Join us for a conversation with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig, the first American Indian to serve on the Court. She shares stories of resiliency and how these experiences have influenced her leadership journey.
During this episode, she also discusses COVID-19 responses, virtual learning issues, and more.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Justice Anne McKeig, Minnesota Supreme Court
- Learn more about the Minnesota Supreme Court COVID-19 response plan.
- Read how virtual learning comes with added challenges, small successes for Minnesota's special education students.
- Read the order requiring face coverings at court facilities in Minnesota.
- Get the latest on the Minnesota Supreme Court on the Minnesota judicial branch website.
- Dive more into leadership and civic engagement through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jason Schlender: Welcome to Indigenized Connections On Air, a podcast brought to you by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of leadership and civic engagement, and also by the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota.
I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American Indian leadership and civic engagement educator. My guest is Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Justice McKeig. Justice McKeig is a White Earth descendant and was raised in Federal Dam on a Leech Lake Reservation by her parents who instilled in her a strong work ethic and belief that anything is possible. Justice McKeig is also the first American Indian woman to serve on the court. So please welcome Justice Anne McKeig to the podcast.
Can you tell us a little bit about your leadership journey?
Justice McKeig: Sure. Well, it's been an interesting one, it certainly is one that I didn't expect. Growing up in Federal Dam, Minnesota, on the Leech Lake Reservation, population 106. I certainly did not have dreams that I was going to end up where I am today, but I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer because I wanted to be able to help people. I grew up watching my mom and dad both helping members of community.
My mom worked in Indian education at our high school, and so she was a pretty popular person, I would say, amongst the Native youth in school, a lot of my friends. She was the helping person, I saw her counseling kids; kids telling her, I think, a lot of secrets, a lot of problems. She never shared any of those. I just saw her as the person that people would want to go to, and I was very proud of that, that was my mom, and then my dad was ... he was the blue-collar guy, he had a small garage in town, and my mom used say that if we had to rely on him for income, we’d never have any.
Because my dad was the guy who, it's like, oh, somebody would bring him some fish and he fixed their car or they'd pay him later. And in fact, when my dad passed away, he was diabetic and he had lost both of his legs and passed away at age 61, but there were several people who came to the funeral and said, Oh, I still owe your dad money and I'll make sure that I get it to your mom. And that's just sort of Federal Dam, which I love about Federal Dam.
But I knew I wanted to go to college, and so I did leave and went to school at Saint Catherine University, and I will say that I think for me, coming from a small town, being in an environment with all women, that it sort of infused that leadership ability and telling me that I could be a leader and that it was within me, and I think they sort of drew out my strengths as somebody who was a very passionate person and gave me self-confidence that I didn't necessarily have when I got there. So I think that helped set me on a good path and then went to law school.
Hated Law School. Can't say that I liked it at all. I kept telling myself, it's a means to an end, it's a means to an end. I didn't feel like I had anything in common with a lot of the students who went to law school, but I found some good friends there and ended up having a good time, and I made it through. And then I got a job in the county attorney's office, and started working on child welfare cases, and specifically I got to work on Indian child welfare cases, and that for me was not only professionally gratifying, but personally, because I was able to, I think, learn so much more about myself and my family and my community in a way that was just different from where I grew up, because my dad was not a traditionalist. He taught us certainly some things, but it's sort of that break as we know, from the boarding schools, because my grandfather was fluent in Ojibwe, and he had a lot of the traditions, but he was sent away to the boarding schools when he was young, and I think as time progressed, the family just started losing some of those. So in doing child welfare, I was reconnected with some elders in the community who were extremely patient and really taught me a lot.
And that was the first time that I think I started to feel like I could be a leader in some way, shape or form. Because I noticed that people would start to come to me and ask questions or have me come and speak at things, and you're kind of like, Why do you want me?” And it felt good, I liked it, but I didn't have necessarily a lot of support from a supervisor that I had at the time, who really thought I was not leadership material. I think she didn't appreciate my communication style, which is pretty direct. So then it was kind of like, “Well, where does that leave me?”
And then I had met Bob Blazer, Judge Robert Blazer, who was the first Native district court judge in the Twin Cities, and he became a mentor for me. And I think he then really was like, “You can do this, there are things that you can do, you can become a district court judge and our community needs you, and you have obligations, and so I'm going to help you.” And it wasn't easy because I wasn't sure that I wanted to be a judge.
I was a very passionate lawyer, and he would call me into chambers and he'd be like, “You’re rolling your eyes in court, you can't do that, and you're throwing the pencil in court and you can't do that, and you only make an argument once, you don't make it twice,” and I thought, “Gosh, I'm always in trouble.” But he just spent a lot of time with me, and I think really tried to help me mature both professionally and personally.
And so then he's the one who helped me decide to apply for the district court, and then when I got on the district court, I was put in a leadership role. And I was sort of shocked by that, but also honored by that, and it gave me an opportunity to show what I thought I was capable of, and I think I might have surprised some people because I think I did a pretty good job as a presiding judge; and then we had this opening on the Minnesota Supreme Court, which I had no intention of applying for, and again, my mentor, Judge Blazer came to me and said there was the opening, and I thought he was going to apply.
And he said, No, you are. And I thought, “Oh boy,” because it's very different, a district court to the Supreme Court is just very different, and I certainly don't fit the mold for what people typically would think of as the supreme court justice. I'm Minnesota-born-bred and educated, and I don't consider myself … somebody who's extremely intelligent. I think I'm smart, but I think I have a different kind of smart. I think I'm common sense, smart people smart, street smart, but that's not necessarily the same as what might be required for that court. But he really pushed me and said, it's really not about you, it's about our people, and we have never had a seat at the table at this level. And we need one. And so you're going to do this. And so I did, and I got it, and it's a tremendous responsibility because I'm the first in the entire United States, which is kind of unreal. So there it is.
Jason Schlender: What's fascinating, I think it's ... obviously, I'm sure there's a lot of pressure for being the first American Indian female to sit on the bench. But at the same time, I think the thing I appreciate is hearing those common themes of either elders or elder-mentors that push you, people, into those positions for the bigger picture of having a seat at the table or an opportunity for American Indian voices to be heard. So those are always very important, so obviously the country, in the state, and actually the world is dealing with this pandemic of COVID-19, there's a lot of changes, so when you think of changes, it's just things that are just everyday things that you take for granted. Before we've started our podcast, I had to run to get some coffee, and the governor from where I live, in Wisconsin.
Justice McKeig: Oh you poor thing. [Laughter]
Jason Schlender: So using and wearing a mask is not a habitual thing for me. Sorry, I find myself walking in and I'm halfway there and I'm like, “Oh man, I forgot my mask.” And then some people will say, I can see the look and some people's faces and look at me like that, well, that's right, that's why we don't need it. Or some people that take that more conservative stance of it being a constitutional right or a violation of our constitutional rights and things like that, so it's taken some adjustment, but I definitely follow the rule. I've got personal friends that have been impacted by COVID-19, so that ... I guess that's important, but anyway, into us in these challenging times, what is important for tribal leaders to keep in mind?
Justice McKeig: Minnesota has done, I think, quite well, and I think what Minnesota's tribal leaders have done is that they have really remain united for one thing. So that there's power in that being united, we’re fortunate here when you talk about the seat at the table.
The perfect example is that we have the lieutenant governor who is Native, and that she's the first lieutenant governor in the country. And so that has resulted in Native voices being heard, acknowledged, sort of represented and repeated. So for example, you'll hear our governor or our lieutenant governor talking about the state and how we are dealing with the pandemic, and when they're giving those updates, it's never just about the state, it will be the state and our tribal nations, and that's never happened before.
And so I think it is an opportunity, and I think our tribal leaders recognize that for there to be much-improved collaboration between the tribal nations and the state government about how to address this, because it is such a problem that nobody can do it alone. And particularly when you look at what's been happening across the country. Really, as Indian people, there's limited access to healthcare, we've got issues of poverty, we've got isolation, we've got technology issues, so even for doctors who are doing virtual appointments ...
Well, not everybody is able to do that. I know that at my mom's place, I have to go stand in a certain part of outside be able to have any sort of cell service, let alone broadband service, and so our tribal leaders have done a good job of keeping in mind that while their issues might be different, there's also many issues that are the same, and so not remaining isolated as those tribal nations, but trying to collaborate with the state and using some of those resources to help Native communities on the reservations and also in urban areas, because they're just our greater resources.
When you look at ... I know our governor mentioned something about Indian Health Services and the number of ICU beds and what was available in the state versus what's available through Indian Health Services, and it was like 11 ICU beds available in the entire state for Native people through Indian Health Services compared to the hundreds of beds available in the state healthcare system. It's an education opportunity that I am hearing more and more people are starting to understand, at least some ... obviously, we have a long way to go, but I always think of us as this invisible people, and the more that it's talked about ...
It is an opportunity for us to sort of be like, “Hey, yeah, we're here.” We don't look like the photos from the boarding school era, we look very different, and we are in all different sorts of positions, including the lieutenant governor, including me on the supreme court, many people would be like, Oh, well, you don't look Native. And that's sort of a frustrating comment that I get often because I think people don't necessarily understand that that can be sort of feel like a personal attack. So for our tribal nations, I just want them to remember that this is, I think, a unique opportunity to collaborate, and I'm proud of what's been done this far.
Jason Schlender: It’s interesting that you mentioned just looks ... so I think that kind of touches our insecurities in some way, or even like myself, it's like I've always wanted to have a long braid, never been able to do that, so ... and I get the same question, right? With my siblings, I'm the darkest one, so it’s said, “Well, you're dark, but you don't have long hair, and it's like ... that touches, a real sensitive thing for me because I'm like, I know, I know. I don't have long hair.”
Justice McKeig: Right. I don't need to be reminded. My daughter, my youngest daughter is blonde and blue-eyed, and my husband is Mexican, and she gets really mad because people not only don't believe that she's Native , but they don't believe that she's Mexican, and she's just ... she's like, “What do I have to wear a sign?” She just gets very frustrated because she does feel like it's people questioning who she is because she so strongly identifies. And I do think that we still have a lot of assumptions about what Indian people should look like.
Jason Schlender: The other thing I think is really interesting too, is like I find myself asking the question like, if you're asking me what you think I look like, what do you think you look like? How do you carry yourself? So if you think of yourself while I'm an American or I'm Irish-American, or I’m an Italian-American or whatever, it's like ...
I wonder how they identify for themselves, so it's an interesting topic. So what kind of changes do you see coming, in your position with the Supreme Court during the COVID-19?
Justice McKeig: Well. Some positive things. Let me start with the positive. And some of these that I hope will stick around, not just during COVID-19, which is that for certain parts of our state, particularly in the rural areas where there is access to broadband. Well, first let me back up. One is I think that the state's going to address the broadband issue. I think the legislature has a desire to do that. It's been sort of on the radar for quite some time, but I think that the pandemic will force that issue. And hopefully, it will result in there being free access to broadband across our state because it's going to be required for education and healthcare, etcetera.
With that then, I think allows people who have always had transportation issues. So for example, for the court system, we're noticing that people who can appear through their cell phones love it because they don't have to drive to a courthouse, whether it's in the ‘Cities or whether it's in a rural area. In the ‘Cities, they don't have to pay for parking, they don't have to try to find parking, they don't have to deal with any of that, they don't have to go through security. They can just get on their phone and they have their court hearing, and I think for some people that's sort of that buffer, it feels a little less intimidating because it's through that social media rather than an in-person appearance.
So we have had a greater appearance percentage than no shows, which tells us something . Which is also interesting, because I've heard that also from the medical field, that they have had much better attendance for medical appointments, for therapy appointments, because people are just finding that easier and it doesn't have all of the additional barriers about, I don't have a car, I don't have any gas in my car, my car is not working, I don't know if somebody can take me, and I can't take off all that time for work.
So I do hope that we will consider that as we go forward, because not all types of court hearings in my field, in my opinion, need to be in person. Now, there certainly are some that do need to be in person, but who are the court hearings for? Well, it's for the people who are coming to court. And so I think that we need to be a little more thoughtful about that. So I think that that has been positive. In the child welfare world, it's been hard for parents who have not been able to have in-person visits. That's been very traumatic.
I think people have tried to be very creative how to figure out how they can do that, I think there's been progress made. But on the other hand, it is also allowed for a lot more face time, because now we're utilizing the ability to do FaceTime, which I don't know why we weren't doing that before. Parents were only getting one hour a week with their kids for visitation when everybody's got a cell phone. We could have been doing these nightly check-ins face time with their kids, and we haven't been doing that, so now we are doing that. And so I hope that that will stick around.
There has been some really good partnerships between private corporations and government to try to get technology to parts of the state that didn't have it, including tribal nations, because the tribes definitely [had] issues with lack of technology, and of course no financial resources to be able to get laptops and cell phones. And to pay for Internet for people who needed it. And there was a number of the big corporations in Minnesota, like Target and Best Buy, Comcast, I can't think of all of them, but that really stepped up and helped fund that, so that's a great partnership, and we should be thinking more about that as well. And that has allowed for more areas of the state, which had those financial challenges for the technology to be able to meet those.
For kids, I do worry about education, I don't know how our schools are going to do it, I feel horrible for our schools, I feel horrible for our kids. The last trimester, was interesting because we were doing our hearings virtually, so I was in the bedroom doing them so that hopefully the dogs weren't barking and the garage door wasn't opening and somebody wasn't flushing the toilet, and then my husband was doing his stuff virtually. My son came home from Morris and he was doing his college virtually, and then my daughter was doing high school virtually, and it was all very different experiences.
And for some kids, not having that in-classroom instruction was extremely detrimental. We know that the food issues, kids who relied on and families who relied on the schools for food, that was an issue. The schools, I think stepped up and tried to still make that available, but the lack of assistance to help kids who need help getting their schoolwork done.
I ended up calling this young man, he's a sibling of another young woman that I try to help, and I said, you're failing, because I get all these reports on them, and he's like, Yeah, and I said, “Well, you can't ... you’re going to fail eighth grade. And there's no reason for that.” So I went and picked him up, made him come over, made him sit down, get out [his] computer. He hadn't even logged on once the entire trimester, and we talked about why, and he's like, “Well, so-and-so pays for the wi-fi in our house, and if they're mad at me, they don't give me the code, and there's really nobody there to help me and nobody really cares if I'm on.”
And so I had him come for two weeks and he's super smart, and just making him sit there, he passed. He got all of his stuff done and it required some prodding, but also he felt really good about that because I said, “You passed, all your teachers have responded.” And he's like, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe that.” He's like, “I thought that that was not going to happen.” And so I think we need people to sort of step up and try to help those forgotten kids because he couldn't have done it on his own. He wouldn't have done it on his own, and just for a myriad of reasons, and so I worry about those kids during the pandemic, because I do think that there's more than we know of them.
Jason Schlender: And it's a sad situation when poverty forces you to be in situations that are not necessarily the best for your health. So if you mean that's a common thing too, there's tribal schools in our area that are having breakfast and lunches. Sometimes is really their only meals and so they are kind of forced to go to school. But at the same time though, I think about how are school systems, not necessarily speaking so much for Minnesota, but just from my own personal perspective, is just that the school districts are just not equipped, preparing themselves or providing that opportunity.
So for the upcoming school year, I have two high school children and my daughter is going to be a senior this year, and just like what you were saying, I feel bad that because ... well, just being involved in your child's education, you share your own experiences. So we were just like, “Oh, I can't wait for this to happen,” and the same experiences are going to be different. Maybe they could be better. Who knows? But our traditional high school experience that I had, that my brothers had, that my sisters had, it will be different now because they're introducing a virtual component to where you go to school for four days and then you have one virtual day, but then you also have just this whole looming pandemic and things going on, so the way that people interact with one another, whether you're wearing a face mask at school the whole time is different, and just the social interaction between friends and athletics, it's a big thing for families too. So that's all being changed and modified, too.
So with that, how has recent social justice movement impacted you with your work?
Justice McKeig: Now that has been a significant challenge because we have to remain neutral on our court because there is litigation, there will probably be more litigation because we're the place where it all happened, and I think sometimes that's really difficult for the everyday citizen to understand, we have had a lot of questions about how other supreme courts around the country and other courts around the country have been making statements. And why isn't the Minnesota Supreme Court putting out a statement?
And we can't ... because there's really nothing I think that we could say that would be meaningful. Because it would have to be sort of just washed of anything that it wouldn't have any substance to it, because we are going to be the place of litigation, and because we are going to have to make decisions on these cases, and for some of us on the court, myself and Justice Hudson, who's African-American, and Justice Chutich who is lesbian, we have talked about how our personal lives and our professional lives are sort of clashing at this moment, because we obviously … well, we all have opinions about it, but we have expectations from some of our communities that we should be out doing certain things, and I think in addition to our responsibilities for our job and it has put a lot of pressure on specifically some of the members of the court who are from communities of color, and that's been really hard to navigate.
We had a group of [unintelligible], so I thought were extremely thoughtful, and they wanted to know why as a court we weren't doing something, and we ended up having a really good conversation with them and listening to their concerns, their hopes, what they think we can do in the future as a court to address some of the issues in our state, and then also some of us just shared some of our personal ... it's like I'm getting a call from so and so and they're like, “Why aren't you ... We're going to go out and we're going to be meeting at this place, and why aren't you going to join us?” And I'm like, “I can't, I can't.”
And having to explain that over and over, and some people get in it and some people just being angry, thinking that I'm just choosing to not do it, and it's not for a legitimate reason, when it's like, “Well, no then I would have to recuse and I wouldn't even be able to sit on the cases that are going to come to us through this litigation process.” It's been really hard because of course, I have feelings about it.
It's invoked a lot of strong feelings for everyone, and I have five kids, they've all got different feelings about it, and I think that's one thing that people sort of think that everybody thinks the same about it, and it's like, no, people have very individual feelings and responses to what's happened, and we can't just assume that it's all the same, and it's interesting how even some of these issues where you'd think we would all be sort of, at least in the broader issues, having the same concerns, that it feels very politicized and to me, that's just another tragedy because it's missed opportunities, I think.
Jason Schlender: We appreciate your perspective, and I think that's something that many people will probably need to understand, because I think that's what they're all ... a lot of people are, whether it's a pandemic or if it's just these social movements, it's like a lot of people go to those ones that they seek for answers, so they look to people that are scholars or your people in the law, people that are provide some type could be just a Doctor of Medicine, just to kind of help gain some sense of understanding, so I appreciate your perspective, and obviously it's ... yeah, you're there to protect the integrity of the court, and so it's a huge responsibility and at the same time, you know, you obviously must be ... I don't know if you have to create an alias or something.
Justice McKeig: I mean, sometimes it feels that way. It's very hard to get away because I don't like to be Justice McKeig. I like to be Anne McKeig. And it's really hard because everyone who knows who you are is like, Oh, it’s Justice McKeig, and it's like, Oh no, I'm just ... I'm Anne. It wasn’t too long after I was appointed, I was at Goodwill, and the lady turns around and she did a double-take and then she goes, aren't you Justice McKeig? And I'm like, “Oh yeah.” And she's like, “You're at Goodwill.” And I'm like, Well, yes, I mean, it's sort of like ... you sort of have to just not care, but at the same time, it's like I'd like to be incognito more, and you try to get people to just call you by your first name, but it's hard because it is a direct … it’s sort of an instantaneous cut off from people treating you just as Anne. They now sort of put a little bit of a formal distance, as you will, and I know it's a sign of respect for a lot of people. But for me personally, that has been very hard because that's just not how I was raised.
When we think of what ways do you see tribes connecting through economic development during the COVID-19? Yeah, well, one is that they've been making these partnerships with private industries. Also there has been, I think, a little more work on trying to help tribes or to assist tribes to become much more independent, not the right word, because they're sovereign, but to not have to go through the state to access certain things, and a perfect example is child welfare, which has been making progress over the years.
Because in the past, everything had to be accessed through state and local, so through the either state government or through local counties, and as the tribes have been building their infrastructure and their tribal court systems, there's been a lot of work done where the tribes are accessing the federal dollars that helps build their child welfare systems and strengthen their tribal courts and strengthen their social services, so that they can address the issues that they feel are important within the tribal community, rather than the state or the county sort of dictating what gets paid for, and with that, of course, comes I think much more freedom and an ability to live as a sovereign nation, and so that's been very exciting.
We have 11 tribal courts and tribes in Minnesota, and they have all been really increasing the amount of work and cases that have been going through the tribal courts, and I think that's really exciting because it's just allowed for them to do cases in a different way than what the states or counties would may handle the child welfare cases.
Jason Schlender: I also think that, just reflecting on something you shared earlier too, about just staying united, there's these different situations come up, the tribes that have been relying upon themselves, really utilizing their self-sufficiency, asserting their sovereignty in whatever capacity. But working together is, I think, is important. In my communications with other tribal leaders, they have really appreciated having that opportunity to be on a united front, working with the state, whether it's daily communication with the governor and the governor's cabinet and there are different staff there, I think that's probably a sense of empowerment and security can go a long way as far as providing resources to tribal communities as well.
Justice McKeig: Yeah, and it's just much more powerful. I think it just puts them in a much greater position for whether it's negotiating or whatever it may be, because if the 11 stick together, I know that the 11 tribal nations are, for example, on a phone call with the governor every Friday, and that hasn't happened in the past, which is great, rather than the governor calling each individual one, they're a collective group. And what I really appreciate is that when I've been on some of those calls is nobody is willing to sort of step out and make a decision independently, they're like, “Well, we're going to talk and we'll get back to you.” And for me, that's just so wise, because it just gives them so much more power.
Jason Schlender: So Justice McKeig, I appreciate your time. I just have one last question, I appreciate your story, a person like yourself provides a model for our Native communities that anything is possible. Your story is kind of reflective of something similar ... my father was an attorney, my brother is now, and so I'm familiar with that. And I even tried, I took the LSAT, but I'm in education now, so I didn’t make it to those ranks, but any parting wisdom that you would like to share, but as we conclude our conversation here today?
Justice McKeig: Yeah, the only thing that I would say is just that anything is truly possible in that you should never let people tell you no, or close the door on you, that you should hold that power for yourself, you and you alone should be the decision-maker for what your path is ... and for where it goes, and if I would have listened to all of the no voices growing up, it was the pat on the head like, “Oh, that's cute that you want to be a lawyer. That's so sweet. That's just never going to happen, but look what she wants to do,” and even as I progressed in my career like, “Oh, she's not leadership material.”
It feels really good, when you get to where I am to be like, “Oh well, how do you like me now?” That Toby Keith song, when that comes on, it's like I love that song because it's very sweet, and I am so proud of myself in that I stayed focused on wanting to at least be successful, and I think successful can look very differently. It's just being happy and liking what it is that you're doing, I don't think it means that you have to be in some, what people might consider a prestigious position, that's not what success means, but really believing in yourself and finding those around you who believe in you.
I wouldn't be where I am without Judge Blazer and many others like him, and I know now that I have the obligation to help others achieve their dreams and their goals. And so we don't ever do it alone, but we have to start by believing in ourselves, so that's what we need to do because we deserve to have a seat at the table, and that's at any table.
Jason Schlender: Miigwech for your time.
Justice McKeig: Miigwech to you.
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