Though there are 25 recognized Indian tribes in Nevada, and the last Indian school in the state closed just thirty years ago, State Court Judge Egan Walker had never had been in a tribal court, until he visited Dowagiac last month.
“I see a lot of Indian child welfare cases,” he said. “I figured I had a lot to learn, so I reached out to Victoria Sweet.”
An attorney at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Sweet knew that the Pokagon Band has a sophisticated system bringing a western and traditional courts together, good infrastructure, and a supportive community, so she suggested visiting Dowagiac and South Bend with Pokagon Tribal Court staff.
Jessica Cisneros, a site manager for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Sabrina Sweet, of Reno’s Second Judicial District Court, and Shannon McCoy, coordinator for the Washoe County Department of Social Services, joined Judge Walker and Victoria Sweet on their two day visit to Pokagon Tribal Court in May.
“I discovered what many dominant society members probably aren’t aware of—I’m surrounded by many Native Americans,” said Judge Walker. “Almost one thousand kids are in foster care in Washoe County, Nevada; ten percent are likely native kids.”
Judge Walker said that Chief Judge Petoskey helped him understand the purpose behind a child welfare case.
“I was overwhelmed with the gift of information and openness, and in awe of how quickly the community has rebuilt a justice system. I had a little trepidation about connecting with Native Americans. I’m trying to understand what Native American kids in my court bring to the table in terms of their trauma.”
The theme of collaboration was woven through each day, and the two teams shared creative ideas how to support native children in the courts, specifically keeping community and cultural connections intact and finding ways to make the court proceedings more family and kid friendly.
“We fear what we don’t understand,” said Victoria Sweet. “We need more of this cross exchange of purposes and culture. I wish I could bring every state court judge to visit a tribal court.”
According to Judge Petoskey, though the two parties share a different world view, the separate communities could better serve members through collaboration. For his part, Judge Walker is looking forward to reaching out to local tribes once he’s back in Reno.