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ELDER RECOGNITION: Elaine Smith, LCO Chief Judge


LCO News: How do you like the new courthouse?


Elaine: Well, are you talking about the Sawyer County one?


LCO News: LCO’s new addition to the Tribal Office.


Elaine: We planned it and waited a long time because were in a very cramped space. It was terrible, but, Bill never had his own office for ages. He had to share it. At one time he was sharing it with three people, and then it was two people. But he never had any privacy at all. He's got his own office and he hardly ever comes out of it. No, just kidding. He's so happy to have his own office. And then we have three clerks, our main court clerk, and then two deputies. And we have a grant coordinator for our tribal court improvement grant. We've got another year and a half on that grant, and that's Scott Johnson.


LCO News: So the courtroom is the same?


Elaine: That hasn't changed. There's a whole addition. Our local offices are all new. ICW's all new. And it's nice back there. You should come visit us.


LCO News: I’d like to do a little video story about the expansion now that everybody's moved in and comfortable.


Elaine: Yeah, we're in the process of getting more artwork. We budgeted a few thousand dollars for our artwork. We were just were awarded a four year enhancement grant. So that's pretty exciting. We have to sit down yet, Bill and I, to kind of plan how we want the budget to look. And then we'll probably post positions again just because it's a new grant.


LCO News: So tell me about life when you were a child, when you were born, who your parents were, where you were born at.


Elaine: My mother was Frida Smith. And I was born in the old Indian hospital that used to be in Hayward. And my mother was a teenager when I was born and married my father after the fact. My father was from Chicago. But anyway, so I spent the first four years of my life up here with my grandparents, right where I live now, down at their house used to be they had a white two story house and that's where they raised most of their kids, right there.


But, my grandparents were Madge Heenan Smith and Fred Smith, and he was quite a bit older than my grandmother, which was kind of common back then. And they have twelve children and he was a fishing and hunting guide and then he used to build those fireplaces. I lived with them for a while when I was an infant/toddler because my mother had TB after my birth like a lot of Natives and others in those days. Good memories.


So he passed away in the 50s, early fifty s. And my grandmother stayed there and just I think then she just had Jeanette, Jerry and Jeannette at home, the two youngest girls, and then she passed away. She was actually murdered in 63. And that case was never solved. But I lived with them, my grandparents, for the first four years of my life because my mother caught tuberculosis after I was born. So she was in a sanitarium down in Chicago all those years.


My parents were both young. They got married, they moved me from up here, down there. Then mom got sick, and then my grandfather went down and got me and brought me back up here. They were like my parents. I knew who my mother was, right. And then when I was born, when she got out of the sanitarium, I'm back down with my parents to Chicago. And then I came back up here when I was seven and went to sister's school for a while because my parents were getting divorced. And my stepfather Richard McPherson Jr. was really the dad that raised me. But yeah, I'm a single only child.


LCO News: I was just going to ask if you had other siblings in there somewhere.


Elaine: Only child, which can be kind of good and kind of bad sometimes. I was raised in Chicago in that Chicago Indian community. My parents were pretty active in that. When I was a teenager, they formed a Chicago Indian Center canoe club and there were Indians from all over, a lot of Ho Chunks, Oneida and other tribes. And the men had a relationship with Ralph Fries, who used to own the Chicago Land Canoe Base. And he made these fiberglass birch bark canoes. And so he built this huge canoe that would hold, I don't know, ten men, and they were on Lake Michigan and they made the newspaper, and it was a big deal to do that. And so when I was 16 they started competing in races. And so I forget how. I think I had gotten punished for not coming in on a curfew or something, so I had to go to a picnic with them. And so I was so bored, and so I said, Can I take one of the canoes out? I had never been on a canoe before. And my stepfather said, sure. I was out there for hours, just figuring out how to go by yourself, getting the spot. I was having a great time.

So I came back and my stepfather said, you're the only kid I know who gets punished and ends up having a good time. But it ended up that they had kind of an adopted son who used to join the families when we used to picnic and stuff. And his name was Marcus, and he was Hispanic, actually, but he and my stepfather had kind of like a father and son relationship. And so Marcus and I started competing in canoe races across Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. And we used to work. I found out that I have a lot of stamina. So those races were 26 miles around the lakes. Marcus and I, we won a lot of different races, and that was pretty exciting. I did that for a year or two and then I remember Ralph Fries asked me if I wanted to compete, to do kayaking and try out for the Olympics, but I wasn't interested. I don't know why.


LCO News: How many children do you have?


Elaine: Just the one, that’s Nicole. But I have five grandchildren. And then my husband also has five. So together we have ten.


LCO News: How was school for you?


Elaine: I went to the same grade school from kindergarten to 8th grade, except for the time I was up here at sister school. And then I went to high school in Chicago. And I got married about a year or so after I graduated from high school. And a year later, my daughter was born. And it was somebody that I grew up with in the neighborhood. And we divorced when she was four. And so then I started college. So I was in my early 20s when I started college. And I went to the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. So I would go to school full time, and then I would take off a year. And I would work full time, save money, go back to school. So it took me a while to get my bachelors, so I started out with Pre Med because I wanted to be a physical therapist. But then I found out how much math you had to do, and I was breezing through all my literature courses, so my major became English Literature. That's what my bachelor's in. So, yeah, I just took the easy route out rather than having time as a single mom, and I didn't want to see a tutor. And I still used to waitress part time, even when I was going to school full time, so I was really busy. That took me a long time. And then, let's see, I think in 83, I moved to Austin, TX. And I had never been there before, but I went there, and I thought it was a great place. I was there for three or four years.


And then I went after a postgraduate degree. It was like a legal assistant certificate that I went on Saturdays and got that. So I worked as a legal secretary and then as a legal assistant. And then I came back home here in 93, I think. And the tribe hired me to work with Susan Aasen, who was the attorney at the time.


I took the LSAT and then got a good enough score to get into law school. I got to law school in September. I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And when I started, there were 24 of us Natives from all over. So it was really a nice support system. We used to have study groups and then there were some older Native students who would help us out who would lead the study groups and kind of help us out and show us what you should look for and how do you approach this exam and so on.


I went to law school later in life and graduated in 99. And I got really sick in my first year of law school, and I was diagnosed with an illness which is an autoimmune. So that was really difficult for me that first year. And I look back and I think, how in the heck did I do that, because I didn't fail anything.


People were saying, well, why don't you just quit and come back next year. But I knew that if I quit, I wouldn't come back, so I just stuck with it. But I think if you want something badly enough, you can get it. You just have to make up your mind that you're going to go after it. And so when I graduated, I knew I wanted to practice federal Indian Law or tribal law. That's what I wanted to focus on. And I interned at the public defender's office in Spooner one summer, and that work interested me too. But they don't have any budget to pay anybody, and it’s still the problem today for the public defender's office, which is pretty sad, and I had student debt that I had to pay back.


So that was always a concern, too. So my first job was as a housing attorney for the Ho Chunk Nation, and I stayed there for two years, I think. And then I was hired by the Mille Lacs Band in Ojibwe. I went over to Minnesota and I worked there as a legislative counsel for like 13 years.


One of my bosses had asked me if I would start a boxing commission. Do you think you could do that? Sure, I could do that. All I knew about boxing was that my uncles had been in the Golden Gloves. So Sheila Corbine, who's also a tribal member here, was then working for the Mohican Nation out in Connecticut, and they had a boxing commission. And so I contacted them and I was able to create the tribal code according to what I saw. And I remember my first professional fight, was Winky Wright who was a kickboxer, I think. And then I forget the other fighter, but I got to sit right there on the ringside, I guess, because I went out a day ahead to get everything settled, and there was a big snow storm coming through. So I just made it out of Minnesota before they closed the airport, and then I made it to Connecticut before the storm got there so I could land. I remember I was driving to this place, and it was all decorated for Christmas and it was just a beautiful casino and hotel. And my bosses, unfortunately, never made it out of Minnesota because of the storm, so that's why I got to sit ringside.


And so Sheila and I had a good time, and I know one of my bosses said, well, were you watching the fight at all? It was like were talking. It was pretty exciting. And yes, were watching, but it was an exciting time just to learn about professional boxing and learn about MMA. And years past that, I went I did judges training for professional boxing, and it was taught by a professional judge who had been doing that for years. And I actually passed the course, and I was able to, if I wanted to, be the judge, but I never did that. But I met my husband kind of as a side to that because I interviewed him for a job because we lost our first executive director.


He was a New Yorker transplant from South America, and he just couldn't live out there in the middle of Minnesota. He lasted about a year. And so my husband is from North Dakota. And so I interviewed him. We were at a conference in Montreal, and even though I had met him first in Philadelphia at the conference, I didn't really talk much to him at that time. Anyway, we got hired for the job, and then we started seeing each other. And we got married.


When I left Mille Lacs in 2014, three of my bosses had lost their bid for reelection, which was very unusual, and the new people that were coming in wanted to have their own attorney and choose their own attorney. I was fine with that. I've been there for a long time so I left in 2014 and I told my husband you should probably look for another job because he's not native and things are going to change. And so he applied for the job as executive director down in Texas. And so he didn't get that job, but he got like the number two job and he's been down there ever since.


So he moved first and then about a year later after I sold my house, I moved down there with him because I had lived in Austin for like eleven or twelve years, but it was difficult to find a job down there. A lot of it was I don't know, I got this impression that lawyers down there really didn't understand anything about Indian law. I had never heard of it before that people were practicing any law or federalism or tribal law.


They had no idea. And a lot of it could be ageism, even though they're not supposed to discriminate against you. Anyway, I came back. I mean, there are plenty of jobs for me up here, but I just couldn't make a go down there. And so I worked for Bad River for a while. And then I was offered the position here as tribal judge and I was very happy to come home because I had wanted to do that for a long time. We're trying to make the court more efficient and try to hire more people and were working on a lot of different things.


LCO News: Your husband's back up here with you?


Elaine: No, he works in Texas. We live and work up here.


LCO News: That makes for a lot of traveling for one of you to visit.


Elaine: Yeah, it is what it is. I think people just do what they have to do. He has our little pug down there to keep him company.


LCO News: And you have a lot of grandchildren here to keep you company.


Elaine: I do. I'm really happy to be home because I get to see and watch my grandchildren grow up. My daughter I help her out when she needs help and she's here. She has come a long way from what was going on in her life, so I just feel really happy and I think I'm where I'm supposed to be. Creator has a plan.


LCO News: Any hobbies in your spare time?


Elaine: Yeah, I do. I like to hike, and I don't do as much of that as I would like to because I don't have the time. And I have this big labradoodle that's now two years old, and she likes to get out there and get some exercise. Plus it's good for me. And I did join the gym. I haven't gone yet. I wish we had a pool. I wish we had, like, a wellness center. Kind of like what they have in Minong would be so nice. Minong is a little bit too much, too far to drive over there. But it's nice to be able to go swimming if we had a YMCA or something.


LCO News: Any things with sewing, crafting, beating?


Elaine: Yeah. After I left Mille Lacs, I'd always wanted to be a quilter, and so I took a couple of classes down in Austin. I love quilting and so I did a little bit of that, and then I purchased a new machine. I purchased this big sewing table that unfolds and is now in Texas, and I'm cramped for space, and my oldest granddaughter lives with me. She's 16 now, and so what was my sewing room is her bedroom now. So I don't have the opportunity like I used to, but I'll have to try to make something work this winter, maybe.


LCO News: What advice would you have for the 7th generation? If you could speak to your great-great grandchildren, what advice would you have for them?


Elaine: Just to be mindful of your culture and your traditions, learn as much as you can about them. Hang on to those beliefs because I think we're going to feel pressure as Indigenous people in the future that we can't envision right now. I think it benefits us as Indigenous people to just hang on to our traditions and languages in our culture as long as possible. Because when you think about what we've lost, tribes have lost in terms of culture, so many things.


I would think from a legal standpoint, too, understanding the treaties that you stand on and being able to verbalize those things to non Natives, to say we're still standing on this, and to have a good understanding of what that is.


And my other bit of advice is to never give up. If there is something that you want to do in life, don't tell yourself that you're too old. Just go for it if it's something that you want to do. Whatever it is that you want to do in your life, whether you want to take a trip around the world or go see something, time goes by so quickly, as you know, and life is short and no day is promised.

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