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    Toni Caldwell: Preserving Menominee Indian Culture

    As the tribal attorney for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, located in Keshena, Toni Caldwell uses her legal skills in a wide variety of areas in tribal, state, and federal courts. But preserving Menominee culture and values is what drives her.


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    Toni Caldwell

    Toni Caldwell is a tribal attorney for the Menominee Indian tribe in Keshena, Wisconsin, where her ancestors have been for thousands of years. Photos: D. King of Images

    Tell us about your path to law school. What or who inspired you to become a lawyer?

    I was this reservation kid who had never really been anywhere, and I saw this Native American man enter the room in his suit and tie and his neat plaited braids. He went on to tell the audience of Native American high school kids that native warriors no longer fought in the battlefield for the protection of their people, but they now fought in courtrooms.

    It was almost 30 years ago that I had the opportunity to see Walter Echo-Hawk speak. At that time, Mr. Echo-Hawk was a staff attorney with Native American Rights Fund; now he is a tribal judge, activist, author, and law professor.

    After law school, you returned home to serve the legal needs of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. Tell us about that decision.

    I was raised to honor and care for my family, my community, and my Menominee lands. I am a member of the Menominee Nation and home for me was in Keshena, Wis., on Menominee lands where my ancestors have been for thousands of years.

    I never questioned that I would return home, so there really was never a big decision to make. I think the toughest decision I did have to make was the timing of the return. My husband and I had planned to stay in Madison until he completed his master’s degree. However, due to limited job opportunities for me and a change in his fellowship program, positions in both our fields opened at home and we’ve been here ever since.

    What changes have you seen over the years in the tribal community?

    I’ve seen the bad changes, of Menominee values continuing to erode to the point of being extinct in some families. One of the big waves in that loss of Menominee values was the boarding-school era, when Menominee children were forced to assimilate by having their hair cut, wearing non-native clothing, being separated from their families, and being forced to speak only English, and were punished and beaten if they spoke their language. Some of the children lost their lives at boarding schools, but all the children lost their language by not passing that language on to the next generation.

    My grandmother was from this era. And even though that was two generations before me, we are still reeling from the devastation of this era. She continued to speak the language after boarding school; however, our family still lost the language because she did not pass it along to her children.

    I’ve also seen good changes in our community, such as more and more Menominees completing post-high-school education. It’s good for our community because many of these educated Menominees choose to live and work in the Menominee community.

    An even bigger change has been a resurgence and movement in the value being placed on language and culture. In my opinion, this is the one thing that can change the tide for my community. This resurgence in language and culture will combat some of the effects of the erosion of Menominee values, such as substance abuse and family abuse. That’s why I chose to become a part of this movement and take a sabbatical from law for two years to learn the Menominee language and culture.

    You are a certified Menominee language teacher. What worries you about the preservation of your language? What makes you hopeful?

    The Menominee language is a beautiful and complex language and learning it as a second language is tough. There is no Rosetta Stone or any type of complete curriculum or resource for learning Menominee nor is there a place I can go to be immersed in the language, making it that much harder to learn. I may be certified but I am far from conversationally fluent in the language.

    I think that learning to speak Menominee as a second language will be a life-long endeavor. It may be hard to learn, but what gives me hope is the pilot program effort of a daycare room in which eight babies are being immersed daily in the Menominee language in the hope of creating first-language speakers of Menominee.

    Toni Caldwell

    What does an average day look like for you? What are some of the issues a tribal lawyer can expect to work on?

    In my current position, I work on drafting legislation and policies. At this moment, I am working with a Coordinated Community Response Team to draft language to update the domestic violence law.

    On any given day my coworkers in the Legal Services Office handle employment issues, gaming law, child support in tribal court and Indian child welfare cases in state court, and trust land issues, to name a few of the major areas. We also represent the tribe in any litigation that the tribe might be a part of in tribal, state, or federal court.

    What is one of the biggest challenges you deal with in serving the tribe’s legal needs?

    One of the biggest challenges is that tribal attorneys handle a wide assortment of issues over a breadth of topics. It takes time to become experienced in any specific area, but imagine having to know several. Many of the issues we deal with tend to be issues of first impression. We have this more often than not because of the unique status of the Menominee tribe being terminated, then restored to their federal status, and being the only non-P.L. (public law) 280 tribe in Wisconsin. So Menominee is even more unique in a unique area of law.

    What is the most rewarding part of your work?

    The most rewarding part of my work is being able to revise and draft laws that encompass Menominee values, are easy to understand by lay people, and allow them equal access to justice.

    What advice would you give to lawyers who do not practice Indian law but want to get to know more about and build relationships with tribes?

    Attend the U.W. Law School’s Coming Together of People’s Conference, held annually in the spring, or attend the State Bar Indian Law Section’s fall training. Both are great ways to meet and visit with native law students, tribal attorneys, and speakers from across the country who live and breathe Indian law.

    If you could take a day off, for yourself, in the middle of the week, what would you do?

    I would be outside gardening or in the forest on the Menominee Reservation enjoying nature.

    What is the one piece of advice you’ve learned that you want to pass on to the next generation?

    Always continue learning!