Lenor Scheffler learned the importance of family and the value of work, growing up on the Lower Sioux Indian Community in southwestern Minnesota. Listening to the adults discuss “things that needed to be fixed,” she also realized the need for change. At a young age, Scheffler said, she decided that “to make change, you need to be either a politician or a lawyer.”
She ended up in both realms-working for U.S. representatives and practicing law-though her path was unusual, from Country Kitchen to Capitol Hill, from “flag girl” to tribal court chief judge.
Scheffler is the eldest of four sisters; three of the four hold advanced degrees. “Our parents instilled in us that an education was one thing that could never be taken away from us,” she said.
When she was about 14, Scheffler’s father called every law firm in Redwood Falls “to see who would let me come and watch what they do,” she recalled. Only the county attorney agreed. Scheffler helped in the office, answered phones, accompanied attorneys to court and “really got a good exposure to what lawyers do every day,” she said.
Still, it would be another 15 years before she became an attorney herself-the first member of the Mdewakanton Dakota Community to do so.
With a political science degree from St. Olaf College, Scheffler considered law school but didn’t feel ready. She wound up back home, working as an assistant manager at the Country Kitchen in Redwood Falls and (along with one of her sisters) as a “flag girl” on highway projects.
“MnDOT [Minnesota Department of Transportation] liked us because we were two-fers-women and minority,” Scheffler said.
She also volunteered for then-U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (who was re-elected to Congress in 2012, three decades after his first go-round). This led to a job offer from Nolan’s Washington office.
“Hmmm, Country Kitchen or D.C.,” Scheffler said, laughing. “I jumped at the chance.”
After Nolan retired, Scheffler worked for a Republican representative from Virginia. She enjoyed her work, but her heart told her it was time to come home: her father had died and her mother was diagnosed with cancer soon thereafter.
“My mom encouraged me to stay in D.C.,” Scheffler said. “But I was glad I didn’t.
“I came home in April 1981, and in July, she died.”
Moving to the Twin Cities, Scheffler interviewed with then-Chair Mike Hatch for a clerical job at DFL Party headquarters. “You’re overqualified,” he told her. Her response: “Yeah, but I need a job.”
When Hatch became commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Scheffler moved to that agency and worked there nearly 10 years. It was during this time that she began law school, working full time and attending classes at night. J.D. in hand, she helped found the Minnesota American Indian Bar Association.
“I can still see that room, those faces,” Scheffler said, “and remember how exciting it was to see other Indian lawyers.”
In 1992 a call came from Little Six Inc.-the gaming arm of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Ready for something different, Scheffler accepted a job offer, later becoming vice president for corporate and legal affairs. “I started work there on Columbus Day,” she recalled, “which seemed somehow apropos.”
Scheffler served as chief judge of the Upper Sioux Community Tribal Court from 2001 to 2006. She often drove home feeling she’d had a positive impact on the family whose case she’d heard that day. She also was conscious of her role model status, aware that “a child could look at me in that robe and think, ‘She looks like me.'”
Scheffler knows her own career path was paved with strong, helpful male role models and mentors. “But I’ve also come to realize that my other, less obvious role models were all the women in my [reservation] community,” she said. Members of the Episcopal women’s guild taught Scheffler a lot about leadership, she said, as did her own mother and her “aunties.”
Now at the Minneapolis law firm Best & Flanagan, Scheffler chairs the Native American law section, practicing in such areas as tribal governance and business, gaming law, and taxation. And she was recently reappointed to the Tribal Court. Working with clients on reservations and in urban Indian communities, Scheffler says, makes her feel that she’s come home.
Scheffler remains close to her sisters (who all live in Minnesota) and their children. Her marriage seven years ago brought her two “bonus sons,” whom she calls “great young men.”
As fascinating and rewarding as her jobs have been, it’s family ties that mean the most.
As Scheffler put it: “In my tribal culture one has to know where one comes from, whom one is related to, whom one can rely upon, whom one has obligations and ties to in life.”