judicial districts of the Minnesota Judicial Branch. Terri Yellowhammer was appointed to the Minnesota Fourth Judicial District in October, 2020. She joins another Native judge in Jeannice M. Reding in the fourth district. A third Native judge, Korey Wahwassuck, sits in the ninth district. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Judicial Branch)

Yellowhammer graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1995. She grew up on the northside of Minneapolis and spent most of her life in the city. Her legal career started in the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office in the Education and Human Services divisions and it has been dedicated to public service ever since. After, she worked with the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, where she mainly represented Native women in district and tribal court.

“My heart has been in trying to work for my community and make things better, especially for children and families,” she said.

Terri Yellowhammer and her husband Larry Burzinksi. Judge Yellowhammer was appointed to the Minnesota Fourth Judicial District in October, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Terri Yellowhammer)

In early July, Yellowhammer learned about three upcoming judicial vacancies. The stringent application process was “daunting,” she said. She asked and received guidance from mentors throughout the process. She met the July 27 application deadline, which included 10 letters of recommendation, and nearly three weeks later, she was granted an interview with the judicial selection commission.

In October, her judge appointment became official.

Yellowhammer will finish out Karasov’s term that ends in 2022. She plans to be on the ballot after and expects a challenger because although most incumbent judges run unopposed, Yellowhammer said, many women of color are challenged in reelection bids.

Soon, Yellowhammer will start her six-week judicial training period and after will shadow other judges before starting out in misdemeanor court. An official start date hasn’t been determined.

“For me, in addition to being an honor, it’s really humbling,” Yellowhammer said. “We have a lot of really talented Native lawyers here in Minnesota, but sadly we are severely underrepresented on the bench.”

“... considering how overrepresented we are in the systems here, this was about me and not about me, because for Native people, we should be in more positions of leadership,” she continued. “I really feel like this is an accomplishment for my community, this isn't just my accomplishment.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker. Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

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