A native of tiny Federal Dam, Minn. (population 110), within the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, Anne McKeig ’92 (HUSL) took daily 30-mile bus rides to Northland Community Schools in Remer. During her freshman year there, her class had an assignment to choose careers they were interested in and then report their findings. She picked dentistry, designed an eye-catching folder with the image of a mouth on its cover, and set about compiling her research.
There was just one problem.
“The more I researched it, the more I realized there was a lot of science involved and so I couldn’t be a dentist because I’d have to do all this science,” McKeig recalls. “And then I thought, ‘I’ll just be a lawyer’—and to this day I can’t figure out why.”
Although the basis for her epiphany may forever remain elusive, its wisdom has proven to be profoundly evident. After receiving her J.D. from Hamline Law in 1992, McKeig launched a successful public-sector legal career as a prosecutor and child advocate before becoming a Hennepin County judge. Then, in September 2016, she was sworn in as the first Native American to be named to Minnesota’s highest court and the first Native American woman to be named to any state supreme court.
McKeig’s roots next to Leech Lake are deep ones she will never forsake. She is the middle child of five—two older brothers and two younger ones—and she describes her childhood in Federal Dam in almost idyllic terms.
“In the summertime,” she says, “we’d get up in the morning and we’d go fishing or swimming or ride our bikes around town and we’d come home when it was dark. We had a lot of freedom; it was a great, great childhood.”
Her dad had a gas station and worked construction jobs. Her mother, a Bemidji native who graduated from the College of St. Catherine and earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Minnesota, was a Fulbright Scholar who dreamed of traveling but instead stayed in Federal Dam to raise her children.
McKeig says the family income was modest and they relied on gardening, deer hunting, fishing, and government commodities. “But I didn’t make any connections about poverty at the time,” she recalls. “I didn’t even think we were poor.”
She knew she was good at writing and arguing, so when she followed her mother’s lead and enrolled at St. Catherine’s, she majored in English.
As an undergraduate, she applied to law school at Hamline and the University of Minnesota. She chose Hamline because they responded first with an offer of financial assistance she
didn’t even know was available.
Law school and work
McKeig would go on to make connections at Hamline that would have profound influences on her life, perhaps none more so than ones she made at the very start of her first year. She and six other students met at an orientation session and formed an immediate bond that would last far beyond law school.
One member of that group, Minneapolis criminal-defense lawyer Robert Oleisky, remembers the group as being close-knit and McKeig often taking the role of taskmaster who told them they needed to study instead of socializing. “She was always extremely driven,” he says, “and I think that motivated us as a group.”
During her third year at Hamline Law, McKeig made the rounds at campus interviews with some big private firms but didn’t like the feel of it, so she began thinking of public interest law. As fortune would have it, an opening arose in the Child Protection Division of the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, and she landed the job.
“I didn’t even know it existed,” she says. “Looking back, I can recognize people I grew up with who probably experienced some profound abuse and neglect and knowing that that wasn’t OK but not knowing there was a systematic response to that. I never knew about foster care; I never knew about kids being moved from their parents.”
Oleisky and McKeig occasionally were opposing counsel on child-protection cases, and he characterizes her as being “driven by a sense of fairness. If we didn’t see eye to eye it was because she had the big picture in mind; it wasn’t over any pettiness.”
McKeig would remain as an assistant Hennepin County
attorney in that office for the next 16 years. She worked solely on civil cases—those involving removal, reunification, termination of parental rights, and adoptions. She also became a specialist in handling Indian Child Welfare Act cases when Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman asked her to be creative and build relationships with the state’s reservations.
“It was something I wanted to do because it was familiar to me,” she recalls, “but it also helped me to learn more about myself, more about my community, more about my past
generations, and feeling like I could really do something to make a difference in that arena.”
Path to the bench
McKeig is a descendant of the White Earth band of Ojibwe, and in 1995 a member of that band, Robert Blaeser, was appointed to the Hennepin County District Court bench, the first Native American district-court judge in the state. McKeig attended his swearing-in ceremony and recalls thinking, “Hmm, maybe I can do this someday.” Blaeser soon became her mentor.
“He was very clear about finding a path,” she says. “I remember going to him and he’d say, ‘You’re not ready,’ and I’d say, ‘OK, what do you think I should do?’ and he’d say, ‘I think you should work on this.’ And I’d go to him again and he’d say, ‘You’re not ready,’ and then finally he said, ‘You’re ready.’ He was a true mentor. He didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear. He told me what I needed to hear. He spent a lot of time with me.”
Gov. Tim Pawlenty tapped McKeig to become a Hennepin County District Court judge in 2008. For the first year of her judgeship, she heard criminal cases, but in 2009 she moved to Family Court and served as the presiding judge in that court over the final three years of her tenure before being named to the Supreme Court.
McKeig was sworn in to the high court by Gov. Mark Dayton on Sept. 15, 2016. She says it was an emotional event for her.
“It was because I knew what it meant for Indian Country. When I was in law school I was part of the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association, which was pretty small. I knew this was a goal of the bar association for many years, and I knew that people like Judge Blaeser had really done all that groundwork. I knew what it meant for me personally but also that it was so much bigger for all the people who had put so much time and effort into it. And it really hit me at that moment—plus, I was nervous as hell.”
Advocate for children
McKeig has maintained a continuing relationship with Mitchell Hamline, teaching a course in Child Abuse and the Law as an adjunct professor.
McKeig first began working on development of that course while she was still a prosecutor, in conjunction with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, which was headed by another Hamline Law alum, Victor Vieth ’87.
“Anne played a critical role in the genesis of that [curriculum],” Vieth says, “and now Mitchell Hamline has become a leader in teaching child-protection law.”
Vieth, director of the Winona, Minn.-based Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center and a former prosecutor in Watonwan and Cottonwood counties in Minnesota, has known McKeig for years and recalls her providing valuable information about the Indian Child Welfare Act in presentations at the National District Attorneys Association.
“I’ve never encountered anyone as fearless in the cause of protecting children,” he says. “She’s a light shining in the darkness for children throughout Minnesota and really around the country.”