Trailblazers: Margaret Seelye Treuer

This is the first in a monthly series of short articles highlighting local DEI trailblazers written by RCBA Diversity Committee Members. 

Every day on my drive to my office I drive across the Highway 5 bridge and can look south down the Mississippi River and see Pike Island. Pike Island being named after Zebulon Pike who famously purchased St. Paul for a miniscule amount of value from Tribal leaders who did not have full authority to make the transaction. I feel a sense of disappointment when seeing the island and river valley when I could just as easily be inspired by its optics. This article is not here to highlight our disappointing characters in our past but more so to showcase our trailblazers who have overcome the challenges that our society presents. 

Since November is Native American Heritage Month1, I wanted to highlight Margaret Seelye Treuer. Margaret Truer passed away in March of 2020 after a life filed with trailblazing legal accomplishments that would qualify her for the hall of fame (if there were one for our DEI trailblazer series).
A short summary:
  • First female American Indian attorney in Minnesota
  • First female American Indian judge in America
  • Tribal Judge for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa
  • Tribal Judge for the Red Lake Nation
  • U.S. Assistant Attorney for the District of Minnesota
  • Federal Court Judge
  • Lifetime achievement award winner - National Association of Women Judges

Margaret Seelye Treuer’s work on American Indian rights and the development of American Indian governance cannot be summarized in this short highlight. Her work can be found throughout many instrumental changes in American Indian rights history. For example, she worked on Bryan v. Itasca County2 and even challenged Bernie Becker midway through his Supreme Court argument. She also worked on American Indian housing by presenting and changing policy with the United States Senate.  And I have not even mentioned the amount of people she encountered while being a Judge and how she changed the lives of the people she enacted with each day. 

Her work provides the opposite of the feeling I get when I drive by Pike Island – it’s a sense of accomplishment, pride, and optimism.

 1(and being a Kiowa Tribal Member myself)
2A seminal case on State regulatory powers on American Indian land