Cooperation of Michigan Supreme Court, tribal leaders results in new Learning Center Three Fires exhibit


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

A new exhibit at the Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center in Lansing is designed to raise awareness of the independent tribal courts run by the Anishnaabeg, or People of the Three Fires. The more than 10,000 visitors who tour the center each year will learn through the exhibit how the tribal courts may be similar to federal and state courts but also incorporate different approaches to achieving justice such as peacemaking and elder’s councils.

Tribal leaders, state Supreme Court justices, and others from the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum launched the new section of the Learning Center on Oct. 31.

Five of seven high court justices were present: Chief Justice Stephen Markman, Justice Beth Clement,  Justice Brian Zahra, Justice Richard Bernstein, who  serves as the Learning Center’s liaison, and Justice Bridget McCormack, who as the court’s liaison on tribal issues took a leading role in the opening.

It was a former justice, however, who took center stage even though he did not speak.

Retired Justice Michael Cavanagh, whose daughter, Megan, recently won election to the state Supreme Court, was instrumental in convening the first Tribal State Court Forum in 1992, a precursor to the creation of the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum by the Supreme Court in 2014. The forum’s collaborative efforts have resulted not only in the new informative exhibit, but also in helping to ensure that judicial processes involving federal, state and tribal courts operate effectively for the general public and especially the children of the state.

Cavanagh’s efforts started at a conference of chief justices after a conversation with a representative of the National Center for State Courts who had expertise in tribal courts. As Cavanagh worked with Judge Michael Petoskey of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band on developing that first forum, the two became fast friends. Their friendship set the stage for many collaborative projects between state or federal courts and tribal courts, including one between Petoskey and Chief Judge Susan Dobrich of Cass County Probate Court to work on providing better services for families and gaining better information on divorce proceedings. Dobrich is the current co-chair of the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum, along with Chief Judge Jocelyn Fabry of the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa Tribal Courts.

Judge Timothy Connors of Washtenaw County Circuit Court, 2017 co-chair of that forum (with Judge Allie Greenleaf Maldonado of Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa), has created a peacemaking court in the county, modeled on tribal courts. Connors and Maldonado both attended the exhibit launch, and Justice McCormack noted that Maldonado was a former student of hers at the University of Michigan Law School.

Students from the Michigan State University College of Law Indigenous-Law program also attended the unveiling of the People of the Three Fires Exhibit.

In addition to Chief Justice Markman and Chief Judge Petoskey, Frank Ettawageshik, the executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, spoke. Petoskey said that one of the first projects undertaken by the tribal state forum in the early 1990s was to add tribal courts and leaders to the State Bar directory.  

“Do you know what that did in terms of giving visibility to our courts?” he asked.  “And now, we have this,” he added, gesturing to the easy-to-grasp interactive touch-screen exhibit.
“This also adds to our legitimacy.”

Potawatomi, Odawa (Ottawa) and Ojibway (Chippewa)  are the three Anishnaabeg traditional tribal groups. There are 12 federally recognized tribes in Michigan. Each of the tribes is considered sovereign, and each has its own court.

Michigan Supreme Court Learning Center Coordinator Rachael Drenovsky ended the event by acknowledging everyone’s hard work. The Learning Center, open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Monday through Friday, also offers summer workshops for high school students and on-site docents to help learners.

For additional information, see learningcenter, and to read more about tribal/state/federal court collaborations, visit https:// courts.michigan. gov/Administra tion/SCAO/Documents/Tribal-State-Fed%20Success %20 Stories%2011 -3_ FINAL.pdf