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On a cold, rainy night in October, Justice Anne McKeig of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the first American Indian to be appointed to the highest court of any state, warmed a Minneapolis audience of about 200 with her story.

McKeig, who spoke at a Minnesota Peace Initiative forum at Norway House, grew up in Federal Dam near Leech Lake on the White Earth Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota. The daughter of an Indian educator mother and one of five children, McKeig started work at 13 as a housekeeper and waitress.

"I swore like a truck driver and wanted to be a country singer," said McKeig. "Or, 'Plan B,' a lawyer. My mom wanted Plan B."

McKeig, 56, a graduate of St. Catherine University and Mitchell Hamline School of Law, was appointed to the Hennepin County judiciary by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2008 and to the Supreme Court by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016.

"She was born into a life much like many of the people who become involved with Minnesota's court system: poverty, discrimination, seemingly too few opportunities," Dayton said in 2016. "Yet she lifted herself above and beyond those disadvantages."

McKeig, candid, funny and irreverent at times, is serious about her role and work.

She spent 16 spent years as a Hennepin County attorney, specializing in Indian affairs and child welfare. Her background and insights have informed her through her 15 years as a judge.

"There are economic development and [personal] financial development issues," she said. "Only 40% of Minnesota Indian high school students graduate. We've got to improve that. My mom worked 40 years in Indian education. And we are off the charts in challenges posed by [crime and incarceration], child welfare and domestic violence."

Moreover, she noted that low-income Indian offenders, often wallowed in generational poverty, struggle to turn their lives around, including alcohol and drug treatment. They may get a few weeks to meet court directives compared with months-long treatment programs paid by insurance plans for more affluent citizens.

And sometimes they overcome burdens of the past.

McKeig's grandfather was stripped of his native language and culture at a Catholic boarding school. Experts say that heritage, compounded by discrimination and trouble acclimating to white-oriented education and lifestyle, has impeded Indian success in a white society.

There has been some success in integrating traditional Indian values that embrace the multigeneration view of investing in the future, a reverence for nature and preserving the land that also blends with native spirituality.

McKeig and her children, unlike her grandfather and father, got to claim their Indian names and explore their native culture, as well as mainstream education.

Despite misbelief that Minnesota Indians are rich from gambling, only two tribes, the Sioux near Shakopee and the Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa, have derived significant wealth from gambling. The Mille Lacs band for 30 years has chosen investments in tribal infrastructure, health, education and economic diversification over big payments to its members.

"I've never gotten 5 cents from my tribe," McKeig said. "It's about community development."

The land and water around White Earth, once the province of Indians, largely were taken from them and turned into farms, vacation land, cabins and resorts. That's an oft-repeated story.

She also acknowledged that the Indian community, diverse and of varied backgrounds and opinions, must maximize its educational and other opportunities.

McKeig suggested that we all need to know folks from different races and culture. It builds understanding and empathy.

"We have made so much progress in my lifetime," she said.

But there's still a long way to go.

"We have an obligation to work on behalf of all children, for it truly takes a village to raise a child," McKeig said at her 2016 swearing in. "I will do my best to serve all Minnesotans. I also promise to never take myself too seriously, nor forget who I am or where I came from."

Working for peace

McKeig's humor and candor were lauded that evening at what's formerly the Norwegian Center for Art, Culture and Business on E. Franklin Avenue, an urban area with one of the highest concentrations of Indians in the country.

Janet Dolan, the evening's moderator, commended McKeig for her success, empathy and insights.

Dolan is another St. Kate's graduate with a nontraditional background. Dolan, who oversees Norway House's Minnesota Peace Initiative, started out as a legal aid lawyer, serving the indigent. She eventually switched to corporate law, worked as general counsel then chief executive of publicly held Tennant Co. She has spent the past 15 years writing, teaching college courses and engaged in community service.

"The purpose of the Minnesota Peace Initiative is to provide a public forum in which to learn more about the important issues of the day," she said. "The peace initiative is part of Norway House because Norway has a long history of serving as a global peacemaker.

"Norway House recently [expanded] in south Minneapolis. This year, rather than focus on a global hotspot thousands of miles away, we decided to focus on our neighborhood and neighbors."

Norway House CEO Christina Carleton and Mary LaGarde, executive director of the nearby Minneapolis American Indian Center (MAIC), have collaborated on programming, development and more, including financing their respective expansions. The MAIC next year will open an expanded, remodeled center on Franklin Avenue. The street increasingly is distinguished by more Indian-oriented housing, art and other businesses that underscore a brighter Indian future.

Moreover, Scandinavia has its own historically oppressed indigenous people. The "Sami" were represented online that October night by Laila Susanne Vars, a Norwegian-Sami human rights lawyer and former politician. The Sami lost much of their land and culture to European immigrants and have struggled with some of the same issues as American Indians.

"It's our mission to connect to contemporary Norway, to connect locally and be welcoming to all," Carleton said. "Mary LaGarde and the CEO of the American Swedish Institute were recently here. It's a collaborative. Right here in the cultural corridor of East Franklin Avenue."

Neal St. Anthony is a Minneapolis freelance writer.