Even as an undergrad, Tricia Zunker ’02 was all in.
“I earned a bachelor of arts degree with a triple major in French, international relations, and political science, and then earned a certificate in European studies,” she says. “I needed to take a year to just have time to actually do the law school applications.”
And while carrying an overload of credits every semester, she found time to get involved with Wunk Sheek, UW–Madison’s organization for Native American students.
“[Wunk Sheek] was just an amazing way to connect with other Native Americans who were on this similar pursuit, higher education,” she says. “I am a first-generation college graduate in my family, so it was new, something to embark on. But having that connection was great.”
After earning a law degree from UCLA in 2006, she took and passed the bar exam in California — which, she says, is the hardest state bar to join. (“You can Google that,” she jokes.)
Seven years later, she felt the call toward home: the Ho-Chunk Nation. A position on the nation’s Supreme Court was open.
“It’s a part-time position, so I ran for it,” she says. “I had to campaign very, very aggressively. Some people have said that I set a new standard for campaigning within the nation, going to different area meetings and knocking on doors throughout the state, because Ho-Chunk is spread out. We don’t have a single reservation land. So I was flying back from Los Angeles to go to Tomah and Black River Falls. And then I’d go back to LA and do some stuff and then I’d come back and I’d go to Wittenberg and Nekoosa. If I throw my name in, it’s all the way, you know, 110 percent.”
That aggressive campaigning paid off, and she won the election to join the three-member court, serving on the nation’s only appellate court. Serving in that capacity led her to return full time. In 2014, she moved to the Indian Heights area of Wisconsin Dells, where she got more involved in Ho-Chunk culture and activities than she had been in her youth growing up in Wausau.
“[Living in Wausau] is not like living in Black River Falls, for instance, where it’s Ho-Chunk up and down every street,” she says. “It’s not like that in Wausau, but we would certainly go to powwows. We’d go to family events, and when I moved back from LA with my son to Wisconsin Dells, living in Indian Heights, that was really an opportunity for me to be just immersed in everything. We had a Native American church just around the corner [where we could] participate in our ceremonies. So I actually think I got a little bit more as an adult than I did in Wausau, and that was just due to geography, really.”
But even that couldn’t keep her away from home for too long. In 2016, she moved back to Wausau to help care for her aging grandfather. Once there, she got more involved in the wider community, running for school board, founding the Central Wisconsin Indigenous People’s Day Committee, and joining the board of the ACLU of Wisconsin.
“I didn’t really expect to get as involved in everything that I’m doing here,” she says, but she almost couldn’t help it.
“No halfway here,” she says with a laugh.
As president of the Wausau School Board, she led the charge for a Wisconsin Association of School Boards resolution to denounce the use of Native American mascots in Wisconsin high schools. Zunker also pushed for the City of Wausau, Marathon County, and the State of Wisconsin to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday in October — a date long designated as Columbus Day. And that’s in just the first few months.
“It seems like I’ve been president forever,” she says. “It’s only been since April.”
What Does the Ho-Chunk Supreme Court Do?
The sovereign Ho-Chunk Nation has four branches of government: President Marlon WhiteEagle oversees the executive branch, a 13-member legislature shapes law and policy, a court system adjudicates disputes and tries criminal cases, and the fourth branch is the General Council, comprised of the people themselves.
“We don’t have an intermediate court of appeals, like in most jurisdictions,” Zunker explains. “We do have a trial court, then it goes to the Supreme Court. [The types of cases we hear] can vary, but we hear employment disputes; we hear confidential matters involving children. We potentially hear enrollment matters. We can hear matters that involve the Nation or general council or the legislature, the different branches of the government. But really anything that can go to the trial court can be appealed, and we can hear that. It’s just a matter of whether or not the losing party decides to appeal.”
There is one important difference in the Ho-Chunk judiciary — alongside the trial court is a 12-member traditional court, which can settle matters involving custom or tradition in addition to law.
“Basically, we have this law that we need to apply, but we also have this tradition or custom,” Zunker says. “And then how are those intertwined?”
Zunker says the Traditional Court can sometimes decide matters itself, while other times the Supreme Court can consult the Traditional Court and include the Traditional Court’s advice in its decisions.
Zunker says being an elected official in two separate nations creates no conflict.
“I am quite content serving in both my elected capacity for Ho-Chunk Nation Supreme Court and Wausau School Board. And of course, the reason I’m able to do that is because of tribal sovereignty,” she says. “If I was a judge in Wausau, I couldn’t also be on the school board. But I’m a judge in a separate, sovereign nation.”
Not Enough Hours in the Day
Somehow between those two positions, practicing law, founding and fundraising for a nonprofit to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day (which included a first-ever, two-day powwow in Wausau), and acting as “chauffeur most of the time” for her nine-year-old son, she’s decided to add another almost-full-time job: running in the Democratic primary to represent Wisconsin’s Seventh Congressional District.
Governor Tony Evers ’73, MS’76, PhD’86 has called a special election for May 12, with primaries set for February 18. Zunker will face Lawrence Dale in the primary; Jason Church JD’18 and Tom Tiffany are vying for the Republican nomination. The district encompasses much of north central Wisconsin. The seat is vacant after Rep. Sean Duffy stepped down to help care for a new child who has health challenges. The seat was held by Democrat Dave Obey ’60, MA’68 for 41 years before he retired in 2011.
Win or lose, Zunker will stay all in for her community.
“I feel like I’ve still got work to do in these other seats,” she says of her place on the Wausau School Board and Tribal Court. “But yeah, there’s not enough hours in the day.”