Your Honor

Ruth Hopkins

I’ve been a tribal Judge for four years. In the beginning, I was an Associate Judge for the tribe I’m enrolled with, the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. That’s where I got my judicial feet wet, so to speak. In the years to come I’d preside over cases for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, the Yankton Sioux Tribe, and the Spirit Lake Tribe.

I’d never planned to go to law school, let alone become a judge. I sort of stumbled upon it. When I took the LSAT (Law School Admissions Test) without studying and scored high, it became apparent that I was well suited for the legal field. After that, one door after another opened and things simply fell together. My father, who was a minister and tribal judge himself, impressed upon me a strong work ethic, the importance of personal responsibility, a desire to serve, and a sense of duty to the people. Those values along with my knack for puzzles, persuasion, and debate played a part. After earning a Juris Doctorate at the University of North Dakota School of Law and before becoming a tribal judge, I was an attorney for my tribe. You might be surprised to discover that my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in biology and chemistry. Yes, I am a nerd.

I was taught that when elders come to you in a good way and ask for help, you do it. This is how I became the chief judge of the Spirit Lake Nation. My grandfather is buried there. These People are my relatives. I answered the call.

(Here’s a little history for you: The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and the Spirit Lake Tribe are part of the same Native nation. We were separated after the Minnesota Uprising of 1862. That war started when corrupt government agents refused to give the Dakota people treaty promised rations and ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 of our warriors were hung in Mankato. Afterward, we were exiled from our Minnesota homelands and marched to multiple prison camps and reservations.)

My first experience with the Spirit Lake Tribe came at the behest of their previous chief judge. The matter at hand was a case involving a murdered child. “I trust your judgment,” she said. “I need fresh eyes.” As I read through the materials she faxed, a heavy stone of grief formed in the pit of my stomach. I felt as though I should cough it up, but it would get caught in my throat so I swallowed it down and focused harder. While I’ve never fully adjusted to seeing tragedy and putting the pieces of shattered lives back together, I would learn how to let it pass through me and use what little resources I had to do the best I could for those who came before me.

The tribal council declared a State of Emergency due to the drug epidemic last year, and as chief judge I was on the frontlines. I was part of a team that conducted numerous drug busts and banished and excluded those who were found guilty of selling and manufacturing drugs like meth and heroin. Things got a little scary. I received a number of death threats. One was credible enough to merit law enforcement protection and federal intervention. I’ve been followed too. Last month, someone tried to break into my house.

During my 16-month tenure I saw many things. Grandmothers with black eyes and broken noses, young women reduced to skin and bones by meth who couldn’t stop grinding their teeth and picking at their skin in the courtroom, and crying mothers begging their children to stop trying to kill themselves. I also bore witness to the quiet strength and resilience of the majority- good, hardworking tribal citizens fighting for the survival of their people. Young fathers pushing their babies in strollers on a cloudy Sunday morning, industrious teenagers selling pancakes for school trips, elders teaching Dakota language, and a tenacious group of Rez boys who won the North Dakota State B Boys Basketball Championship. All of these fine individuals are the heart of our Nation, and the key to saving tribal communities. While some grandstand and devote themselves to tearing the people apart, the good and decent among us are busy doing the hard work of mending the sacred hoop.

Sadly, this journey and the important work I was doing ended in part due to libelous politics. While I’m still a judge for other jurisdictions, I resigned from my position as chief judge of the Spirit Lake Nation last week. Strangers I do not know who have never spoken to me before decided to use my good name to viciously attack one of our own. I didn’t create the situation, and I refuse to be a part of your dog and pony show. Our people deserve better than self-serving rhetoric and empty, hateful lies.

What I am most proud of was stopping pregnant women from using meth long enough to give their newborn babies a fighting chance. I wish we could catch them all in time. I hope the Spirit Lake Nation gets a new inpatient treatment facility. It’s desperately needed.

All in all, I am at peace. I think my grandpa would be satisfied that I've fulfilled my promise.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton & Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, biologist, activist and judge.

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turbojesus's picture
Fired with the hope of all your future fame. You cut down posterity of a less nobler name. Echoing in your people's hell. How your people fought, and nations fell. Adieu! your despotism in arms. Adieu! your civil war's alarms. To softer feelings your juries be hung. And less necks by sovereign sway be wrung. All, all in vain will your history claim. As all your chemicals are all the same.
Michael Madrid's picture
It's a shame when Native people obtain an education and rise to the top only to be taken down by politics and bad blood. I hope Judge Hopkins doesn't sway from her mission of helping Native people.
Michael Madrid