Keshena, Rita Ann: Chief justice of Menominee Tribal Court

Keshena, Wisconsin (AP) 9-08

Rita Ann Keshena, the sitting Supreme Court chief justice on the Menominee Tribal Court, passed away at her home Aug. 24 of apparent natural causes. She was 87.

Keshena had training as a nurse and in the theater arts but went back to law school at age 57 because she wanted to devote her life to her tribe, said Lisa Waukau, the tribal chairman and Keshena’s niece.

“The law was her passion, native people were her passion,” Waukau told The Associated Press. “She came home in 1981 and worked for the rest of her days.”

Keshena returned to the reservation in northeast Wisconsin after receiving her law degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1980.

She was a tireless supporter of Indian sovereignty and native American rights, Waukau said.

“She was a strong proponent of Indian gaming,” she said. “Very early on, she saw the value to Indian tribes for them to have gaming on their lands.” 


Keshena, the granddaughter of Band Chief Keshena for whom the Village of Keshena was named about 1852, was the first woman in the tribe to earn a law degree. She also was the first woman to become the tribal court’s chief justice when she was appointed last year by the Menominee Tribal Legislature and sworn in last October.

Matthew Seestedt, 57, remembered his mother as an intelligent, articulate woman with a fondness for reading, especially the works of Shakespeare. That’s one reason his mother was so interested in returning to school, even in her mid-50s, he said.

“I believe she liked the student life. It was learning, it was reading, it was writing,” he said. “She was just always driven, always striving to be better.”

Waukau said she sometimes worried about how hard Keshena worked. As Keshena’s one-time boss, Waukau urged her aunt to retire when she turned 80, but Keshena insisted she had no time to slow down.

“She said, ‘No, I do not choose to retire, I have a lot of work yet left to do,”’ Waukau said. “She never took days off, never thought she had time for things as mundane as vacation.”

Along with Seestedt, Keshena is survived by another son and four grandchildren.