Written by Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne K. McKeig and Jennifer K. Anderson
In general, the Minnesota State court system has not been viewed as responsive to the needs of Native communities. In 2013, it became apparent that Natives in the Fourth Judicial District were using the family court system at a lower rate than the district’s general population. As a result, the Family Court Enhancement Project (FCEP) implemented a series of judicial listening sessions to bridge the gap between the district’s Native community and the courts by creating a public forum for community members to describe their experiences and to discuss ideas to address the issue of domestic violence.
The Fourth Judicial District in Hennepin County is home to the state’s most populous Native American community. Dakota people have lived on this land since time immemorial. As a result, many continue to reside on their ancestral homelands. The district is also home to Lakota and Nakota peoples, the Anishinaabe, Ho-Chunk, Oneida, Cree, Navajo, and other Native groups. Because of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of making generalizations to inter-tribal populations of Indigenous Peoples, little can be said about the traditions of this Native population as a whole. However, one general commonality is the importance of oral traditions within each Tribal Nation. Each possesses distinctive oral traditions; some unique to separate clans within a tribe.
On the other hand, Western court systems emphasize the importance of written language. Counsel must submit written briefs and motions, while oral testimony may be excluded as hearsay. This is one way that Western legal systems differ from the traditions of Tribal Nations, and is one of many reasons the FCEP implemented judicial listening sessions.
The FCEP’s goals were to provide opportunities for community members to share thoughts, concerns, and experiences with the court addressing domestic violence; to hear from people who have interacted with the court system directly, or have friends and family that have interacted with the court system; to hear what is and is not working in terms of perception of fair treatment, quality of service, and access; and to use what is shared to help the court ensure needs are met and that rights are respected when interacting with the judicial branch.
The judicial listening sessions took place on June 15, 2016, and September 28, 2017. An elder blessed the spirit plate and attendees were given dinner or a snack. After eating, session facilitators laid ground rules for discussing domestic violence during small group listening sessions. Each small group was led by a Fourth Judicial District judge and co-facilitator, and participants had the opportunity to smudge in a private room at any time during the sessions.
Although the June 15, 2016 listening session had a low turnout, over sixty people attended the September 28, 2017 session. Participants set forth ideas to bridge the gap between the district’s Native communities and the court system, such as to create a feedback form for family court participants to complete at the self-help center regarding the treatment they received in family court, to provide additional on-site help for self-represented parties, to educate judges and court staff about mental health and addiction needs, and to address the historical trauma that remains in Native communities after abuse endured in boarding schools and foster homes.
The FCEP intends to use the findings of the listening sessions as educational opportunities for the district’s bench. More importantly, the program will use the findings to learn from the creativity and wisdom of the people who use the family court system to improve outcomes for families and children who are living in crisis as a result of domestic violence. It is our hope that the judicial listening sessions will not only help bridge the gap between Native communities and the Fourth Judicial District but also assist all communities of color in connecting with their respective districts. The more each district knows about the barriers to access and utilization each of its populations face, the better the system can help those it hopes to serve.
 “Smudging” or “cleansing” is a ceremonial tradition that many Indigenous Peoples use for holistic purification of a person; it involves the ritualistic burning of a small amount of traditional herbal medicine (such as sage, sweet grass, cedar or copal) and fanning the smoke of the medicine to wash over a person to cleanse and assist them.