"This is an opportunity for us to learn from you," Christopher Channing, Goodhue County's district court administrator, told those gathered in Prairie Island's community center Thursday.

The First Judicial District Committee for Equality and Justice held a community dialogue at the community center for residents of Goodhue County and Prairie Island Tribal Community. Those in attendance were encouraged to ask questions about the judicial branch and give suggestions for how the courts and communities can better work together.

Tina Jefferson, the first resident to speak, advocated for citizens who are unable to understand legal documents or afford an attorney. Jefferson explained that many individuals need "something that normal people can understand."

Tribal Court Judge B. J. Jones said he agreed with Jefferson.

"We need to create a legal system where you don't necessarily need a lawyer to access the system," Jones said.

He added: "Laws, even though they're written for lawyers, they serve people."

A topic that was woven throughout the event was the confusion over what court residents should go to for litigation. Based on who is involved, where they live and where an action or event occurred, the case could be heard in Dakota County, Goodhue County or Tribal Court.

Judge Lawrence Clark of Goodhue County stated that he understood the confusion.

Jones encouraged Prairie Island community members to use the Tribal Court. He also noted that the Tribal Court will only continue to work if Minnesota courts recognize and acknowledge the court's authority.

"I've been impressed by Dakota County and Goodhue County recognizing us as a sovereign power," Jones stated.

The importance of cultural heritage and practices was emphasized throughout the session.

Shelley Buck, president of Prairie Island Tribal Council, explained to the judges that in her community, their culture is "ingrained in our DNA."

She said that it is important to bring people going through court, probation or treatment back to the tribe.

Tribal Council member Nicci Lehto agreed and added that there needs to be room for religious practices and ceremonies to be carried out when people are incarcerated or in treatment.

Lehto recalled visiting a community member to perform a religious practice. She explained that while a faith leader of a different religion was able to walk into the facility, she and the person she was there to see had to perform their rituals in a secluded space. Lehto told those gathered that it feels shameful to have to hide religious practices.

The Committee for Equality and Justice recorded topics, questions and suggestions throughout the event. These will be compiled into a full report that will be made public on the Minnesota Judicial Branch website, www.mncourts.gov.