Margaret Seelye Treuer was resolute.
Her determination helped her go from humble beginnings on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation to become the first American Indian female attorney in Minnesota and then the first Indian female judge in the country.
“My mother was a trailblazer,” said son Anton Treuer, an author and professor at Bemidji State University.
Treuer died March 18 at her home in Bena, Minn. She was 76.
“She started the comprehensive health program at Red Lake, became the first female Native attorney in the state of Minnesota, and rebuilt an intergenerational bridge in her family for keeping our Ojibwe culture alive,” her son said. “She was a fierce woman — the kind who made you feel safe when she went into battle for you and the kind who never let you win an argument.”
Treuer said his mom had a bright, contagious laugh.
“She nurtured and helped many people in her family and Ojibwe community, but she inspired everyone she met,” he said.
Treuer was born Nov. 19, 1943, in Cass Lake, Minn., to Eugene and Luella Seelye. The family, which included six children, lived in a one-room, 8-by-14-foot cabin in Bena, on the south shore of Lake Winnibigoshish.
After graduating from Cass Lake High School in 1961, she earned a degree from St. Luke’s School of Nursing in Duluth. After a year as a nurse in St. Cloud, she returned home to found the Leech Lake Reservation’s Community Health Program. She also established the new health program on the Red Lake Indian Reservation.
At Red Lake, she met Robert Treuer, an Austrian-Jewish immigrant who had survived the Holocaust. They married and moved to Washington, D.C. Robert Treuer went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity and Margaret attended law school at Catholic University. Anton and another son, David, were born while she was in law school.
While in Washington, Margaret was a volunteer at the Native American Rights Fund and worked to re-establish the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin. Congress had terminated the Menominee Tribe’s federal recognition in 1961. Her efforts were instrumental in Congress re-establishing the reservation in 1973.
She worked briefly at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where she evaluated tribal courts, and at the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council as the tribal advocate for the low-income program.
While studying for the bar, she had twins. The family moved back to Minnesota in 1979. Treuer and attorney Paul Day opened a practice.
In 1981, she was appointed an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Minnesota. She eventually became a federal judge.
She also worked as a tribal judge for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in the 1980s and then for the Red Lake Nation in the 1990s.
In 2012, the National Association of Women Judges awarded her a Lifetime Achievement Award.
She remained true to her roots. Treuer, whose Ojibwe names were Giiwedinookwe (North Wind Woman) and Aazhideyaashiikwe (Crossing Flight Woman), taught her children how to live off the land.
David Treuer, an author and professor at the University of Southern California, told the Star Tribune in 2006, “My parents raised all of us with a strong sense of who we are.”
Robert Treuer died in 2016. In addition to Anton and David, Margaret is survived by her mother, Luella Seelye, son Micah, daughter Megan, 16 grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and brother Lanny Seelye. Services have been held.
Joel Rippel • 612-673-4719