Anishinabe Legal Services aims to close this gap for low-income residents of Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth with its goal to ensure equal access to high quality legal assistance for historically under-served people living on or near the Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth Nations and to protect legal rights and tribal sovereignty.
The organization has been working toward justice in the area since 1967, and earlier this month, demolished its crumbling home for the last 45-plus years. Cody Nelson, Anishinabe Legal Services director, speaks about the organization’s history in the area, landmark cases and goals for the future.
Anishinabe Legal Services is a Legal Services Corporation grantee and nonprofit that provides legal assistance to eligible clients before tribal courts, state courts and agencies to help them protect their rights.
ALS has offices in Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth, but their clients are not necessarily limited to enrolled band members, and is more based on where the client lives, where the legal problem is and level of need.
ALS is funded through a variety of ways — the Legal Services Corporation, Minnesota state legislative funding, IOLTA (interest on lawyer trust accounts), special grant projects, contract funding through Leech Lake and White Earth, area foundations and private donations.
But Nelson said while their funding sources are diverse, it is never enough. Since the program is often underfunded, Nelson said ALS has to prioritize certain types of cases.
“We are dramatically underfunded relative to the need,” Nelson said. “Between one-half and two-thirds of applicants are turned away only because of lack of resources by the programs.”
“We still have a large gap between what the community would like us to be able to do and what we are able to do, so we really have to prioritize services.”
Nelson said the following legal needs are ALS’s core priorities:
Victims of domestic violence — assisting victims with custody and divorce proceedings and other related legal matters
Native American sovereignty issues
Services geared toward elders — will and estate planning, elder abuse cases
“Sometimes people will come in and they’ll have a legal need that’s very important, but resources won’t allow us to fully represent (them),” Nelson explained. “So we’ll give legal advice, we might help with legal forms or if they’ve gotten documents, we can have a lawyer review them.”
Tribal law can be complicated, and with fewer attorneys specializing in it ALS draws employees from all over to work one of only around six stand-alone Native American legal aid programs in the country, Nelson explained.
“Our attorneys seem to come from all over,” Nelson said, noting their most recent hire is from Florida. ALS has a staff of 11 — six attorneys, two paralegals, a legal secretary and a financial administrator.
Cody Nelson is the director of Anishinabe Legal Services and has been working with the organization since 2006. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Nelson has been with the program as a staff attorney since graduating from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2006. Aside from a short break when he tested the waters back in the Twin Cities, Nelson has been with ALS since then. He is a licensed attorney in Minnesota as well as with the tribal courts of Red Lake, White Earth, Mille Lacs and Leech Lake.
Anishinabe Legal Services began as the Leech Lake Reservation Legal Services Project in 1967 as the first independent Native American legal services program in the country. Original funding for the program came from the United States Office of Economic Opportunity.
In 1974, the program began receiving funds from the Legal Services Corporation, expanded its service area to include the White Earth and Red Lake Nations, and changed its name to Anishinabe Legal Services.
In the time since then, ALS has been involved in a number of landmark cases, including Bryan v. Itasca, which was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court and set a precedent for American Indian gaming, Nelson said.
“We take a lot of pride in our involvement with that case,” Nelson said. “Throughout the last 20 years, we’ve had a lot of success in expanding tribal court jurisdiction.”
Previously, ALS was located on First Street in Cass Lake, in a building more than 100 years old. It had been the home of the organization for 45 years, but after some staff injuries, was deemed unsafe.
“It was one of those situations where there were huge cracks in the wall, the floors were not level, our financial administrator sprained her ankle on the first day on the job because of the uneven floors,” Nelson said. “It was a constant worry about client and staff safety. There were all kinds of problems. The upstairs was 30 degrees warmer than the downstairs.”
The doorway into the former Anishinabe Legal Services building, which was demolished earlier this month. Submitted photo.
A project for a new building has been ongoing since nearly 2012. The board of directors decided in 2018 to undergo official strategic planning and a fundraising plan was formed. The total project cost is right around $500,000, Nelson said.
The building was demolished on Aug. 3, and the future building is being constructed in a factory offsite. It will be installed in the location of the former building. ALS will also update the sewer and water lines, obtaining energy efficient products (such as triple pane windows, a dual source heat pump, and LED lighting throughout), and ensuring accessibility for everyone. Accessibility is a big concern, as many of the clients served are elderly or vulnerable populations.
The former Anishinabe Legal Services building was demolished on Aug. 3. Submitted photo.
The fundraising campaign is still ongoing and has raised nearly $220,000 in funding, said Chari LaDuke-Clark, administrative director. ALS continues to accept regular donations through mail (PO Box 157, Cass Lake, MN 56633) or through online options such as the GoFundMe or through the program’s website link: www.alslegal.org.
In the interim during building construction, ALS is located six blocks away from their past/future home in the Financial Services building in Cass Lake, on Spruce Street.
The program staff hope the building will be open by mid-October.
As with many things in 2020, things are a bit different for ALS right now.
“2020 has been a year like no other for everyone, and the nonprofit sector is definitely included in that,” Nelson said. “We have had to adapt to say the least.”
The organization closed its doors to the public and became remote in early spring, something they were not used to, nor did they initially have the technological resources for. This quickly became an issue.
“We couldn’t just stay shut,” Nelson explained. Courts began moving online, oftentimes to Zoom sessions. “A lot of times folks in our communities do not have reliable internet, do not have the technology to do that.”
ALS is now open to clients on an appointment-only basis to do virtual hearings, phone appointments and other necessary services.
Ordinarily, ALS is out in the public giving legal advice and education, and is now struggling to make people aware of those resources.
In the future, besides moving into the new digs, Nelson hopes to continue to pursue impact litigation, help expand educational resources and expand tribal court jurisdiction.
“We feel tribal courts are more appropriate forums for tribal members in tribal communities,” he said.
Nelson also wants to explore new ways to embrace technology to better fill the unmet civil legal needs of the community.
“There’s a lot of people out there that have a need we could help with,” he said. “Outreach, education, advancing technology, advancing tribal court jurisdiction are some really key things going forward.”