'People of Three Fires' exhibit opens at MSC Learning Center


Photos by Cynthia Price

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Many people are unaware that Michigan’s Anishnaabeg, or People of the Three Fires, run separate tribal courts that may be similar to federal and state courts, or may incorporate different approaches such as peacemaking and elder’s councils.

A new “People of Three Fires” exhibit at the Michigan Supreme Court (MSC) Learning Center in Lansing will address that lack of awareness, at least among the more than 10,000 annual visitors.

Tribal leaders, MSC?justices, and others from the Michigan Tribal State Federal Judicial Forum launched the new section of the Learning Center on Oct.ober 31.

Five of seven MSC Justices were present: Chief Justice Stephen Markman, Justice Bridget McCormack – who as the MSC liaison on tribal issues took a leading role in the opening – Justice Beth Clement, Justice Brian Zahra, and Justice Richard Bernstein, the MSC?Learning Center liaison.

But a former justice, the Hon. Michael Cavanagh, took center stage even though he did not speak. He 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 MSC in 2014.

The forum’s collaborative efforts have resulted not only in this informative exhibit, but also in helping to assure that judicial processes involving federal, state and tribal courts go well for the general public and especially the children of the state.

Justice Cavanagh’s efforts started at a conference of chief justices with a conversation with a representative of the National Center for State Courts who had expertise in tribal courts. As Justice 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. That set the stage for many collaborative projects between state or federal courts and tribal courts, including one between Chief Judge 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, where Justice McCormack noted that Maldonado was a former student of hers at the University of Michigan Law School.

Students from the Michigan State College of Law Indigenous-Law program also attended the unveiling of the exhibit.

Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, also spoke at the event.

Petoskey said 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 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.



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