July/August 2014

2nd Annual Spirit Lake Reservation Trip

by Suzanne Morrison, Fargo Branch Librarian

After a successful visit to the Spirit Lake Reservation in Devils Lake, North Dakota last summer, federal staff members organized another outing for the 2014 summer externs, law clerks, Judges, and US Attorney’s Office staff. The caravan hit the dusty trail from Fargo at 6:30 a.m. headed due north to Grand Forks and then west until we reached the picturesque Reservation.

The first stop on the visit commenced at the Spirit Lake Tribal Court. We were greeted by Interim Judge William D. Cavanaugh and tribal prosecutor Joseph Vetsch. Together they provided a candid synopsis of the Tribal Court’s procedure, caseload, and obstacles facing the judicial and prosecutorial staff today.

One particular hurdle noted by Judge Cavanaugh and Mr. Vetsch is the high turnover rate of serving judges.
Mr. Vetsch commented that in his 10 years of service as a tribal prosecutor, there have been roughly 16 different
judges. Judge Cavanaugh and Mr. Vetsch cited the Tribe’s ability to remove judges at will as a hindrance to
the judicial process and court capacity for continuity, equitability, and enforceability. Additionally, Mr. Vetsch
noted another stumbling block to the judicial process being the minimum qualifications required for a serving
as a tribal judge, as formal legal training is not required.

After we finished the tour of the tribal jail, we loaded up the vans and took a short drive to the old boarding
school grounds located on the Reservation. We proceeded to eat lunch while Jan Morley, US Attorney and former tribal judge, shared the lamentable history of tribal boarding schools and the long-lasting impact such historical events have had on tribal and Anglo-American political, cultural, and economic relationships. Many participants on the trip noted this portion of the tour as the highlight of the excursion.

The final stop after lunch was a brief driving tour of residential and cultural locations (to include the local high school, pow wow grounds, and community center) in the Reservation before the caravan made the
3 hour trek back to Fargo. Many participants noted their appreciation for the opportunity to tour the Spirit Lake Reservation and to learn about the tribal law generally, as it is an area of law of particular importance in North Dakota. Overall, the 2014 Spirit Lake Reservation Trip was a resounding success and plans for another annual visit next summer are underway.