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Honor personified

By Kate Dernocoeur
Photography Courtesy United States Attorney’s Office

Margaret Chiara may not be a household name in Grand Rapids, but the impact that the United States Attorney for the Western District of Michigan has on so many lives here is immeasurable.

Unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2001 for the U.S. Department of Justice’s top local job, Chiara (pronounced “key-ARE-a”) presides over 49 counties that constitute the West Michigan district, home to the largest population of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, addressing initiatives ranging from crime victims’ rights, to violence in Indian Country, to improved Arab-American relations.

“ I have believed my entire life that a person is responsible for what he or she sees, and you’re accountable to do what you can about it,” she explained.

The Indian Country issues alone are daunting, with sexual assault, child abuse and other violent acts that drive crime levels well above national averages. “Few people realize,” said Chiara, “that the federal government has exclusive responsibility to prosecute all felonies that occur on Indian reservations.”

Yet, a recent event is testament to the commitment Chiara’s office has to that segment of her jurisdiction from a more poignant side of the law. Last August, the United States Department of Interior Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated an eagle feather headdress that a Traverse City antique dealer attempted to sell in violation of federal law, as the dealer did not have right, title or interest to the headdress.

A joint investigation with Chiara’s office revealed that the headdress’s proper custodian is the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma. In symbolic recognition of the headdress’s significance in the tribe’s history — and the United States’ responsibility to return it to its rightful caretakers — Chiara delivered the headdress to tribal representative Chief Gordon Yellowman on the homelands of the Grand River Band of Ottawa at Ah Nab Awen Park, a presentation that included a sacred fire and a pipe ceremony in keeping with Native American customs.

Building relations between her office and Native Americans “is where Margaret has been absolutely stellar,” said Tom Heffelfinger, her counterpart for the District of Minnesota. “She has truly embraced the need for more effective law enforcement and community response to violent crime.”

That emphasis fuels several other impressive efforts Chiara has initiated, including Project Safe Neighborhoods (a gun violence reduction program) and BRIDGES of Western Michigan, a forum for Arab Americans and Muslims to communicate with federal law enforcement officers and others on matters of mutual interest and concern.

“ I saw a depth of humanity that touched me deeply. She is genuinely human. Very real,” said Shadia Kanaan, an Arab American from Portage.

Chiara and her unmistakable Brooklyn accent arrived in Michigan in 1979, leaving behind both her large Sicilian/Irish family and a 12-year career in education as a teacher and administrator in New York City’s school system.

While taking a law class for her master’s degree in education administration, Chiara discovered she had a knack for law, which, in 1979, translated into a degree from Rutgers University School of Law. She spent her summers during law school clerking in Cassopolis, Mich., a contact that yielded a job, then two four-year terms as prosecuting attorney for Cass County. A stint as policy and planning director for the Michigan Supreme Court in 1999 helped Chiara land her current job two years later.

By all accounts, Chiara works efficiently and relentlessly to “be of service in public work,” something she intends to continue when her current term ends. She lives in Lansing with her beloved dog when not traveling throughout her territory, and will likely stay in Michigan, where she said she is impressed by the willingness of Midwesterners to collaborate.

“ People can see that we’re each other’s best resources,” she said. “There are enormous possibilities here.”

And she is a prodigious testament to those possibilities. Holding title as the first female U.S. Attorney in Michigan, Chiara was inducted in October into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, a place where retired federal district court Judge Barbara K. Hackett said Chiara “in a word … belongs,” as a “servant of great courage, tenacity, compassion and integrity.”

In accepting the Hall of Fame Medallion, Chiara reiterated her principles.

“ For those of us who believe in public service, our lifetime commitment is to make the system or institution work for the public it is intended to serve,” she said. “My bottom line is encapsulated in the question, ‘Am I making the right decision?’ rather than, ‘How will it play?’” GR

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