From our recent interview with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig, a few things stand out.
First, family means a very great deal to Justice McKeig. We’re tempted to say that family might mean everything to her — not only her own family but all of our families (and, more broadly, our communities).
Second, Minnesotans are extraordinarily fortunate to have Justice McKeig on our state supreme court. She brings dedication, tenacity, integrity, along with her deep personal perspective, informed by an upbringing in rural Northcentral Minnesota in the Native American community. On top of that, we benefit from her expertise in family law, in particular. Justice McKeig embodies the importance of diversity among our judges — diversity not only in life experience but also legal experience.
ML: I want to start by asking you about your Native American background. Can you elaborate on that part of your identity and how that informs what you do and how you see our legal system?
Justice McKeig: My Native American background has profoundly influenced the way that I look at justice and it has always influenced the role I see for myself in the justice system. My father – Monte “Big Dog” McKeig – was born in Onigum on the Leech Lake Reservation, although he was an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation.
He grew up in Federal Dam in north central Minnesota between Grand Rapids and Bemidji, where my grandfather worked for the railroad.
My grandfather was fluent in Ojibwe and he was a student of the boarding school era. So he was actually sent away to two different boarding schools, I believe it was Morris and Pipestone. And he kept running away and they kept sending him back. He returned home eventually, a young man, and married my grandmother who was Bohemian and who was a school teacher. They had three children, one of them being my dad and his two sisters, my aunts. My father was raised and taught some of the Ojibwe language although my grandfather probably lost some of the language during his time at the boarding schools.
But, more than the native language, both my parents and also their parents passed on strong values: a simple life, hard work, clean living, a sense of self, a sense of community and knowing what your role in the community.
For example, even though my parents had a chance to live here in the Twin Cities and probably would’ve had a better lifestyle as far as money, that wasn’t what my parents wanted. They wanted the closeness you feel on the reservation. Even when I go home now, I feel like my heart, my soul, my everything is in Federal Dam. I wasn’t born there, but that’s where I moved at the age of three to be raised. And there’s a level of comfort, a level of trust, a feeling of belonging. Outside that close circle, there’s a feeling of not belonging. I think many people feel something like that, though maybe in slightly different ways.
My parents taught us and expected us to be good people, to respect the land, and whatever we took from the land was to be used. So, for example, we hunted, but we wasted nothing; we ate all we hunted. And we took care of the land. We did not litter. I remember when the Corps of Engineers built a park in my hometown. My father was very unhappy about that. He was concerned that tourists would come and take the fish and leave their garbage. Maybe that was unfair of him, but the point is that we had a respect for the land and we cared for it. Not everyone does. Indian people live off the land. This impacts your lifestyle.
So I didn’t know how these values were impacting me all those years but I definitely learned right from wrong and I definitely learned that I was to stand up for the underrepresented or the underdog because that’s what my dad would’ve done. And both of my parents were very giving people. I learned from watching them with their generosity and kindness. My dad never turned anyone away that needed help and my mom is the same. I took that with me when I left for college.
Off I went to college, to St. Catherine’s, because my mom had gone there. You could say I was born to go there. There was never any doubt that that was where I would go to college.
From there it was off to law school and, after law school, I was just lucky. I landed in the Hennepin county attorney’s office in the Child Protection Division, but I didn’t know anything about it. That was not a world that I knew about but, after doing the work for a while, I could recognize it. It surrounded me everywhere back home on the reservation. Some of my good friends came from abuse, abusive and neglected homes, and I saw my mom caring for a lot of the kids in the community.
She was Indian Education Director. She would be the one that, if a kid was having trouble at home or crying or pain or suffering from some traumatic event, she was their confidante. She didn’t tell us about any of that. But looking back, I can recognize it now as an adult. Then I was fortunate enough to be asked to work on the Indian child welfare cases in the County Attorney’s office. All of a sudden it came together with my legal education because I was able to work with my community and really learn more about myself. So I worked with many of the elders who represented the different reservations. We have eleven here in the state. And I was able to go out to the reservations.
I was able to go out of state to Pine Ridge and Rosebud. I was welcomed. Part of that is because I was native and so I was welcomed, but also they were very patient with me because I wasn’t a traditionalist. That’s not how I was raised. I was raised with the similar values, but I think of people like Jackie Wilson. She was an urban representative for the White Earth Nation. I think of Katy Turner who was also working with the tribes in court. They really helped me on a personal level, which helped me on a professional level.