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Attorney general devotes her career to Indian law

Sheila Corbine got swept off her feet in her first year of law school.

“I did volunteer work for the Lac Courte Oreilles tribal legal department, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of working for the tribe,” says the current attorney general of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Black River Falls. “The tribes have their own courts, and on a smaller scale, you’re dealing with a state, local, and federal government. I could see how my work benefited my tribe. It was a fascinating line of work, and I really liked working with people I had something in common with.”

That common bond helped her gain the trust of tribal elders in ways that non-Native American attorneys couldn’t.

“Because of some of the elders’ experiences with being sent to boarding schools in the 1950s, some don’t warm up to non-Indian people,” explains Corbine. “I shared a common ancestry, so I could use my ethnicity and education to help people who ordinarily wouldn’t ask for help because of the trust issue.”

Though her parents participated in the Lac Courte Oreilles band of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe, Corbine didn’t fully understand her heritage until she was a teenager.

“I identified myself as an Indian person, but as a child, it didn’t necessarily mean anything to me,” she explains. “It’s when I became a teenager that I started to realize that I got treated differently because of it. Treaty rights issues were big then, so there were a lot of resentments against Indian people, and I was sometimes treated badly.”

Since graduating, Corbine has devoted her career to Indian law. She’s worked for the Indian Law Office of Wisconsin Judicare Inc., the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, and now is both a Lac Courte Oreilles tribal court judge and the legal head of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Much of her time has been spent educating attorneys and judges on the Indian Child Welfare Act, which grants jurisdiction over most child welfare cases to tribal courts.

“I liked doing child protection work,” says Corbine, who’s written a reference manual on the act. “I liked going into state courts to assert tribal authority to get kids back and to teach other people why I was doing it.”

Case in point: A year-long battle to transfer a child welfare case from the state to a tribal court. The judge later boasted about how much he understood the ICWA. Another attorney involved in the case also became a judge, and her fluency with the ICWA made Corbine’s job easier in future cases.

“It was one of those teaching cases,” says Corbine. “Those attorneys understand a little bit better what to do, whom to contact, and how child welfare cases should turn out. I feel like I’ve made a difference.”

— G.M. Filisko

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