Q: What are the rewards in your work?
A: This work has taught me about approaches to justice that are fundamentally different from conventional state court systems. My colleagues and I have sat in a peacemaking circle with the Colville Tribes, taken part in a sweat lodge on the Navajo Nation, and observed an elders panel run by the Tulalip Tribes. Seeing these traditional approaches to justice has encouraged us to question some of our basic assumptions about how justice systems should work, which I think is a good thing. We've also seen that there are important cultural differences that underpin how tribes approach justice. For example, tribes generally hold their elders in much greater esteem than we do in American society at large. Tribes tend to place great importance on learning from their elders and preserving traditional wisdom, and this approach carries over into how tribes resolve disputes.
It has also been eye-opening to learn that the idea of problem-solving justice is not new to tribes. In many ways, tribes have been practicing forms of problem-solving justice for generations. Traditional practices, like peacemaking and the use of community elders to resolve disputes, aim to address the root causes of conflict and restore harmonious relationships between the parties and the community at large. Tribal justice practitioners often tell us that they like problem-solving justice because it offers a way to incorporate traditional approaches within a contemporary court system.
Q: What are some frustrations?
A: The rewards of this work far outweigh the frustrations. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see so many good tribal justice initiatives collapse because of a persistent lack of resources. Many, if not most, tribal courts depend on federal funding to support basic operations, including judges' salaries, court facilities, jail space, and supplies. And, unfortunately, there isn't enough funding to go around. Too often, innovative projects, like tribal drug courts (often called Healing to Wellness Courts), are forced to close when funding runs out.
Q: How many New York tribes have their own courts?
A: There are eight federally-recognized tribes in New York State. Three of these tribesthe Oneida Indian Nation, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, and the Seneca Nation of Indiansoperate their own courts. That is not to say, however, that the other tribes lack their own systems of justice. Their justice systems simply do not rely upon institutions that resemble Western-style courts.
Q: Why can't tribal members bring their disputes to state or federal courts?
A: They can, and they often do. However, there are several reasons why tribal members might want to pursue their case in tribal court. Convenience may be an important factor. Some tribal members may want to appear in a court that allows them to speak their Native language. Tribal courts also tend to be easier for pro se litigants to navigate, both in terms of cost and procedural complexity. In addition, tribal courts may have jurisdiction over an issue that would be inappropriate to bring in a state court, such as a property dispute on tribal land.
The question, however, raises a larger issue. As sovereign nations, Native American tribes enjoy the inherent authority to maintain their own justice systems and to decide what their justice systems should look like. It is true that federal laws and court decisions have imposed some restrictions on how tribal courts operate. The Indian Civil Rights Act, which largely mirrors the Bill of Rights, is a good example. But by and large, tribes can determine how to administer justice in their own territories.