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Judge Isham Is a Trailblazer in the Sawyer County Court

Editor's Note:

Judge Isham in her office at the Sawyer County Courthouse. Photo by Joe Morey

The following article is a reprinted interview with Sawyer County Circuit Judge Monica Isham, a Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Member, who was elected to the bench in August of 2023 as the first judge in the newly formed second branch of the local court. The article appeared in the April 2024 issue of the Wisconsin Journal of Family Law.

I was able to sit down with Judge Isham in her new court room back in March for a short interview between her busy court docket schedule at which time she was able to show me around the new court room constructed last year. She presides over the second branch while long-time Circuit Court Judge John Yackel presides over the first and original branch of the Sawyer County Court.

Judge Isham said over the course of her first 7 months in office, she has been hitting her stride and found success in achieving some changes, for example the return of the drug court and working with the recovery court. She said she has been working on getting a tribal voice on the recovery court.

She also said she is working on getting more tribal voice on the Sawyer County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. She said LCO Tribal Judge Elaine Smith serves on the committee currently and is a great voice, but LCO should have more representation.

Judge Isham spoke about the amount of tribal members currently in the county justice system and their need for that representation. She said since she’s been judge, the number of tribal member incarcerations is coming down as they are moving through the system a lot quicker with two judges.

“We have 67 tribals in the jail and some are probation violations,” Judge Isham said. Probation violations are beyond the control of the court as they have already been through the process, so they are numbers that aren’t a result of the system being too slow.

She also said they had inmates in other counties when she began, but that is no longer the case, and she also mentioned staffing and heating issues that had occurred at the jail.

“Now our jail isn’t at capacity and that is safer for our jailers and the inmates,” Isham said.

When she ran for the position, Judge Isham said she was looking forward to assisting Judge Yackel with the high volume of cases in the court system, and that she certainly has. Her election has meant more tribal members moving through the process in a more timely manner and spending less time incarcerated for what sometimes may be lesser offenses.

Judge Monica Isham: Trailblazer in Sawyer County

In August 2023, Judge Monica Isham became the first judge for the second branch of the Sawyer County Circuit Court. She is the first minority and the first member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians to become a Wisconsin Circuit Court judge. She is the second female tribal member to sit on a circuit court in Wisconsin. She said she looks forward to serving the people of Sawyer County, to improving the legal community as well as the community around her.

What was your childhood like?

I am a tribal member of Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. I was born and raised on the LCO Reservation.

For most of my childhood, I lived in housing provided by the Tribe. My parents, Michael “Mic” Isham and Bonnie Beaudin, had me and my sisters at a very young age. My parents grew up with trauma, without money or resources. In fact, neither graduated high school. Through hard work and a desire to provide my sisters and me with a better life, they each got a GED and became the first in their families to go to college.

We had no money, we usually had no reliable vehicle, and our food either came from my parents hunting, fishing, and home gardening or from government-provided commodities. But we were happy – we had our community, our culture, and our traditions. I grew up dancing in pow wows with my family, learning the value of hard work, and the importance of community service. My mom is a near-fluent Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) speaker and in my household Ojibwe and English were spoken interchangeably.

I attended Hayward Community School District, where most of the other students and all the teachers were white. I was bullied in school due to my ethnicity. I did not feel comfortable going to anyone at the school for help – none of my coaches, or teachers, or even parents of my friends – because how could any of them understand when none of them were like me?

When I was tired at school (because my mom had to take us with to her college classes at night), or when I was the last kid to be picked up from practice (because my parents shared a vehicle that only worked sometimes) how could any of them understand when none of them were like me? I know through those life experiences how important diversity and representation are.

What drew you to law?

My life experiences also taught me that with success comes respect. (Not exactly a nice lesson, but a true one.) I was a very good athlete and a small-town basketball star. Because of that, all of the sudden I wasn’t bullied as much.

My dad had won his first election onto the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Governing Board when I was about eight and became vice chairman when I was about 12. We now had enough money to move out of tribal housing and build a big house on the Chippewa Flowage. Because of that, all of a sudden now all of those kids who used to bully me wanted to be my friend.

So, at a very young age I knew I would be an attorney and eventually a judge. I wanted to become as educated and successful as possible so that I would be better able to assist my community. It has become my life’s mission.

If my success can help me, it can help all of the others like me. When one of us rises, we all rise.

Tell us about your background as the attorney for the LCO Child Support Program and your role as co- founder of the Woodland Attorneys group.

After my twins were born, I intended on taking a few years off to care for my babies. After leaving my job in Ashland, word spread quickly through my Tribe, and I was asked if I would be interested in working part-time as the attorney for LCO Child Support Program. It was always my goal to come back and help my community, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Tribal Child Support Enforcement Programs were created under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. The Final Rule was published in 2004 and provides guidance to Tribes and Tribal organizations on how to apply for and, upon approval, receive direct funding for the operation of Tribal IV-D program.

What started as a part-time job quickly became a full-time, total revamp of the program job. The staff was so dedicated to this program that it made us a family. The LCO Child Support Program made a lot of progress in the time I spent there and continues to thrive.

Eventually, through relationships that I made with the other attorneys who represented the Woodland Area Tribal Child Support Programs, we formed the Woodland Attorneys Group. We met frequently to create an approach to tribal child support that would be respected: it started with educating those unfamiliar with tribal history and teaching about the purpose and importance of tribal child support programs.

What are the differences between child support programs in a tribal court and a state circuit court?

Tribal child support takes a trauma-informed approach to collecting child support. Case workers assess the barriers that a payer of child support might have to paying their obligation and attempt to assist them overcome those barriers.

Where the State will take a driver’s license away as a punishment for failing to pay child support, the Tribe will assist in finding out how to get your driver’s license back. If the goal is for payers to pay child support, how will giving them another barrier to overcome, such as taking away their driver’s license (so they cannot get or keep a job) help them do that?

We were able to take this approach because our funding is not performance based like the State. State funding goes up and down with how well they are doing on collections. Tribal people have always been community-driven and never money- driven. This is the perfect example of that.

How do the traumatic events of the past, such as forced removal of children to boarding school, impact the Native American community and family court practices today?

Everyone is familiar with the phrase “break the cycle.” Generally, with minorities in this country, that cycle was started by a calculated government policy.

With Native Americans, this started from first contact with foreign settlers. I would love to go into every period of history, starting with first contact, through the Indian Removal Act (most famously leading to the Trail of Tears that involves the Cherokee, but every tribal nation has a similar story), and Indian Appropriations Act (creating reservations) and more.

I doubt anyone wants a history lesson, so staying on topic, more recent history includes the removal (by force, trickery, deception, and desperation) of Native children from their families, their culture, and their homelands in an attempt to assimilate Native Americans. Unfortunately, this movement was incredibly successful. Native children were assimilated, and those who did not conform were subjected to horrific consequences, including death.

Every Native person alive today has someone in their family who was subjected to this. This is recent history. And it is even local history.

Hayward Indian Boarding School was opened in 1901 in Hayward, Wisconsin, in Sawyer County.

The question then becomes: how do you expect a child to grow up after this terrible trauma has been forced upon them? How to you expect them to parent their children when they were removed from their own parents? How do you think the children of these children grew up? Thus, the cycle. Where I see this played out most in Sawyer County is through drug addiction. Trauma is a gateway drug. Most of my caseload here in Sawyer County involves drugs. Most of those sitting in Sawyer County jail are there for drug related offenses. And most of them are Native Americans.

Alcohol was introduced to Native cultures as a way to take advantage of them. Another move that was, unfortunately, incredibly successful. It is not opinion, it is fact.

These government policies have led to trauma that has been passed down through generations of Native people and have a long-lasting impact on Native American communities.

We learn to parent from watching our parents. Our childhood guides our path to parenthood, good or bad. When removed from our parents and subjected to a lifetime of trauma, breaking that cycle and becoming a parent who does not pass that trauma on to their child is nearly impossible.

My own family has similar stories. We grow up knowing them. Our parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles share these stories with us as Native youth. Those who have successfully

recognized this trauma and make positive steps toward combating it and stopping the cycle become leaders in our tribal communities.

I can proudly say, my parents are two of them.

What does it mean to you and the LCO community to have a member to the bench in Sawyer County?

Sawyer County is a beautiful place. Quaint and picturesque small towns that seem almost frozen in time. While that makes us a wonderful place to live and raise a family, it also makes us stuck. So basically, imagine the classic Western concept of cowboys versus Indians and you have a slightly less modern version of Sawyer County. That may be an exaggeration, given that some progress has been made in recent decades.

But we are not long since white protesters held signs at boat landings here in the late 1980s and early 1990s saying “Save a Walleye, Spear an Indian.” I was born in 1989, to put that into perspective.


I am a very optimistic and empathetic person.

I see the best in people and try to look at things through their eyes. Sometimes things have to get really bad before they can get better. Things are progressing. The school I went to now has Native people in all types of positions and a large number of Native students. There are Native coaches, Native members on the parents’ committees.

Native students no longer have to go through school being bullied for their ethnicity without someone to turn to for help that looks like them.

That is why representation matters. That is why diversity of people in every position matters.

Slowly but surely, our county is making progress. And now, finally, has a Native judge.

Judge Isham in her courtroom at the Sawyer County Courthouse. Photo by Joe Morey.

2 commenti

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