Sally Tarnowski is a state district court judge in Duluth, Minn. She presides over Courtroom 3 on the fourth floor of the St. Louis County Courthouse, an imposing building offering views of Lake Superior. The Anishinaabe, on whose ancestral lands Duluth sits, call the lake Gitchi-Gami — Great Sea. Today, the courtroom has an unusual set-up. The judge is not up at the dais. Instead, she is at a table along with a team of social workers, lawyers and guardians ad litem, as well as the parties being represented. Small bags of tobacco, traditional Anishinaabe medicine, are in abalone shells nearby, free for people to take. In the middle of the table are some sage and sweetgrass — also Anishinaabe medicines, for purification and healing.
All of the cases Tarnowski hears on this cold January day fall under the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 41-year-old federal law that governs adoption and child protective cases for members of federally recognized tribes as well as their children. When a child needs to be placed in foster care or adopted, the law gives preference to placement with family or other tribal members. And it makes the tribes a party in the cases. Although the law is federal, family courts are run by states. The dedicated ICWA court in Duluth, which has been around since 2015, grew out of an effort by Tarnowski and Brenda “Bree” Bussey — the director of the Center for Regional and Tribal Child Welfare Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, who is Anishinaabe and Mohawk — to improve the process for these cases. They formed a collaborative with lawyers, tribal representatives, social-service workers and tribal child welfare experts. The group came up with several innovations, such as consolidating cases in one courtroom, scheduling cases so tribal members from distant reservations could attend, and having everyone sit at the same table.