Margaret Treuer, trailblazing Native American lawyer and advocate, dies at 76

Margaret Treuer
Margaret Treuer
Courtesy of the Bemidji Pioneer

By Bria Barton, Bemidji Pioneer

Maximum Margaret. Peggy Legs. Queen of Bena.

Although Margaret “Peggy” Seelye Treuer took with her a collection of titles garnered throughout her lifetime when she died this week at the age of 76, the world was left with memories of an inspiring woman whose ambitions defied her humble beginnings, trailblazing a path to become the first female Native American lawyer in Minnesota.

Treuer — whose Ojibwe names were Giiwedinookwe (North Wind Woman) and Aazhideyaashiikwe (Crossing Flight Woman) — was born in 1943 and grew up in a one-room, 8-foot by 14-foot cabin in Bena, Minn., in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest on the Leech Lake Reservation.

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Her family had inhabited the south shore of Lake Winnibigoshish for many generations, living off the land and making use of its natural abundances.

“We had five kids in the family,” Treuer said in a 2012 interview. “We were pretty poor. We lived on a subsistence diet of rice, deer, partridge and rabbits.”

Nevertheless, Treuer was an enthusiastic student, and graduated from Cass Lake High School in 1961. She then proceeded to get her degree from St. Luke’s Nursing School in Duluth.

She utilized her nursing degree to advocate for tribal health programs and founded Leech Lake Reservation’s Community Health Program, later writing the grant to administer Red Lake Reservation’s first nursing program.

After meeting and marrying Robert Treuer, an Austrian Jewish immigrant and Holocaust survivor, Treuer moved with him to Washington, D.C. During this time, she gained the title of mother upon giving birth to two sons, Anton and David.

While juggling her role as a full-time mother, Treuer also entered law school at Catholic University and volunteered at the Native American Rights Fund. There, she worked with Ada Deer and Silvia Wilbur, two figures involved in the reestablishment of the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin.

“Because of my work on Menominee restoration, I came to see how important the law was to Indian people,” Treuer said in the 2012 interview. “I’d decided that since I was living in D.C. — I would rather have been home — I would do something that I couldn’t have done at home.”

Treuer succeeded in earning her law degree, going on to be an American Indian housing advocate at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a short time. In her personal life, she and her husband expanded their family when she gave birth to twins, Megan and Micah.

And in 1977, Treuer became the first Native American female lawyer in Minnesota. She would go on to become the first Native American female judge in the country.

“Even as a small child, my mother worked hard — at everything from the Ojibwe seasonal harvest to her school work to her jobs at the local cafe,” Treuer's son, Anton, said in a 2017 essay.

When her family moved back to Minnesota in the late 1970s, Treuer and attorney Paul Day opened the first Native American law firm in the state. The practice continued for four years until he was appointed to Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota.

Continuing her advocacy for Native people, Treuer worked for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa as a contract tribal judge in the '80s and then expanded to Red Lake Nation in the 1990s. In 1998, she continued her work on the Leech Lake Reservation.

Throughout her time practicing law, Treuer worked as a lawyer, federal magistrate and a tribal court judge. In 2012, she was awarded the National Association of Women Judges Lifetime Achievement Award.

Of the Turtle Clan, Treuer continuously embraced her Native culture throughout her life, having taught her four children how to gather wild rice, hunt, tap maple trees and live off the land. She also served as a mentor and guide to many individuals in their quests for healing and ceremonial connection.

A nature-lover, Treuer took delight in being in the woods and gardening. She also had a sweet tooth and loved eating candy.

“She was a beautiful soul, impossible to argue with, fiercely loyal, full of faith in our traditional Ojibwe ways, generous, with a contagious laugh, wise and wiley, blazing trails, breaking hearts, making the world safer and more courageous at the same time, and dearly beloved,” Anton said.

Traditional services in the American Indian custom will be officiated by Keller Paap. The wake begins at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 21. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday, March 22, at the Bena Community Center.

In lieu of flowers, donations to the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association are welcome. Read the full obituary in the Bemidji Pioneer.