Growing up in Federal Dam, population 108, Anne McKeig never met a lawyer. She and her brothers spent most of their time outdoors: roaming the family’s 40 acres, building forts, tending three big gardens, hunting and fishing. At age 13, she started working, first washing dishes in a supper club and later waitressing.
Originally published in Minnesota Women’s Press, December 2016.
Today, Anne McKeig is the first Native American justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and part of a female majority on the court. She sees her position as one that “speaks volumes to the kids back at home on the reservation,” and for “not just Indian kids – anyone who grew up in a small town.”
For McKeig, becoming a lawyer was all about helping people. She decided to become a lawyer in ninth grade and her family supported her dreams. “From the day I was born,” she says, “I was destined to go to the College of St. Catherine,” her mother’s alma mater.
Her mom, who had been a Fulbright scholar, had once dreamed of helping people as a Peace Corps volunteer. Instead, she “mothered and tutored and was a role model.” She also worked as an Indian education liaison in the schools. McKeig’s dad ran a gas station and worked construction jobs. The family was poor, but, McKeig says, “poverty was never the focus. I didn’t know we were poor.”
The nuns who came to Federal Dam each summer also supported McKeig’s dreams. “They were very interested in all of our futures, but particularly in mine,” she recalls. Their mentorship kept her on the road to St. Kate’s, which was an oasis of peace and safety in a city that seemed scary to the small-town girl. Besides the safety of a smaller community, she found mentoring and support from the sisters who were her professors. “Women leaders have a lot to offer this country,” she says. “St. Kate’s taught me that.”
Now, McKeig says, she hopes to be that role model for other young women. “If I can do that for one kid,” she says, “I’ll feel pretty good about that.” She advises young women interested in a legal career to “find a mentor – find someone you like and ask them to be your mentor.”
After law school at Hamline University, McKeig worked for the Child Protection Division in the Hennepin County Attorney’s office. “Once I started there, the flame was lit,” she says.
In the county attorney’s office, McKeig also worked on Indian Child Welfare Act issues and on bridge building to Native American communities. She describes herself as “a proud descendant of White Earth,” and this work as “another gift to work with my community and learn about it.”
McKeig met then-Minnesota Representa-tive Kathleen Blatz, with whom she shared “a passion for kids.” Blatz later became a judge, and then the first woman chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. Another important mentor was Minnesota’s first Native American judge, Robert Blaeser of Hennepin County Juvenile Court. Like Blatz, McKeig first served as a Hennepin County district court judge before being named to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Minnesota’s newest supreme court justice is still as determined to help people as she was in the ninth grade. “I want to do right,” McKeig says. “I want to make a difference for somebody.”