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Leech Lake Tribal Court: Care for the People—Transcript

KOREY WAHWASSUCK, ASSOCIATE JUDGE, LEECH LAKE TRIBAL COURT, CREE: We like to think of Bamenim Anishinaabeg, which means care for the people, as sort of the umbrella for the whole restorative justice program. That would include the adult programming, which is the wellness courts, and also our juvenile programming. It's kind of the umbrella for everything.

DALE GREENE, PROGRAM MANAGER, BAMENIM ANISHINAABEG, ANISHINAABE: The Mino-Bimaadiziwin is living the good life. It's a code of conduct, a way of living for many, many good years. And there's a list of...a long list of things that, for countless generations, worked on how to live a long, long good life.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: People are seeing that people can be in recovery—even young people—to be examples to show that if you get some hope, if you get some healing, that you can go on and do some pretty amazing things.

GIRL: When me and my sister were younger, our father left us, which was really hard on our family. I had responsibilities that I didn't need for my age, and it put a lot of stress on me. I was always harming myself and others. A lot of smoking, a lot of drinking.

THOMAS, ANISHINAABE: I held a lot of resentment at my mother and my father. These hurts, these shames, these abandonment issues, were subtle hurts that just never really went away, and drinking helped remove that or alleviate those hurts and pains.

RYAN FISHER, DEPUTY, CASS COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE: Alcohol has been a huge problem for us. I'd say over 80 percent of our call volume, you know, involves people that are under the influence.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: We saw many people going back through the system over and over again, and because Minnesota's a Public Law 280 state, the band had not enacted its own criminal codes yet. And so really we had tribal members not being satisfied with the outcomes that were happening in state court, but not really having any hand in changing that.

THOMAS: May of 2008, I was pulled over for my second DWI within a 24-month timeframe and was incarcerated. And at that time I was at 3 liters of hard liquor a day.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: All rise. The Healing to Wellness Court is the first joint jurisdiction court in the Nation where a tribal court and a state court entered into a Joint Powers Agreement and agreed to exercise jurisdiction simultaneously.

THOMAS: I knew I was not well. I knew that I needed help but was very reluctant to do so and literally said to myself, "What is it going to take?"

MICHELLE NISTLER, PROBATION OFFICER, CASS COUNTY PROBATION: We have good people with a chemical addiction. Emotionally, they're pretty down there—a lot of chaos in their life, no direction, no structure. And that's what I see the Wellness Court gives them.

THOMAS: When I signed on the dotted line, that gave them permission to be at my door at any time to make certain I wasn't using.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: It's a very intense treatment-oriented program where offenders who have been charged with either drug offenses or DWI offenses will be able to come to court and go through treatment and very intense supervision. In fact, every time she uses, I mean, it’s—she's getting close to death there. And maybe just that caution that we're really watching this closely and we're concerned about her...

THOMAS: For the most part, it was a lot of encouragement, and that's so very much needed.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: Tom's why we do what we do. Tom has gone from being someone that was basically a hermit. I mean, he would stay home in isolation and drink.

THOMAS: I don't have to drink. I don't have to be alarmed that, hey, there's a cop at my door. I'm clean, I'm sober. Come on in, have a cup of coffee. It felt good.

CODY NELSON, CO-EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ANISHINABE LEGAL SERVICES: Substance abuse is a major challenge for the community—adult and juvenile. And, of course, when there's a community with a large percentage of adults struggling with chemical dependency issues, it stands to reason you'll also have a significant number of juveniles struggling with those same issues.

GIRL: I was going down a bad path in my life, and I got involved with the court systems.

CODY NELSON: The sooner you can provide services for at-risk youth, you know, the better off they're going to be in the long run.

DALE GREENE: If you want to explain a little bit what brought you here, we can begin.

GIRL: When I first got into the program, nobody thought that I could be sober. And they helped me, and they believed in me, and they kept me going. And I don't think I would have been able to do it if it wasn't for their support.

DALE GREENE: You know what Gii Waa Shwe Bii means? Have you ever heard that term? Gii Waa Shwe Bii? You know what it kind of means today? It means drunk. If the community standard is such that this behavior is modeled from one person to the next, one generation to the next, how do you know it's an undesirable characteristic if your peers and people around you are all practicing that characteristic? Gii Waa Shwe Bii—you're walking around like you got bonked on the head. And if you don't understand that it may be an undesirable characteristic, why would you even consider changing it? That's what Gii Waa Shwe Bii means. The majority of our Bamenim reentry juveniles come through on probation. Coming from the Bear Clan and being a young man, you have a responsibility to yourself to take care of yourself, starting now. There's enough people that are going to kick them when they're down. But we want to instill that they have value and worth. It doesn't cost us anything to care for them. The Bamenim.

CODY NELSON: The Bamenim program is a very forward-thinking program, very restorative. Along with the early intervention is the overall philosophy of providing holistic wraparound services put together by a dedicated staff of Bamenim team members.

GARY CHARWOOD, CULTURAL COORDINATOR, BAMENIM ANISHINAABEG, ANISHINAABE: So what we're doing is before we eat, we always take this time to make a little offering, make a little plate of food, 'cause what we're doing is not only before we eat but we're also going to feed the spirits and recognize those spirits—the good ones, the good spirits, from our ancestors, from our relatives, from our friends and family. Those that partake in these activities, morals and values are being passed from one person to the next.

GIRL: Growing up, we never practiced our culture, but now, to me, it's just opened my eyes to all of the beauty in nature and the beauty in our people. It feels like you're finally doing something right when you practice the teachings and listen to what the elders have to say.

GARY CHARWOOD: Do you have an Indian name?

BOY: No.

GARY CHARWOOD: Do you dance, sing, pow-wows?

BOY: I used to dance.

GARY CHARWOOD: You used to dance?

BOY: When I was, like, eight.

GARY CHARWOOD: Grass dancer, I bet.

BOY: Mm-hmm.

RYAN FISHER: I think it's an excellent program. Being in the law enforcement field, you know, you tend to be a little bit cynical at times, and it's a...it's pretty interesting being part of the process, to be able to see what happens, you know, after the arrest and be a part of the rehabilitation stage rather than just the punitive.

CODY NELSON: The clients that I've represented through the program have shown just incredible progress. Certain clients have made turnarounds that I wouldn't have ever thought possible years ago.

KOREY WAHWASSUCK: I see a recovery community that's starting. And that was really always my hope, that, you know, we started with just a couple of people, but then they sort of connected, and then there's more people that they can connect with in the community and outside that are not using. And so as that builds, you get more and more people that aren't using, and so that recovery community really starts to grow.

THOMAS: I made the decision to become a counselor, to help those that want to enter into recovery, and maybe those that don't.

GIRL: I'm like a new person now. And I feel amazing. Like, I'm happy on the inside, and...and...I don't know how to explain it.