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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published June 26 2013

Chief judge of Spirit Lake Tribal Court ousted in wake of toddler's death

FORT TOTTEN, N.D. – Shirley Cain, chief judge of the Spirit Lake Tribal Court, was removed from office Wednesday by order of the Tribal Council.

Cain said she had tendered her resignation Friday, making it effective in 30 days, as required by her contract with the tribe, but she received a letter Wednesday from Chairman Roger Yankton directing her to leave the office.

“The tribe let me go today,” she said. “They want me out immediately. They kicked me out.”

Cain, who has been chief tribal judge for about 15 months – through the child protection crisis that has roiled and occupied the reservation – said she was notified of her immediate dismissal first by El Marie Conklin, who has been acting as a special tribal judge, and later by Yankton.

She was told that a tribal police officer had orders to escort her from the Tribal Court building in Fort Totten. She had already left her office, she said.

“Escort me out – how demeaning is that?” she asked.

A Tribal Court clerk and the tribal prosecutor confirmed that Cain is gone, but they offered no further information.

Because she is waiting for final paperwork and her last check from the tribe, Cain said she was reluctant to explain immediately her reasons for offering her resignation last week or why tribal officials ordered her gone Wednesday. But the recent case of a Spirit Lake toddler dying after being removed from a Bismarck foster home and returned to a family member on the reservation was a factor, she said.

The child, Laurynn Whiteshield, a month shy of 3 years old, died June 12. Her stepgrandmother, Hope Whiteshield, faces a charge of willfully inflicting serious bodily injury on a child by throwing her down an embankment near her St. Michael home.

It was an order from Cain’s court that brought the child back to Spirit Lake.

“I gave them a number of reasons” for her resignation in the letter she submitted Friday, Cain said Wednesday, and “the dead baby” figured in her explanation. “I am so stressed about this,” she said.

Influence a concern

Cain, a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe Indians in northern Minnesota, is a graduate of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, and her appointment at Spirit Lake was seen as a bolstering of the Tribal Court’s professional qualifications.

She had served earlier in other tribal courts, including as chief judge on her home reservation. She left that position after just a few months in 2003, however, following a dispute with tribal officials over her efforts to make the tribal court more independent of the Red Lake Tribal Council.

Tribal leaders’ influence over the Spirit Lake Tribal Court has frequently been cited as a problem. Among allegations made by tribe members who have called for a recall meeting to oust the chairman is a claim that he allowed a formal agreement with an appeals court to lapse.