ChangeMakers: Terri Yellowhammer, bringing representation to the bench

A woman stands on the lake shore.
Terri Yellowhammer, 57, stands at Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis. She was recently appointed a judge in Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District by Gov. Tim Walz.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Terri Yellowhammer, 57, wants increased visibility for Native Americans. And as a judge, she hopes that her people know the courts are for them and that Native youth can picture themselves on the bench, too.

She grew up in north Minneapolis. Yellowhammer is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with heritage in the White Earth Nation on her mother’s side. She says her parents instilled her Native identity in her at a very young age, and that she’s never been afraid to be heard. 

This drew her to a career practicing law on behalf of Native American communities before being appointed as a judge in Minnesota’s 4th Judicial District by Gov. Tim Walz. Prior to this, she served as an assistant state attorney general and as an attorney at the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, among other things. 

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As Hennepin County’s American Indian community relations development manager, Yellowhammer worked to bring flags from Ojibwe and Dakota nations into the Hennepin County Juvenile Justice Center courtroom. It’s an effort to make the juvenile courtrooms a less scary place. She also hopes it gives families “some comfort and some feeling of being seen and of having a voice when they come through the system, because the legal system has not always been a place of justice historically for us.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

What it means to me is to see a renaissance of sorts in terms of our visibility. What has been particularly frustrating and enraging at times for me is being statistically insignificant, [which] is what I've been told [Native Americans] are when it comes to data collection. 

I worked for the state for several years, where data collection is really important. It's key to our work — as it really is in every field. And to have the worst disparities and poor public determinants of health, and then to be told there's not enough of us to sample or to get sufficient data really felt like a slap in the face. Because we are the first Minnesotans, before it was Minnesota. 

To have our tribes, the 11 federally recognized tribes here in Minnesota, have more power means more voice. More voice means more visibility. More visibility means that our people can get the services that they need. Hopefully, they can be listened to [and] they can be seen. I can't stress that enough. When you have been victims of genocide [and] when you have survived genocide, to feel like you are unwanted [and] to feel like you are a reminder of what I think, historically, people want to forget is really demeaning, disrespectful and dehumanizing. So visibility is key to reversing those things. That's what that means to me. 

What figures have shaped you?

I'd have to say my parents first and foremost. My dad is Walter Yellowhammer. He grew up in Fort Yates, which is the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation. My mother grew up in Ponsford [and] Pine Point, Minn., and on the White Earth Reservation. They were on relocation, the government program that tried to assimilate us into greater society. We moved around the country a lot. 

Their resilience and their adaptability — having come from their tribal communities to essentially a foreign culture — is remarkable. I'm not saying it was easy or that we didn't have the same struggles that so many Native families have had and continue to have in terms of poverty, in terms of the lack of connection to getting good paying jobs and things like that. They embody that sort of quiet strength.

Also I was never, ever made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of being an American Indian. In fact, it was the opposite. They instilled in me a pride. They made sure that I knew who I was, who I am, what my tribes are, who my relatives are. For that, I am so grateful. Because I've never felt invisible. That's what led me to law. I don't mind arguing a point, or making sure that I'm heard. 

But aside from my parents, there's a robust community of Native people from different tribes here in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I have so much respect for current and past leaders, some very strong women that I'm happy to call my friends. Like Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota woman adoptee who does remarkable work. And Doreen Day, who is an Anishinaabe woman who has some gifts with singing and traditions. These are just a couple of the people that I look to. They're my teachers, and they're my friends, so I'm very grateful.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

My vision is that we will be in more positions of leadership, of authority, of making sure that our community and other historically marginalized people have what we need. That we see ourselves in these positions of leadership. Becoming a judge, one of the most important things for me is representation. I want to have that little Native girl or boy come into my courtroom, maybe with their parent, and see me on the bench and picture themselves in my place. That is a powerful legacy and a powerful hope. And that's what we need. That's my vision. 

Who do you see as a changemaker in your community, and inspires you?

That's a tough one because there are many. There are language warriors. There's been a revitalization in the last 15 to 20 years, although it has gone on longer than that. These young people who are learning their tribal languages and their gifts of their tribal languages. I think they're changemakers. 

I also think there are garden warriors, or people that are looking to grow our traditional foods because food is medicine. I remember when I was taking a Dakota language [class], one of my teachers told me, “It's important for you to know the food that you eat,” because it isn't just about the words that we speak. It's about our bodies. It's about remembering, and our genetic blueprint and our makeup. What has always been there. So anything that goes towards making us more of who we are and who we're meant to be, anyone who does that really is a changemaker.

Where are we and why is it significant to you?

We're at Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis, and Nokomis means grandmother in Anishinaabe. Water is life. Water is sacred. We all share in this precious resource, Native and non-Native. I am always so happy when I see families or people walking by themselves or in pairs and groups, picnicking, swimming, using and enjoying this vital resource. That's why I love Minneapolis. We value that.