customary law

Wolves Have A Constitution: Continuities in Indigenous Self-Government

Year

This article is about constitutionalism as an Indigenous tradition. The political idea of constitutionalism is the idea that the process of governing is itself governed by a set of foundational laws or rules. There is ample evidence that Indigenous nations in North America–and in Australia and New Zealand as well–were in this sense constitutionalists. Customary law, cultural norms, and shared protocols provided well understood guidelines for key aspects of governance by shaping both personal and collective action, the behavior of leaders, decision-making, dispute resolution, and relationships with the human, material, and spirit worlds. Today, many of these nations have governing systems imposed by outsiders. As they move to change these systems, they also are reclaiming their own constitutional traditions.

Resource Type
Citation

Cornell, Stephen. "'Wolves Have A Constitution:' Continuities in Indigenous Self-Government." The International Indigenous Policy Journal. Volume 6,  Issue 1. January 2015. Paper. (https://turtletalk.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/continuities-in-indigenou..., accessed March 24, 2015)

Diné (Navajo) Local Governance Projects

Year

Formed in 1989 by the Navajo Nation Council, the Office of Navajo Government Development works with the Diné people and their elected leaders to conduct government reform, foster the incorporation of Navajo culture and tradition into the Navajo Nation Code, and facilitate the transference of responsibilities from the central Navajo government to the local or chapter level. As a body dedicated to improving government performance, the Office played a key role in the passage of the 1998 Local Governance Act and has developed and informed numerous legislative initiatives that expand tribal sovereignty and increase governmental accountability, transferability, and efficiency.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Topics
Citation

"Government Reform, Diné Appropriate Government, Local Governance Projects". Honoring Nations: 2002 Honoree. The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 2003. Report.

Permissions

This Honoring Nations report is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.  

Sharon Day: Disenrollment: Contemplating A More Inclusive Approach

Producer
William Mitchell College of Law
Year

Sharon Day (Bois Forte Band of Chippewa) makes a compelling case for Native nations to abandon externally imposed criteria for citizenship that continue to cause internal divisions within Native nations and communities and instead return to Indigenous cultural values and teachings predicated on unity, inclusion and love.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

People
Resource Type
Citation

Day, Sharon. "Disenrollment: Contemplating A More Inclusive Approach." Tribal Citizenship Conference, Indian Law Program, William Mitchell College of Law, in conjunction with the Bush Foundation. St. Paul, Minnesota. November 13, 2013. Presentation.

"[Anishinaabe language]. So I just want to start by telling you a little story.

In 1984 or 1985 -- I'm not exactly sure when -- I went to Nicaragua as a member of a LGBT work study brigade. There was about four of us, we went to Nicaragua and we stayed with families in León and we took medical supplies because of course there was a U.S. embargo against Nicaragua. And so they couldn't get medical supplies or if they had a John Deere tractor that needed parts they couldn't get parts and none of those kinds of things. And it was actually the sixth anniversary of the revolution there. One of the towns that was near León was a little place called Subtiava and Subtiava was the birthplace of [Augusto César] Sandino who was...the Sandinista pattern themselves after Sandino and that was the beginning of the revolution.

So when I went to Subtiava, they had a cultural center, a museum and it was the only cultural museum in Nicaragua. And so I asked the people there, ‘Who...' because I was trying to figure out like how are they Indian, because they said Sandino was an Indian. So, ‘Who lived in Subtiava?' ‘Anybody who wanted to.' ‘Well, how do you govern yourself?' ‘Well, we have a council.' ‘Well, who can vote for the council?' ‘Whoever lives in Subtiava.' And this was like, what? Like how can this be because of course in our reservation systems who can live on the reservation, who can vote in the election, all of that's very tightly regulated, right? And so here's this community, an Indigenous community, in Central America where everything was just so open.

And so I was still having a...'Well, maybe they're not Indian after all.' And so I asked them, ‘Well, what do you do in terms of like...do you use like traditional medicine?' ‘Oh, yeah.' And so they showed me some of their medicines and they said, ‘In fact, right down on the beach a little ways up the coast we had a medical school where we train traditional practitioners in how to heal people before the Spaniards came and there was maybe...it was a school and we had 100 people there.' And one of the first things that the Spaniards did was burnt down that traditional medical facility. So then they pulled out all their land claims maps, like that I could understand. Same as us, right? But it was...this was 1985 and this is very...this changed a lot of the way that I thought about Indigenous people.

So I'm not a lawyer, I worked for the state for a number of years and had to deal with some state-tribal law for about 10 years and had some many good discussions there with especially the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, and who as a result the tribe...the state had to change their contracts with tribes, all their language. But you know what, as tribal people, we had a governance system prior to 1492. We had a system of governing ourselves and this system of governance really for the Ojibwe people involved our clan system. And so there were clans and myself, I already told you I'm [Anishinaabe language], and where we sit in the lodge is in the western doorway and our job is to protect the people. And so ever since I was a little child I could hear my dad saying, ‘Your job is to take care of your family, your clan, your band, the tribe, all Indigenous people and ultimately all of humanity.' Now I've been lucky all my life to be able to work in positions that have enabled me to do that.

We all have clans and there's sub-clans, but these are the major clans that governed, took care of things and some years ago we started a small charter school in Minneapolis. It was called Native Arts High School and it operated for about three years and we couldn't make it go financially, but the way that we planned everything was that we had the students broken up into clans and if there was a dispute, the clans got together and they made a decision. And if they couldn't decide then we went to the Fish Clan because they were the philosophers and they ultimately made the final decision. When that decision was made, that was it. So I guess they were sort of like the Supreme Court.

And so we also have these seven grandfather teachings, and I know among the Lakota and Dakota they also had a system. They had these very same values with the addition of fortitude because life out there on the plains is a little more difficult and so fortitude is something that is one of their values. And so you can't practice...you can't choose which of these values you're going to practice, which of these values you're gong to incorporate in your life because if you don't practice one of these, you're practicing the opposite.

I know it's the end of the day and there's...just to make it short and sweet, we had laws before 1492, we had ways of governing ourself. It was based on inclusion as opposed to exclusion. Everybody had a job to do. When I was a little kid, I was telling somebody at lunch, my...I was one of 13 children and I was smart. And so when my parents would get up at 5:00 in the morning, if I did all my work the day before, I got up with them at 5:00 and my dad would...I'd get to eat with my daddy, eggs and bacon and things like that. And he would tell my mother in Ojibwe what a wonderful child I was, what a wonderful child I was because I'd done all my work and I understood all of this that he was saying in Ojibwe, and it was my time to be with my parents. When I didn't do my job, I stayed in bed.

So we practiced these, we were taught these things, and in my work now at the Indigenous Peoples Task Force we have a youth theater program that's been in existence since 1990 and we have a cessation program for young people and when the kids come in every day, the first thing they do is they have tobacco ceremony. They say this is the favorite part of the program because they sit in a circle and they talk about who they are. And when they come in, they grab a little name badge like this and it has one of these words on it, one of these values and they put that on and in all the rest of the day there that is how they're going to respond to everything. And so we learn these values through practice and if we could begin to develop some of our programs on the reservations beginning in Head Start, pre-school, incorporating these values, we would be about being including people because the more people we have, the more power we have.

Right now, we're only one percent of the population or something like that and so we need to...we've lost so many people and so we need to become larger, to become stronger, and it's not just about those immediate resources. We need to think about how do we do this? We do this through...all of our children should know where did they come from, how did they come into the world. They should know their name. My name [Anishinaabe language], that means something to me. In my clan...next week I'm meeting with five young women who want to be put on their berry fast. These are the things that we're doing, teaching these young people these kinds of things.

The effects of colonization: none of us have, no matter what, I don't care if you're a lawyer, if you sit on the Supreme Court or if you're an elected tribal official, none of us have escaped the effects of colonization. We all have felt anxiety and depression, some of us more so than others and this is a picture that many of you have seen and it's actually Spaniards setting the dogs on people that they considered to be so different from them that they weren't quite human and these were...LGBT native population, we...many of us have self medicated, we've become addicted, and we've lost more than 50 percent of our gifts because we only come into the world with gifts and we have to get those back. And so how do we go through this process of de-colonization?

We're introducing these teachings into our community, hold community gatherings where we invite everybody, where...one of my cousins, she was on tribal, she was tribal chair for a couple of terms up at my reservation and one day she said to me, ‘Why is it that...you moved away from home when you were young and I stayed here and lived on the reservation all my life and why is it that you know so much more of the cultural teachings?' Well, partly it was because I sobered up when I was 21 years old. Between the time I was 14 and 21 I used up my quota of alcohol and drugs and the first thing I did was I learned how to meditate, and then gradually I found my way to the Midewin Lodge and began to learn some of these teachings.

Somebody else I was talking to a little while ago, Mr. Barber there, he said, ‘Some of those folks back in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, we were the old St. Paul families, the Indian families, and we clung together. We clung together because we were all that we had and nobody missed that Saturday night powwow at 475 Cedar St. where the Indian Center was.' And so we had those kind of community gatherings where people participated and we need to include everyone and we need to reorganize these kinds of community events in our...and I think we need to change our way of thinking. Instead of thinking about the glass being half full, we need to think about how do we fill up that glass so everybody gets a drink of that water? How do we build those kinds of homes? In our own community, my grandfather built many of the homes at Bois Forte and I tell you those houses were far better than those HUD homes that they came along in the ‘60s. But they did it together, my grandfather and my uncles -- they did that work together and that's what we need to do.

My mother was born in Canada, three generations ago. Her mother lived in Canada, my great-grandfather came from Leech Lake, but I'm full blood and I'm from Bois Forte, but you go back three generations and these boundaries that we have today did not exist 200 years ago. So why are we so intent on upholding these practices that tear us apart? In this room, you are the brightest people, you are the leaders, we've got to put our minds together and our hearts and come up with a new way of being, because this is the seventh generation and they said that if we are to ignite that light of the eighth fire that leads to peace and harmony, that we need to do it from a spiritual frame of view and to move forward that way.

So today, I will choose love and I hope that you do too because who are we if we are not...if we do not choose love. So it makes me really sad to think about some of the things that happen in our communities today -- some of the things that that we heard about this afternoon -- to many people, and if we're to survive and light that eighth fire, we need to move in that direction and if we're to not only survive as a people, but we have to make some different choices in terms of all humanity, all the people who currently live on Turtle Island, we need to bring them together. When they said, a new people will emerge in the time of the seventh fire, they meant we are all of that new people. We are all of those people and so it takes all the people on Turtle Island if we're going to survive as a species because certainly we know that the Creator has cleansed the earth before and there are many things that are going on today. We need to look at our resources and what are we doing to those.

On my reservation, I wrote an article about the water and they chose not to print it and they said because the mining companies might not like that. I said, 'But it's not about the mining companies, I'm not talking about the mining,' although we should be very careful about that because the sulfide mines that they're proposing are nothing like the mining that is taking place on the Iron Range near where I live. They said, ‘Well, but if we print it then the mining companies might want to have equal space.' And I said, ‘But you're the editor, you can choose.' So anyhow, they didn't and I went on and published it on a place called Alternate, which was then picked up in Canada and in many places and the article was about what I just said: today, I choose love. [Anishinaabe language]."

Rae Nell Vaughn: So What's So Important About Tribal Courts?

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, discusses how justice systems are critical to Native nations' exercise of sovereignty, and sets out some key things that those systems need to have in place in order to administer justice fairly and effectively on behalf of their nations. 

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "So What's So Important About Tribal Courts?" Emerging Leaders seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. November 7, 2013. Presentation.

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"[Choctaw language]. Good morning. And I want to thank my brother from Oklahoma for the fine music and words. [Choctaw language]. Thank you. My name is Rae Nell Vaughn as Ron [Trosper] has said and I promise, I am 21. I've worked for the tribe for many, many years in different capacities; however, this capacity as serving as a judge was the most life-changing experience and enlightening moment for me. I served as a judge for 11 years and let me tell you, I definitely came in -- as I heard from one of our colleagues yesterday -- with rose-colored glasses on.

I remember the day when one of the judges came in, and at that time I was working with the Archives Department for the tribe, and she said, "˜Come out here and talk with me for a minute.' So we stepped outside on the patio and she said, "˜Rae, what do you think about being a judge?' I was very stunned at the moment. "˜A judge? What? Are you kidding me? I can barely make a decision for myself let alone for anybody else.' And the conversation went from there. I spoke with my mother and I spoke with my grandmother and my family at that time to talk about --- and of course she was being serious -- and to talk about whether this was the path I wanted to take. No one grows up saying, "˜I want to be a judge, that's what I want to be.' I remember -- she did -- I remember talking with my children and I said, "˜It just...it was on my path.' I just didn't know that it was on my path, but did I know that I was going in that direction?

In hindsight, yes, I see all the signs of where I was going that eventually led me there and gave me the opportunity for the experience, and then building on that experience, allowing me the opportunity to work within the executive branch. And so I say that to say that a lot of the conversations I've been listening to yesterday really validate a lot of the things that I have learned throughout my career and my years of working for the tribe. And let me tell you, it's a struggle at times when you're working for your own tribe, because there's always a tendency...and I know a lot of us have a lot of war stories, I'm sure many of you do, of how there's this sense of you're more on the cross than not, especially with your council, especially with your leadership, your local leadership and it's just almost like, "˜Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this?' But at the end of the day, we know that we're doing this for our future, for our children, just as our grandparents and our great grandparents did for us.

And it's amazing as Ron shared with us his experience with Chief [Phillip] Martin, I had the great fortune of being present, of seeing the evolution of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, of Mississippi Choctaw from a point of where there was poverty and then a period of prosperity, and like every society of a rise and fall and of a dark period of leadership. So we've had the experience that many tribes have also gone through too, and now we're in another period of our history, of a renaissance, of a new leader rising. We were fortunate to have Phillip Martin, the late Phillip Martin, who passed away a couple of years ago, for over 40 years of leadership and it was an amazing time of vision and of moving forward. And at the time of his...of not being reelected, we had a new leader, and unfortunately that leader chose to lead from a base of fear and created a lot of dissention and it causes people...you get angry because you want your government to succeed, and it caused people to step forward...causes people to step forward, because you know what's right.

So what I'd like to do at this time is talk with you about tribal courts and its role in tribal government and its importance, how it's important for you as leaders to understand the role and the capacity of the court. And there's one thing I will tell you that I have learned and you'd think I would have got that a long time ago, but how your economic development and your court systems, they have to run parallel. If you're wanting to move forward, those things you run parallel.

So let's go ahead and take a look at this slide presentation. And I apologize, I don't have the glitzy slide presentation that Dr. Ian [Record] had. I really like his, it was just zooming and moving about and I only have 30 minutes and Renee [Goldtooth] is going to [be] popping that sign up at me so I'm going to go quickly so that I can allow my co-presenter to present as well. And for those of you who don't recognize it, I love to talk. I love to talk.

Our first question is what role do or should Native nation justice systems play in Native nation rebuilding? Well, the key role I think is that it exercises sovereignty, the pure exercise of sovereignty. You as a government have the right and can exercise it and develop a court system. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians operated under a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] court until the early "˜70s. It was around 1974, '75 when the tribe then took over the tribal court system and it was a very small court, still funded by BIA of course, but we had a special judge who was non-Indian, a law trained attorney, and then we had the tribal judge and we had one clerk. And at that time our population was maybe about 3,000 people, not a very large population. We were still having issues of the local govern...the local law enforcement reaching our lands and coming in. I can vividly remember a time during our Choctaw Fair, which is held in July, of the paddy wagon coming by and we saw...I remember clearly seeing a tribal member sitting in that patty wagon. He was intoxicated and the county police had come and scooped him up and took him out, just did it. And then we began working towards taking on our own systems.

What key components do these justice systems need to possess? Law. How do we define law? We talk about an organic document of law and document can be subjective, written or unwritten. You need customary law, you may need or may not need a written constitution, ordinance and codes and common law, very basic. We have made points to ensure that we interweave tribal law, Choctaw law. Some tribes are very fortunate to have and to maintain and to practice their customary law. Unfortunately for Choctaw, a lot of things were not written or were not passed down as they should have been, but there are key elements that we do follow, values, Choctaw values that we do maintain, but not to the extent of some of the tribes that I know that were fortunate enough to be able to continue their practice. I think a lot of the tribes east of the Mississippi encountered these types of things. But again, those are the key things that these systems need to possess.

Why is it important that justice systems be strong and independent? Justice systems work hand in hand with the executive and legislative branches, and when I say that I say that in regards to the checks and balances of each of these branches. For Mississippi Choctaw, the tribal court is a statutory court. In their constitution, there are only two branches that are recognized, but we had gone over and beyond to ensure that there was a separation of this system. Now could they continue with a court? With it being a statutory court they could easily do away with the court, but they recognized the need of a forum of adjudication of these laws and so we continue with a court system, separate but equal.

What do strong, independent justice systems require? The very first thing, which is primary, is that you would be able to adjudicate with no political interference. Now how many of you have heard horror stories of leadership calling the judge, "˜What the beep are you doing down there? Do you know that that's my brother? We better do something about that.' And the one thing, I had never had leadership, the top leadership ever call me as a judge, but I had had a councilwoman call me and she was having issues with her children in our juvenile court and of course I'm the juvenile judge, and I said, "˜You know, it's already in the system, there's nothing that can be done. I don't think we need to have this conversation.' "˜Well, let me tell you Rae Nell, don't forget who approves your budget and your salary.' "˜Yes, ma'am, I'm very aware of who does. You are one of 16. That's who approves my budget and my salary. You are one of 16.' So I know that it's challenging as a judge, as a judicial officer when you have...when you live in the community, when you're a member of the community, it's very challenging, but we stand strong trying to maintain the integrity of the system, because I want you as a tribal member to feel confident in the system. As my co-presenter and I spoke earlier, there's always going to be a winner and there'll always be a loser. That's the name of the game. There's no...there's not going to be any way where both of you are going to come out on top, it just is not going to happen. I shared with one person, "˜If you don't like what's happening in court, don't get yourself there. Don't put yourself there.'

Secondly, to have the ability to appoint or elect qualified tribal members to serve as judges, and this is a work in progress I know for many, many tribes. We have on our bench currently two tribal members who have their juris doctorate. Our supreme court has two non-member associate justices who have their JD. So we're working towards those ends, of changing the bench, the structure of the bench in order to have law trained judges.

Thirdly, a canon of ethics, that should be a given. I've always shared with our judges when we go over the canon of ethics, "˜It's there to protect you. It's there to protect you.' You always have all these different forces coming at you and to say, "˜No, I can't do that, it's a conflict of interest, it's an appearance of impropriety.' 'This is what it looks like, if it's a duck... What's the saying, "˜If it quacks, if it swims, if it does... it's a duck. A duck is a duck.''

How has your nation remade, how is it remaking its justice system to more effectively resolve disputes? Well, they need qualified personnel. That's for sure. Our code is very broad in its qualifications. However, as I said, it's an evolving process where we're working towards trying to get the best personnel on staff and that's not just the judges itself, it's the support staff. It's your clerks, it's your probation officers, it's your advocates, your lay advocates. Everyone that's involved in that system, you're wanting folks who are coming in qualified in the sense of training, experience, what it is they're bringing to the table and enhancing those skills.

Financial resources. Have you ever been in a position where you're like looking at the budget and "˜Hmm, are we going to make it to the end of the year?,' because you had that one particular case that ate up your transcription fees, that you're having to provide outside counsel for and you're like, "˜This is that big case that really damages the budget, just blows it clean out of the water.' That's where your relationship with the executive and legislative is important in the sense of the administration of justice, ensuring that you have the adequate finances to operate the system because there is an administrative part to your judiciary.

Interdependence, again, talking about the checks and balances and making sure that you have these clean relationships, because you do have to have a relationship with your executive and you do have to have a relationship with your legislative body, but to understand where these boundaries are and of what you can talk about. It's very easy to have a conversation and we're talking about a code section and everything and then the conversation goes into a particular case over an issue that's happening in the community and you're like, "˜Whoa, wait a minute, we can't go there, we can't have that talk right now.' But those conversations of the administration, of their support, those are things that you need to have and it's a balancing act, it truly is a balancing act.

So how do we maintain law and order? Well, for Mississippi Choctaw, the system as I said earlier is a much bigger system than the judiciary itself. We have court services and under the Department of Court Services you have the probation office and you have teen court. Teen court -- for those of you who are not familiar -- is a forum that's available to our juvenile delinquents after they've been found delinquent to give them an opportunity to have their sentencing given to them by their peers and it's a very enlightening process. It also gives those young people, individuals to actually see how the system works. All of the positions in a teen court setting are held by young people except for the adjudicator, the judge, which is one of the judges minus the judge that heard the case who would sit and preside over this.

And I know the very first case that they held when we began operating the teen court, they wanted this juvenile delinquent to stand on the corner with a big sign saying that this is the crime that he committed, they wanted 1,000 hours of community service work. They were just like slamming him because of the vandalism and the offense that he committed and the message that we were trying to share with our youth is that, "˜Yes, this juvenile delinquent committed an offense against a person,' but it's more than that. It's committing an offense against the entire tribe, the effect of it, from the individual and the effect that it has on that individual, the rippling effect. So it's not just one person that you're committing a crime against, it's circular, it comes right back to you as a member, a member of the tribe, a member of the community.

And then we have also other agencies that provide support to the court system. We have a victim's advocacy department or program. We have a children's advocacy program. We also rely heavily on behavioral health to participate as especially with children in need of care, to help get our families reunified. And then of course we have the healing-to-wellness court. How many of you have a Healing to Wellness Court or are aware of a healing-to-wellness court, aka drug court? I see one hand, I see two hands. It's been a very successful, for Choctaw, a very successful forum. I think all of us recognize that we do have to look at other forums to help our people. It's easy to say, "˜Well, okay, let's just find them guilty and put them in jail and let's fine them,' and then they're back again, and then they're back again because we're dealing with these symptoms, we're not really getting into the root of what's going on. And so this has been a very valuable tool for us to utilize. Also it pulls in a number of the agencies that we have available to help us help this individual help themselves.

We look at how we reflect, promote our line with our people's cultural values and why these efforts are so important. Again, it's bringing in the Choctaw values. What's Choctaw? I am a tribal member, I sit on that bench and -- I sat on that bench -- and I would listen and you take it all in and I'm able to as a tribal member, as a member of that community to be able to decipher all of this and I'm able to weigh in on, "˜What is the best path for this person?' We have a traditional form of court, which is the Iti-Kana-Ikbi, to make new again, loosely translated "˜to make new again.' I had the good fortune of meeting the former [Navajo Nation Supreme Court] Chief Justice Robert Yazzie at the very beginning of my judicial career back in 1997. A number of us who were newly appointed had the opportunity to go out to Navajo Nation and to learn, and let me tell you it was a very learning experience, meeting the chief justice and meeting with their traditional court and having great dialogue as to how you create a good system, a great system. And I'm very appreciative of the opportunities that we were able to take to sit in in a court that has a record and had a lot of things going on.

What are the other efforts? It's bringing tribal member personnel in because there's an investment there, wouldn't you agree? It's an investment having your own people working your system because that's the goal. Ultimately, for all of us as tribes, that's the goal, us as tribes, as villages, as pueblos. You want your membership running your government. That's ultimately what we all strive for. Also identifying tribal member mentors and this could be our elders, this could be people who come in with a wide range of experiences to help us with shadowing, job shadowing, having someone to talk to. I think earlier yesterday I think someone talked about they felt good about being able to finally talk with someone about this, this case, this issue, how do I resolve it. And as I said throughout this presentation, it's important to interweave your customary law, your customary values with western jurisprudence, how we make that happen, 'Choctaw-ize' it as one of my mentors always said, 'Choctaw-ize' it.

What role does your nation's justice system play in protecting, strengthening and expanding your nation's sovereignty in advancing its nation building priorities? As I stated earlier, to provide financial resources, to create and support the judiciary and the Choctaw legal community. And when I say Choctaw legal community, our tribe has made the investment of not only supporting a judicial system, but we also have an Office of the Attorney General. On the flip side of that we also have a Department of Legal Assistance, which is available for the tribal...the individual tribal member. We also have available lay advocates who come in and also practice in our court. Secondly, the respect of other judicial systems, local and federal. How many times have you heard, "˜Oh, that kangaroo court'? "˜That kangaroo court.' I have heard that so many times. Have you heard that, "˜That kangaroo court?' Have you been..."

Eldena Bear Don't Walk:

"All the time."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"All the time. It was never tribal court, it's that kangaroo court. Well, I didn't realize that we were a bunch of animals, but okay. "˜That kangaroo court can never make a decision, it was never stable, it was up and down, depended on who was leadership, you just never knew what was going to come out of there and how the heck did they come up with that decision. That kangaroo court.' That's where we need to work. And unfortunately in Indian Country, there are those systems that don't have the support or do have interference and aren't able to have the credibility and the respect of the membership.

When I say the confidence of companies to do business with the Choctaw courts by entering into contract with the tribe, what I'm saying here is that, as I stated earlier with economic development, if you have a company that is wanting to come in and do business with your tribe, the first thing they're going to ask is, "˜Okay, if we have a dispute, where are we settling it? Do they have codes? What is the law? What's the rules to the game?' And so it's important to ensure that you have those things in place. Choctaw has a mirrored UCC [uniform commercial] code that it adopted back in early 2000, a number of codes that give us the ability to do business.

And of course then there was the establishment of the Supreme Court. I spoke earlier about the inception of the tribe taking over the court and at that point we were a membership of 3,000 and we had the special judge and then we had a tribal judge and then we had a clerk. Well, as the tribe began to grow in population and economically, the leadership then saw the need to strengthen and expand the system, and then in 1997 -- and I'll back up a little bit -- in 1994 we opened our casino. So what does that mean? Boom, the economics jumped up. You had people coming on to the reservation, customers coming in, you had a lot more vendors coming into the reservation, you had a lot of other things happening on the reservation as well. So the tribe chose to reorganize the system and expand it into four individual divisions with a senior judge and associate judge. We were still operating with the lower-level court and setting up an appeal process that would allow the judges that were not involved in the case that was coming up for appeal to sit as arbitrators for an appeal. Well, that wasn't really working well.

So in mid 2000, they chose to establish a Supreme Court and this Supreme Court was made up of three judges who did not participate at the lower court, they wanted to ensure that there was Choctaw values, a Choctaw voice in there so they require a tribal member who met the qualifications of the lower court plus years of experience on the judiciary and to have the associates who sat with the chief justice to be law-trained. And it was a system that worked out very well. On the other side of that, they chose in administrating the judiciary to allow the chief justice to serve as the administrator and there's some pros and cons with that as well. Ultimately, at the end, prior to my leaving the bench, I was operating a court with a budget of $3.5 million and I had 32 staff under me that I supervised. So it shows you the evolution of the system and again it's a growing system.

Ladies and gentlemen, court systems are important and it requires support and it requires attention and it requires the type of people, good people to sit on the bench and to be an adjudicator and to render decisions that are going to be in the best interest of the people, because as you know it's collective, it's for the entire tribe.

And so I thank you for the opportunity. I'm going to now turn it over to my co-presenter and I think we will have questions and answers after her presentation. Thank you."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.: Effective Bureaucracies and Independent Justice Systems: Key to Nation Building

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

In this informative interview with NNI's Ian Record, Leroy LaPlante, Jr., former chief administrative officer with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a former tribal judge, offers his thoughts on what Native nation bureaucracies and justice systems need to have and need to do in order to support the nation-building efforts of their nations. 

Resource Type
Citation

LaPlante, Jr., Leroy. "Effective Bureaucracies and Independent Justice Systems: Key to Nation Building." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

Ian Record:

"Welcome to Leading Native Nations. I'm your host Ian Record. On today's program, I'm honored to welcome Leroy LaPlante, Jr. Leroy, who goes by "JR" to many, is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He worked as chief administrative officer for his tribe for three years from 1998 to 2001. Around that time, he was named ambassador of the tribe by the then-chairman, a great honor. And he currently works as an attorney working with tribes on a number of different, in a number of different areas including economic development and housing. Welcome JR."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Thank you, Ian."

Ian Record:

"We're here today to talk about a couple of topic areas relevant to Native nation building and governance, those being tribal bureaucracies and then tribal justice systems. And I want to start off with tribal bureaucracies. And I'm curious to learn from you, what role do you feel bureaucracies play in advancing the nation building goals of their nations?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well I think it's really important for Native nations to have a strong infrastructure in order for them to really accomplish their goals. They've got to have, I think, one, they have to have a strong legal infrastructure, but I think they have to have a strong infrastructure where they can deliver services and their programs are functioning in an effective manner."

Ian Record:

"So what, in your experience, do Native nation bureaucracies need to be effective?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well I think, for one, there needs to be, I think, a good system in place: policies, procedures, ways to measure outcomes. There also needs to be a very good financial accounting so that performance on a lot of tribes function under grants, federal grants and so forth. And so there's a big need for tribes to have a way to make sure they're performing well on these grants and so forth. But you know, in my experience as the administrative officer for Cheyenne River for three years, we had the privilege of having a good tribal controller who kept us on track financially, and we had a good planning office and we had a good grant oversight. But for me, what I think was really important -- and we grew exponentially in those years that I was, that I had the privilege of working as the administrative officer -- but the key was we had a separation of roles. The administrative or the executive branch of our tribal government, we knew people respected what we did and they trusted us to do what we did. The tribal council, the legislative branch of the government, they had an understanding of their role. And I think that that's really, really key. If you can have that, I don't want to call it separation of powers necessarily, because it's more so, I really see it as the government having different roles. And I think that's what resonates with Indian people, more so than powers. So I think that was key, to have this sort of hands-off approach and letting us really manage the programs and let the programs do their work."

Ian Record:

"We've heard others who either serve or have served in positions like you did for your tribe, draw the distinction between those who make the decisions and then those who carry out the decisions. Is that essentially what you're talking about?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Absolutely, that's exactly what I'm talking about. And I think that if you have a tribal council that tries to micromanage a lot, I think they can get in the way of what we're trying to do. And because, you know, the daily decisions that we make in government, you know, especially when we get caught up in personnel issues and those sorts of things, it can really bog down government. And when government gets bogged down, government gets slowed down, we all know that the real losers, in that instant, are the people. And we're there to serve the people, we're there to provide services to the people, we're there to provide critical services to tribal members. So it's important to just let those programs function freely."

Ian Record:

"So what happens when -- and granted it sounds like during your tenure there wasn't a lot of this going on, but based on your experience perhaps working with other tribes -- what happens when that political interference in the carrying out of programs, in the delivery of services, and just the day-to-day bureaucracy of the tribe, what impact does it have within the bureaucracy itself?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I think the immediate...I think there's immediate impacts and there's long-term impacts. The immediate impacts are, you get this...the services aren't provided in an equitable fashion, you have this favoritism towards certain, maybe employees where you have some...so nepotism can come into play in terms of hiring. They get...if there's this micromanaging, there's this...it can interfere with personnel decisions. And also, just decisions in terms of where these programs need to go in terms of their planning and so forth. The long-term effect that it has on it is it does affect long-term planning, and I think that if they would just let the programs function and plan out their work like they're supposed to, then things will work out accordingly."

Ian Record:

"We've seen instances among nations where formally, there was that situation where there were elected officials interfering in program delivery and administration, bureaucracy of government. They make the necessary changes and that micromanagement stops or at least is reduced to the degree where the elected leaders suddenly find that they have more time to focus on, ideally, what they should be doing."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well that's what I meant, Ian. I kind of misspoke on the last response to your question, but that's what I meant by the long-term effects. I think there's a short-term effect and that the interference, it prevents those programs from functioning the way they're supposed to, it prevents them from hiring the way they're supposed to, making personnel decisions the way they're supposed to, making fiscal decisions the way they're supposed to. But I think the long-term is it detracts from what their job really is, and that is to plan long-term for the tribe. To think where, you know, the bigger decisions. So you kind of have this hierarchy of needs in a tribal government; you have these everyday, daily operations. And, you know, who decides, you know, what to purchase with a particular program budget is a very small matter. But when you have legislators and tribal council members making those kinds of decisions, obviously, that's going take away from the bigger things they should be doing, which is planning for the tribe's future, creating laws that are going to be implemented for the improvement of the tribe. And so it does detract from those bigger things and those are the things that they're likely to do. And so that's what I meant by a short-term effect and a long-term effect."

Ian Record:

"And it also has a direct effect on the people who've been charge with administrating the decisions that the elected officials make, does it not? The program managers, the department heads, the administrators?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"I think it really does, because you're hired to do a job and you want to...in terms of developing that leadership, in terms of utilizing those people for what they're hired to do, it does stunt their growth, in a sense. So that's...it does have an effect in that regard. But here's one of the saddest things that I see happening when you have talented people, tribal members that are doing these program management jobs or whatever, filling these tribal positions. I think when you get this interference from tribal council, it can get really discouraging. We hire people who are capable, we put our, everybody that applies for a tribal position through an application process, and we feel like we hire the best person. What happens I think with people, people get frustrated, they feel like they're not, [don't] have the freedom to do their job and so they end up, we end up losing I think some very talented people. So I think one direct effect is that it does maybe impact and where we have somewhat of a brain drain on the tribe. I mean, if you get hired to do a job, you expect to be able to come in and freely do that job."

Ian Record:

"So then...what role then should elected leaders play in ensuring an effective bureaucracy to carry out the wishes and priorities of the nation?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I've never been an elected official. And, you know, I think, I don't know if I'm qualified really to speak to that. I guess I could, I guess I'm qualified enough to say what they should be doing, or what we'd like to be doing. So in a perfect world -- and of course we all know it's not a perfect world -- but in a perfect world what you would like to see elected officials do is really put the people before themselves. And put the interest of the tribe as a whole, collectively, before themselves. I think, too many times, people that are elected to tribal council or to an elected position sometimes have their own agenda. And I think it's important that -- it may be a good agenda -- but I think that it's important that they try to serve the people first and carry out those duties. Now again, elected officials have different roles. And I think it's really important. A long time ago, Indian people had different roles in our society, and you even see that today. If there's somebody in our community that makes drums, for example, that's that person's role. People respect that. And anytime somebody needs a drum, they go to that person to make a drum. And I think that those roles in tribal government are very similar, and I think that that's where we can import some of our traditional ways of perceiving what we do is that you have a role.

The problem I think, Ian, is that sometimes when people take a position in the tribe, they don't what that role is to begin with and so when they come in, I think, there should be some sort of orientation process. There should be some sort of time where they're brought in a transition period and they're saying: this is what we understand to be your role as an elected official, as an elected councilperson, as a tribal secretary, as a tribal treasurer. And you know, it's really, you know sometimes we're a little too hard on elected people because I think that we assume that they know what their role is when they're hired or when they're elected and I don't think we should make that assumption. I think we should, if we assume anything I think we should assume that they could use some mentorship; they could use some instruction.

So that person comes in, they take that elected office, and then they don't perform or they start micromanaging or they start doing something other than what we think they should be doing. But it really should come as no surprise, "˜cause they're walking into a position that they have no formal training for. And so I think that we need to really be understanding of, you know, and if you look at a majority of elected people in tribal government, they are people that don't have a lot of formal training. They are people that are from the community, that people trust, that are respected. You know, the qualifications of an elected person in tribal government is different from an elected person in state or in federal government. There's an emphasis...or in the non-Indian world, in dominant society, there's a great emphasis placed on education, there's a great emphasis placed on experience, and so forth. Maybe they were a former businessperson, maybe they were law trained. But in Indian Country, the emphasis on qualifications for elected officials is how well do they understand their culture, how connected are they in the community, how strong are their kinship units and, you know, how committed are they to helping the people, did they, how long have they lived on the reservation? And those sorts of things.

And so, I think if we're going to assume anything about people that are elected, I think we should assume that they probably could use some training. But with that, if that training's provided up front, I think what I would expect of an elected person is that they, if you're elected to council, obviously, I believe that first and foremost you need to represent your people as a whole and what's in the interest of the tribe as a whole. Set your personal agenda aside and really try to fulfill your obligations to uphold, number one, the constitution of the tribe, the laws of the tribe, and that includes our policies and procedures, and to do what's in the best interest of the people. And not just for what's going get you elected for the next term, but what's best for the people five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

The other thing I would expect from elected people, Ian, is that I think we have a commitment to...as Lakota, as Sioux people -- I speak specifically to our tribe -- we talk about our [Lakota language], our lifeways. We talk about our traditions. We talk about everything we do is for that seventh generation. We try to plan that far ahead. I think it's really incumbent upon officials that are in a position to make laws, that are in a position to make policy decisions, it's really incumbent upon those elected officials to plan ahead, and to really walk that talk. Not just talk a good talk to get you elected, but really live out those core values of who we are as Lakotas. And I think that in and of itself would drastically change the landscape of tribal politics."

Ian Record:

"You made reference to this, essentially this need to plan for the seventh generations forward. And seventh generation planning, strategic planning really; when that strategic planning process has been undertaken and there's really no end to it, but when the nation and its leadership has done that hard work to forge a strategic vision, put a plan in place to get there, doesn't it make the day-to-day bureaucracy work that much easier because those people that are in charge of carrying that out, understand clearly where we're trying to head and does this decision that's performing today, does it contribute to that or does it detract from that?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Right. I mean it's very...you put that very succinctly. I think that that's exactly what long-term planning does. I think, when you have a strategy in terms of where, and a vision of where you want the tribe to be, you know, generations from now, everything works toward that end. And so people, it does give program managers more focus and it does...but you know, that example being set by elected officials is so critical. Because if they're setting that example, then it trickles down to your administrative personnel, it trickles down to your program managers, it trickles down to your tribal employees -- that there's this conscientiousness that what we're doing is really for the betterment of the people not just here, today, but further down the road. But in order for that to happen...we really talk a good talk. I think Indian people, we're very eloquent and I think that there are words that we have in Lakota or in our Native language, our Native tongue that when they translate to English, they're very beautiful concepts. And when the outside world hears them, they're very impressive. But do we really live by them? And I think that that is really, that's really the test. And if we do, if we're really committed to them, what you will see in a tribal government is you will see a structure. And that structure will have, it'll be a system in terms of how we go about our business. And it'll start, you'll see it in a way that we conduct council meetings. You'll see it in a way we...you'll see it in our organic document. You'll see it in our policies and procedures. You'll see it in our day-to-day operations. There'll be this structure in terms of how we go about doing our day-to-day business, and so you...and that's the infrastructure that I'm talking about. That you've got to have that infrastructure in place, because it's one thing to take a vision and philosophies in terms of how we want to be, but you got to have the practical policies and infrastructure that get us from point A to point B."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned earlier the importance of serving the nation as a whole, essentially treating citizens fairly and consistently. How can Native nations achieve fairness in service delivery and within the bureaucracy of government?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"That's a big challenge for tribal government, because I think that tribal governments are already kind of up against the wall because they got to overcome the perception that they don't provide services in an equitable fashion. And there's always these horror stories about nepotism and all these other things that we have to overcome. You know, I think one of the ways you make sure that our services are being delivered in an equal fashion to everybody is I think you have to have transparency in your government, and I think you have to make sure that you have sound policy, and you have sound procedure. That when you draft these laws and you draft these policies and procedures, that you don't deviate from them, and I think that's the key. I tried to engage in a policy and procedure revision in my tribe, and I think the plan sat on the table for the full three years I was there. You find that you don't have the time, but the key is that you got to work with what you got, and as long as you're consistent with those policies, and they may not be perfect, but utilize them and force them, stick to them, and don't deviate from them. You've got to have a rule that you go by. And of course, and this is true with the community as well. You've got to have a rule of law where people understand that this is what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. The same thing in tribal governance, you've got to have policies, procedures, you've got to have ways of operating so that...and you've got to stick to them."

Ian Record:

"In one of the areas where we commonly see deviation, as you put it, or inequitable treatment from a policy or something like that within the tribal government is around personnel issues -- hiring, firing, other sorts of issues like that. Where should...where and how should those issues ideally be resolved? Or if there's disputes around personnel, where should those issues be resolved?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"It's going to differ from tribe to tribe, Ian. And I think the important thing is that whatever process you set up, that it be a fair process and that you follow it every single time, and again, you don't deviate from it. When I served as the administrative officer for my tribe, there was so many things I wanted to do. I wanted to engage in economic development planning, I wanted to...there was so many other grants I wanted us to look at and really decide whether or not we should even apply for certain grants because there are some...as an administrator you don't want to apply for everything, but sometimes you do it because you have an ambitious program director who writes a grant application, but you want to be able to look through and make a sound decision to make sure it's in the interest, in our best interest. And those are those big decisions, right? And you want to focus more on areas, departments that are weaker and get them stronger. Those are the bigger issues you want to deal with as an administrator. But I spent, I would say, roughly 75 percent of my time bogged down in personnel issues. And so one of the things, I would say, is your administrator has a role. That role is to administer the programs of the tribes. I wished I was never involved in personnel issues as an administrator, because I didn't see that as my role, but council did. The problem was was that a lot of times council would get involved in that. So we had system where if a personnel action was taken, the immediate supervisor would take action. The appeal process was that you were allowed to go to a program director. If there was a department chair, that was another level in the appeal process. I was included in the process, and then of course we had an elected personnel policy board that was the final say on all personnel issues. Now, sounds like a great system, but if you add up the time frames an employee had to appeal, you're looking, you could be bogged down in a personnel issue for 45 to 60 days. And if council got involved, it could stretch out for several months. So, I think, you really want to try, what I tried to do is streamline the process as much as I could. I recommended to council on several occasions that I be removed from the process because I wanted to focus on some of the more important requirements, job requirements of an administrator of a tribal government. We had over 75 tribal programs, we were managing over 50 federal grants, we had over 600 tribal employees -- there's just a tremendous amount of responsibility. But that's the system my tribe went with, and so the next best thing is to try to train your employees, your supervisors, your department chairs, your program directors. I couldn't say much of the policy personnel board, but our HR [human resources] person did a good job of training the board, making sure they knew how the system worked. And just trying to make sure that people follow that process as closely as they possibly could and just try to get a personnel issue through that process without it getting bogged down somewhere. And if we all kind of stuck to the process and followed it according to the books it would usually go through smoothly, but the x-factor was always council."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned that your nation -- when you were working in this administrative position -- had more than 75 programs operating at once. And among many nations, the number of programs is often hard to count. And a lot of that is a legacy of federal grant programs and things like that, which some have pointed to as a major source for what is commonly called the 'silo effect'..."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Sure."

Ian Record:

"...Where you have all these different programs kind of operating independent of one another, don't really communicate with one another, and then there's in turn, often a negative impact on the use of typically limited tribal resources. Do you see this silo effect at play in your own nation? Or perhaps have you seen it in other nations? And what do you think are some of the consequences or the drawbacks of that situation."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I don't think there's anything positive about the silo effect, obviously. I think, you'd like to see a department chair or a program take ownership of that job and really grow that program, but I think the negative downside of that is you could get a program director that is, that does become too territorial. And so it does infringe upon our efforts to be more cooperative and to share resources where we can, but more importantly I think there are some real, I guess if, I'm not sure how to put this, but there are some areas, some issues in tribal life, in tribal government that we, there's environment. There's, where I'm from it's, there's management of land resources, social services, education. And I think that what I try to do, when I was working for the tribe, is that I tried to identify those areas and the more we could get programs to work cooperatively, collaboratively, to address those needs, the better. The silo effect, as you call it, really prevents those programs from doing that and it does have...and it does have an adverse effect. The other thing I will say about the grants is that sometimes as tribes we can get too dependent on those grants. I think early in the '90s, mid-90s, in the '90s period, it was an era where there was a lot of application for grants and tribes that were good at it, you know, they were getting grants. It was, you know, if you had a good track record, it was pretty easy to get certain grants and so forth. But sometimes we can get too dependent on that. I think what you want to see eventually, and again this is where if you free up time for an administrator, in my role, you can do more of this planning where you're not so dependent upon these grants."

Ian Record:

"I want to switch gears now to another topic that you're very well versed in and that's tribal justice systems. And I think it's no coincidence that in this era of Indian self-determination, this federal policy era of Indian self-determination, we're seeing a groundswell of attention by tribes to strengthen their justice systems. And I'm curious to get your perspective on this question of what sorts of roles can tribal justice systems play in rebuilding Native nations?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well I think they're critical, I think they're foundational to nation building. You know, I think the creation of your own laws, the promulgation of those laws, the adjudication of cases, the creation of case law -- all of that is so important to strengthening tribal nations. I mean, our tribal courts is probably one the most fundamental exercises of tribal sovereignty that we have -- the creation of laws and enforcing them. But the thing is the courts...if courts are effective and judges are performing their jobs in a good way, and the courts are functioning in a way we would like them, it gives the perception to the outside world that we're very good at resolving our matters in dealing with internal matters. But not only that, but we can also deal with any matter that comes through our courts on our reservation."

Ian Record:

"What, in your view, does strong, independent justice system look like? What does it need to have?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"I think a strong independent justice system, first of all, is tribal. I think it should be tribal in a sense that it knows how to deal with tribal issues and yet it's diverse enough to handle and adjudicate all matters that come before it. I think you should have conmpetent judges. I think you should have strong advocacy for clients and it must have a way of measuring its performance. But yeah, a strong tribal system should be tribal in nature. In other words, what I mean by that is it shouldn't just be a boilerplate replication of what a state court looks like and promulgate those laws, but those laws should be traditional in nature, it should reflect our customs, it should reflect our customary law, our traditional laws, and we should know how to deal with those and inject those viewpoints in our decisions."

Ian Record:

"It's interesting you bring that up, because I've actually heard that from several other tribal judges that I've had an occasion to interview. That in many ways, the tribal justice system and the tribal court in particular is the most direct, concrete way that a tribe can convey its core values, its cultural principles, not only to the outside world, but its own citizens. Is that something that you feel is accurate?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Oh, absolutely. You know when you think about the types of cases that come before our tribal courts, you know you're dealing with a lot of domestic cases, domestic violence cases, family cases, so the courts have the opportunity to resolve disputes between tribal members. And so there's a tremendous opportunity for our tribal court system to really bring into that process some of our traditional ways of resolving conflict. You hear a lot of tribes speak of a peacemaking court and so we don't have to necessarily engage in an adversarial process with tribal members, but you can actually promote some sort of peacemaking where people are, where we promote restitution and restorative kind of justice, which is more in line with our traditional values."

Ian Record:

"So we touched on this issue of political interference and bureaucracies. And I'm curious to get your thoughts about political interference in tribal jurisprudence. What are some of the impacts of political interference in court cases, for instance?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, obviously, you want your courts to be able to make decisions without any fear of consequence from an elected official, tribal council. You want them to be able to adjudicate matters in a way that is just and do so freely, and without any free of retribution from anybody. But unfortunately, in instances where council do get involved, it does create some hesitation on the part of tribal judges to really deal with matters as like they're trained to do. And unfortunately, the result of that is we've seen a lot of good judges come and go out of our court system. I think that, you know, your courts are, you have to have judges with good experience, if not law trained, with great, good experience, with sound awareness of tribal law, and some experience with handling a diverse number of matters. But you know, when you have this turnover of tribal judges because they end up not being able to stick around very long because they're doing their jobs properly. It's detrimental."

Ian Record:

"So you mentioned this issue of transparency with bureaucracies, and the delivery of services. Isn't that equally important when it comes to the administration of justice in Native nations?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Yes it is, and I think that there needs to be a sense of predictability when people come to, when they're coming to tribal court, there needs to be this sense that they know what to expect; there's not going to be this 'kangaroo court' process. And so, you know, we want to make sure that people know what to expect when they come into tribal court, that they know they're not going to have any surprises. And I think that's...that not only has an impact upon plaintiffs and defendants in tribal court, but here's another aspect of this, it affects who practices in tribal court, you know, because one of the things we lack in tribal court is sound advocacy. You know, we don't just want lay advocates practicing in our tribal courts. One thing that lends credibility to our tribal courts is the fact that a licensed attorney who practices regularly in state court and federal court has no hesitation to come and represent a client in tribal court. We want more participation from the state bar, wherever you're at, whatever state you're in, but we want more participation from lawyers and the state bar in tribal court, because what that does is it improves the perception of our court systems, it improves the advocacy in our court systems. And so you want that transparency, you want to know exactly what to expect when they show up in tribal court, that we have consistent, strong, civil procedures that we're going to follow, criminal procedures that we're going to follow, that there are going to be no surprises."

Ian Record:

"You know, it's interesting, we've been talking about tribal bureaucracies and tribal justice systems and a lot of the criteria or components you need for each to be effective are similar, are they not? And isn't it very difficult, for instance, to have one without the other? Specifically, in our experience, we're working with a number of Native nations and it's very hard to have an effective bureaucracy, for instance, if you have a kangaroo court system, as you talked about. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I think that it is very important that you have some predictability, that you have that infrastructure, legal infrastructure, if you will, a strong tribal code where people can have a remedy for whatever, an issue that they're, a legal issue that they're involved in, that there's good procedure that we follow. Bbut in addition to that, I think it's important that we have, that we document our case law, that we...and so people know what to expect. I've received calls from people that will say...practicing attorneys that are members of the state bar that will say, "˜Is there a case on point in your tribal court on the following issue?' I'd like to be able to respond, "˜Yes, and I can get you a copy of that opinion.' And I think that that's the transparency, that's the kind of infrastructure that you want, where people can say, "˜Okay, when I go to Cheyenne River and practice law, I know what to expect when I go there.' And so yes, it's absolutely...in fact, if it's...I'm not going to say it's more important, but it is absolutely, at least, equally important as it is...to have that, those types of infrastructure."

Ian Record:

"So, to generate that infrastructure, to create that infrastructure, that takes funding, does it not? And essentially, an approach on the part of elected officials, or those who set the budget of the nation, to treat it as not just another -- the justice system, the courts -- not just as another tribal department, but as kind of a stand-alone, larger, more encompassing branch -- that may not be the best word -- but branch or function, fundamental function of government, does it not?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"I think at least our tribal officials need to recognize our court system as a stand-alone entity that has a specific function, a very important function."

Ian Record:

"So you mentioned this need for tribes to ensure that the infrastructure's in place for the court system, the justice system overall to function effectively and essentially, act as the nation's protector, as its guardian. That infrastructure, achieving that infrastructure takes money, does it not? And perhaps a realization on the part of elected officials, or those who control the purse strings of the nation, to treat that system as more than just another department, but to actually treat it as a fundamentally critical function of government."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Right. And it takes time to educate and to help our elected officials understand that. And I don't think it's a matter of our elected officials not knowing that it serves an essential function of government, but I think that they have to understand and it takes time to educate them that what the courts do is so vital to tribal sovereignty, it is so vital to self-determination, it is so vital to us. You know, if we want to engage in any type of regulatory authority on the reservation, you know, our courts have got to be equipped to be able to carry out, you know, adjudicating any matter. And so yeah, it takes a while to get them to prioritize, I guess is what I'm trying to say, Ian. I think they understand that it serves an important function, but for them to understand that it should be up here on the fiscal or the financial fundraising list is another matter. So, sometimes it's just about...I would like to see elected officials just take a run through tribal court and just to see what they do on a day-to-day basis. I think you have committees and tribal council that obviously understand that and who hire judges and hire tribal attorneys and they're well versed in the importance of that. But unfortunately, when you look at the tribal budget, Ian, there's just so many other needs. And how do you say...it's like trying to pick your favorite child, so to speak. It's really hard. And so that is a problem with courts. And I think one way is to maybe look at some of the available federal funding that's out there, but again that takes planning. And it's being able to have that foresight to see when those opportunities are going to come down the pipe."

Ian Record:

"Isn't it important for the connection to be drawn not just for elected leaders, but also citizens that when you have a strong, effective, independent judicial system, that empowers you as a nation to tackle those other needs through restorative justice, through healing people, through healing families and things like that."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Yeah, and it does. I think people...the thing about the law is it doesn't get a lot of publicity. When a case is decided, even if it's an important, an appellate case in tribal court, when it's decided it doesn't get a lot of fanfare. The people that pay attention to it are people like myself, but as far as a general public, there may not be any publicity about an important case that our tribal court decided that's going to have some sort of ripple effect across Indian Country. But there is this general understanding by tribal members that the courts serve a special role, but I don't know if they really see the long-term effects of that. For example, Cheyenne River just had a case recently that went all the way to the Supreme Court. I don't know if people see that and how that impacts. And if that case would've been decided favorably by the United States Supreme Court that would've changed our civil jurisdiction authority over non-Indian people on the reservation. Unfortunately, it wasn't decided favorably, but it could've had that kind of impact. And so yeah, I think people are starting to see it more and more. And you mentioned some of the benefits. The other thing is when we have a solid court system and we have remedies, especially in civil matters, it does encourage things like economic development and corporations coming on to the reservation and things like that. So, and again it goes back to council. Is council willing to do a limited waiver of sovereign immunity so that these matters can be resolved in our tribal court? Because I think the courts are ready to do it. I think the court, I have a tremendous of confidence in our courts that they're willing to take on any issue. We have a very strong appellate court that's willing to hear these matters, but is our council...so I think that that appreciation for our court system, I think, really starts at the top. And I think our appreciation for any of this stuff and appreciation for improving tribal governments really starts at the top [with] your leadership.

Ian Record:

"You mentioned this issue of investment and the role of courts in that. How does a strong, independent justice system create an environment of certainty and competence for investors -- not just financial investors, but people willing to invest their own human capital in the nation and its future?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I think, you just...I think the main thing is that you want to be able to, the tribal court, you want to be able to have a statement that says, or a law that says, or a code that says that matters of dispute will be resolved in tribal court. And I know, people that come into contract with tribes, they want to be able to say that if we...if things don't work out with this specific contract, we want to be able to enforce this contract somewhere. And hopefully, we can say it can be resolved in tribal court. Like I said, I don't think it's a matter of the court not being able to handle those matters, but again, it's whether or not the tribes and the tribal council feeling confident enough to be able to open themselves up to that sort of court action."

Ian Record:

"I want to follow up quickly on this issue of sovereign immunity, and this is an increasingly critical topic. What we're seeing is more and more tribes approaching that issue strategically, whereas before it was kind of this blanket response of, "˜We don't want to waive sovereign immunity because we're sovereign,' as if those two things are the same. And more and more tribes are coming up with innovative approaches and doing exactly what you say. 'We'll waive our sovereign immunity through this contract into our own tribal court system.' Isn't it incumbent upon tribes to really approach that issue in a very calculated, deliberate manner of, "˜Okay, this is a tool that we can use, but it has to be used wisely'?"

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, and I think, to answer...I guess I'll answer it this way. Yeah, I do think tribes need to be very deliberate with that approach and I think maybe the reluctance would be again...you got to have a competent court though. And so what I think we're seeing with some tribes, they may -- I think we talked about it today -- some tribes have considered setting up a separate business court where you might have special judges come in and hear these matters. Because I think there's this perception in the outside world that either, you know, you're typical tribal court judge can't handle a very complicated, contractual issue. So set up a separate contract court where those issues are heard by a special judge that would come and hear those matters and is well-versed in that area of the law. So there are some very unique ways that tribes can try to address this and to improve the outsiders' perception of how we conduct business on the reservation."

Ian Record:

"I want to wrap up with I guess you would call it a personal question. Last year, you were selected to be a part of the first cohort of the Native Nation Rebuilders program, which is a program that was developed by the Archibald Bush Foundation out of Minneapolis in conjunction with the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. And I'm curious to get your thoughts on the program. You're almost a full year through the program now. I'm curious to get your thoughts on what the program is about, the potential for the program moving forward, and how it's empowered you to contribute to Indian Country."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I...first of all, it's just an honor to be a part of the program. It was an honor to be selected. And, you know, since I came on as a Rebuilder, you know, I've been through a couple trainings, which I thought were absolutely fantastic. I think our first training was tribal governance and, I think that, being able to participate in those courses, in those training courses, it just kind of gave me some hope that there are resources out there for tribal governments. I've been law-trained and I've taken courses in Indian law, tribal law and different other things pertaining to Indian Country. But a lot of -- like I said earlier -- a lot of our elected officials aren't well equipped to do their work. And I think a lot of our tribal officials could use a crash course in federal Indian law, a crash course in tribal bureaucracy, a crash course in tribal governance. And being a part of the Bush Foundation has exposed me to those resources and hopefully those resources -- more people will take advantage of them. My overall impression of being a Rebuilder is really is it's opened up doors, because I meet so many people from across, from other tribes. It's given me some good tools to do my work."

Ian Record:

"One quick follow-up: As part of this Rebuilders program, you were asked to go through a distance-learning course on Native nation building. I'm just curious to get your thoughts on that course and what it could bring to Indian Country."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Well, I think it's...I hope our elected officials take advantage of it. You did a really good job of putting it together, Ian, I know that you worked very hard on that. And, you know, it's easy to maneuver your way through the online course and the material is very well researched. But what I gained from it mostly was just hearing other tribal leaders and other members of tribes and citizens of tribal nations that are doing a lot of the same work that I'm doing. Hearing their stories. I think Joe Kalt said today that he's just kind of a pipeline, where he's gathering the stories and kicking them back out to Indian Country. And I think that's a good characterization of what Native Nations [Institute] is about and what the Bush Foundation is doing through the Rebuilder program. We're taking this information, we're funneling it through, we're getting it disseminated out to the people that need to hear it. And those stories are inspirational and if anything else, what it does is it says, you know, that nation building is taking place and it's being done very effectively."

Ian Record:

"Well, JR we really appreciate your time and thanks for joining us."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"Thanks, Ian. I appreciate it."

Ian Record:

"That's all the time we have for today's program of Leading Native Nations. To learn more about Leading Native Nations, please visit the Native Nations Institute's website at nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2011. Arizona Board of Regents."

NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Rae Nell Vaughn (Part 1)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, discusses the critical role that justice systems play in the rebuilding of Native nations and shares how the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has worked to develop its justice system to reflect and promote its culture and meeting the evolving challenges that it faces.

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow (Part 1)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 15, 2009. Interview.

Ian Record:

"What role do tribal justice systems play in rebuilding Native nations?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"It's been my experience that it plays a significant role in regards to tribal government. One thing that I have found within the 11 years of my judicial experience is the fact that tribal governments as a whole have had to play a role of catch-up, fast tracked. In regards to Mississippi Choctaw, we established our constitution in 1945 at a point in time where we were living in very oppressed conditions. Of course, as you know, historically the tribe was removed to Oklahoma and we're the descendants of the members that chose to stay. No federal or state recognition at that point up until the time of recognition and the development of our constitution, and it was a building process. You had a number of leaders who would step up and were wanting to form a strong government. Of course, the justice system itself came in years later, but overall they've had to try to fast track a government in order to provide the people with services, and it was a struggle, it was a definite struggle. And of course ultimately, a justice system was developed under the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], a court of regulations, a CFR [Code of Federal Regulations] court, and that had its challenges all on its own because you have the mechanisms but not the resources to provide law and order. And your reliance was on the BIA and it was a definite struggle during the early years of this system. You had a membership maybe at that time of close to 3,000 possibly.

Now going back historically, the membership dwindled down in the early 1900s to less than 1,000 because of the influenza epidemic and here we are in 2009 and have a membership of 10,000. And you talk about a flourishing economy at some point with the successes of this tribe, but you also talk about the population growth and with it coming the social ills and influences that impact a community. And so I've seen this system evolve, even prior to my interaction with it, becoming a judge. It's grown by leaps and bounds. They started off with a staff of maybe three: a tribal member judge -- when it was under the control of BIA -- and maybe one or two folks that also participated. And to this point, once...during my tenure as a judge, we were up to 32 employees. You had 11 members on the judiciary, which is so unheard of, but for me it was a signal from the government [that], 'This is important. A justice system for this government is important and we are investing in our government and in our people to provide them a fair form of justice.' Knowing where we're at, we're located in Mississippi, and the struggles that minorities have faced, Native people have faced, has always been there, an underlying issue. And so being able to have our people be in a forum that's fair for them, being judged by their peers was the most important thing. But also it was the fundamental exercise of sovereignty, operating a system, a judicial system, which not many tribes have had the ability to do and maybe not to the degree that we've been able to do it. That's not to say that there haven't been any challenges. There are, just like there are with any system, whether it's a tribal system or non-Native system, but it's a work in progress. Codes are forever changing and you have to keep your hand on...keep on the pulse of what's happening nationally because what happens nationally will ultimately affect you locally.

And so cases such as Nevada v. Hicks, issues of jurisdiction, those have far-reaching ramifications. So having a stable, consistent, and well-educated and well-trained judiciary is very important, and those are the things that I think tribal governments really have to take a look at and recognize the investment that you're making."

Ian Record:

"And I would assume that in that understanding of what's going on nationally, it's not just the judiciary that has to understand, it's elected leadership and particularly the legislators, the ones that are making those laws to say, "˜We've got to be out front on these issues so we're not stuck in a corner one day in the near future having to react defensively to something we're not prepared for.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly. We have to be proactive. It hits every area of government: economic development, education, healthcare. We have to be very diligent and we have to go the extra mile in making sure that we're protecting our sovereignty and at the same time being aware of what the landscape is looking like politically. There have been times in previous [U.S. presidential] administrations where they haven't been quite so favorable to Native Americans. And we may be here at a time of renaissance where there's going to be more participation, more of us as Native people at the table speaking on our behalves, on our own behalf. As a Native person, this is where I've been, this is what we've gone through and this is what we can do and this is what we want to provide for the people, because at times Native people get lost in the shuffle of all the social programs and issues that the federal government itself is dealing with. There are some tribes that are very fortunate to have the additional revenues to provide for their tribes and some aren't. How do we all work together to make sure that each of these tribes are able to have the type of support to be able to function and exercise as a government?"

Ian Record:

"Mississippi Choctaw's court system was recognized by the Honoring Nations program at the Harvard Project in American Indian Economic Development just a few years ago. And in large part it was recognized because of its ability to exercise or to be a vehicle for sovereignty for the nation. Based on your experience in that system, in that court system, I was wondering if you could speak to this issue of strong independent court systems and what those look like, what do those systems require to be effective?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"That's a very good question, because it's a challenge that all tribal court systems face. And let me say that the Honoring Nations program was such an excellent exercise for us, because as a system you're in the trenches every day and you don't realize the things that you're doing have such far-reaching impact. And so when we began this process of going through the rigors of the Honoring Nations project program, I was just so amazed. "˜We're doing so much here, we're looking at alternative resources and programs, we're trying to look at things more holistically versus using the American jurisprudence of dropping the gavel and that's it,' because we recognize that within Native communities we're going to be among one another. I'm not moving anywhere, you're not moving anywhere, we're staying in this community, and it's trying to ensure that we have healthy communities and using the justice system and possibly not just going before formal court, using our peacemaker court, using teen court, using our healing-to-wellness court, are other alternatives that are available to the membership and it goes back to our own Native teaching of who we are. We were never a people -- as with other tribes -- that all we wanted to do was fight amongst one another, but of course all of this takes place based on social influences and evolution of things and prosperity. And so going back to your question, it requires due diligence among both sides of the aisle, the legislative body, the executive as well as the judiciary. And it's a really hard balance because I'm a member of the community, I have children who attend the schools, I'm a voting member, I see people at the post office or at the grocery store, I attend ceremonies, I'm involved just as all the other judges are; simply because we put on a robe during the day doesn't mean that that robe ever really comes off, but we also have to be able to be participatory in our communities. And it is, it's a hard balance, even with your legislative body because we all know each other, we've all grown up with one another possibly or they've seen you grow up and know your mother and there's this tendency of picking up the phone and saying, "˜Hey, what's going on and do you know da da da da da?' And it is, it's a really hard balance because of the close ties and the close knitness of the community and it's that community mentality that you have. But we work diligently to ensure that the people recognize that this is a very independent justice system. Now granted, in the case of Mississippi Choctaw, we're a two-branch government. The court system is developed by statute and is controlled, maybe that's not a good word, but is under the oversight of the tribal council as well as the executive. There've been times where it's been challenging because you wear two hats. Not only are you a member of the judiciary, but you have to be an advocate for the system, and so there's that give and take, development of codes. How can I not be somewhat participatory in the development when I'm the one who uses that code in order to...we're creating law basically, and there are several instances where it's almost a gray area that you enter, but knowing what the spirit of the law is and where we are as a judiciary and what we're trying to accomplish I think speaks volumes because the people see the separation. And it's something that you have to work at every day. You just, you have to."

Ian Record:

"So in your role as advocate for the system in strengthening the system, do you find yourself compelled at certain points to say to the legislature, "˜Look, there's...I'm dealing with these...this area of jurisprudence, these types of cases are becoming more prevalent. There's nothing on the books that tells me how to interpret these cases. It's up to you to get out in front of this,' as you mentioned, "˜and develop law that I can then enforce in the court system?'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly. One case in point is the Tribal Notice Act and that's very important, especially if you have two parties coming in and there's an issue that could possibly have a detrimental impact on the tribe, maybe possibly in regards to jurisdiction. And the tribe needs to know; the tribe needs to be noticed. And so we worked towards getting that on the books and we were successful. And it's a mechanism or a code that's been used a number of times. And so things of that sort, because you recognize or the people recognize the legislative body and executive body, they're dealing with so many different issues from economic development, healthcare, education, housing. There's not one person or one area that they're focusing in on. So I would not be doing my duty if I didn't bring things to their attention that I think could provide betterment for the system and also protecting the people as well."

Ian Record:

"So you're also, in addition to your experience, your 11 years as you mention serving on the Choctaw judiciary, you've since...you left that, your tenure with the judiciary, and you've been working to evaluate other tribal court systems. And I was wondering if you could speak to this issue. We discussed this recently about some tribes, some tribal leadership not really treating the judicial function of their nation as an independent...as an independent function, as a true arm of the government, whether you want to call it a 'branch' or what have you, but rather treating it as a program. And we hear this a lot from particularly tribal judges who lament that fact that, "˜We're just considered another program.' I was wondering if you could speak to that issue and what you're seeing on the ground."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yeah. And it's not so much with the work that I'm doing, but additionally with my participation with the national organization, the judges association, as well as my own experiences with Mississippi Choctaw. There's the thinking that tribal court systems are more situated or in the organizational things as a program, and either we fund you or we don't or...there's not that understanding of the importance of justice systems and how in regards to economic development, justice systems are key. And a lot...I've heard so many war stories about how we are treated as -- I hate to use the term -- as stepchildren. We get the hand-me-down equipment, we get the little bits of whatever is additional that we can get in our budget, but what I found throughout my work and my experiences with the judiciary is the fact that there are so many good people out there in Indian Country, members of their own tribe who want to provide a forum, a fair forum for their people and they work diligently with what resources they have. Now if it was a perfect world and we were able to get all that we want, that would be ideal, but it's not and a number of tribes who don't have the additional resources struggle, and for some of these tribes it's a really challenging thing because you're also not only at the mercy of the government, but at the community as well and there...if you don't feel that support from your government, then obviously the community's not going to support you as well and those are some key things that have to happen is to have that support. 'Now you and I may argue here, but when we step out as a judiciary and as a government, we need to be unified, because each of us as a legislative body and as an executive body and whether we're a judicial branch or a statutory court, we still have to work and maintain as a stable government,' because if your leadership is bad mouthing your judicial system, what does that say of the leadership?"

Ian Record:

"What does that say to the outside world?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly."

Ian Record:

"So this issue of treatment by the leadership, by the community of the justice system as a program versus something more, among those tribes that tend to treat them as the latter -- just as a program -- aren't they missing the boat essentially on the importance of justice systems as a vehicle for not only advancing sovereignty, but also creating viable economies on the reservations and pretty much all around?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly, because a lender who is thinking about doing business with the tribe is going to ask, "˜I need to know about your court system. I need to know where litigation is going to take place,' and if they can't see a system that is stable and consistent, you're possibly missing an opportunity to bring strong economic development to your area and that's key. I think a lot that has to happen is education. Now again, I go back -- I recognize there's so much that tribal government has to do. They're overloaded, they're understaffed in some instances, and they're trying to do the best they can do, but at the end of the day it's important to make sure that each of your areas of government are strong and are working together and that's where your checks and balances are. It's basic civics."

Ian Record:

"One other issue we discussed recently was this issue of...this treatment of tribal justice systems as nothing more than programs may emanate in part from this sense of, "˜Well, that's where the bad things happen.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yes."

Ian Record:

"...That's where, kind of the social ills bubble up, that's where the kind of the underbelly of the community, the negative parts. "˜We don't want to deal with that. It's too painful,' or 'We don't...we're at a loss as to how to resolve these issues.' How do you get beyond that mentality? How do you get to a point where -- as you've told me -- where the people, the community, that the leadership will treat the justice system as a vehicle for not only restoring, as you say restoring health to the community, but also as a way to, for instance, teach the values of the people to say, "˜This is how we operate, this is how we resolve disputes.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"One of the bad things or the negative side of the judicial system is the fact that a lot of things happen in the well of that court and at the end of it all, "˜It's the court,' "˜It's the court's fault,' or whatever it may be because it's surfaced, it has bubbled up as you said, it's surfaced and there it is black and white, right there in the well of that court. And ultimately it's the judge and their discretion as how they rule or decide or what it is that they end up doing for that particular case, whether it be a habitual offender, whether it be a family in need, a juvenile delinquent, a vulnerable adult. All of the social ills of your community hits right there and it is challenging more so again for your legislative body and your executive because what do they do, what can they do? We've developed so many different social programs, but we're not going to cure every ill, and unfortunately a lot of those things surface through court. And as I shared with you earlier, that's why we were looking at, in regards to Mississippi Choctaw, of other alternatives. We recognize these are social illnesses. This is not working, going through formal court. Something has to happen and it also has to happen not only with the individual, but with the family: accountability, responsibility, bringing in the people who matter the most to you and who you value, who are your mentors or your grandparents, your minister, your family to sit down and talk with you, help you in a peacemaking-type situation, a circle of sorts. Healing to Wellness [Court] is set up in that very same way, that we have there at Choctaw where the offender comes in, meets with a group of multi-disciplinary team and there's a check, there's this constant check, and we've had so many success stories come through there. Is it 100 percent? No, it's not, and it probably will never be, but there is an alternative, and with the one case that you have a success in, [it] ripples out to the family, to the community, to the nation in regards to the offenses, health issues that may have come from it, all the different things. And that success just can only breed more success because if you have this individual whose gone through this process, you see the community, see that individual being successful and others who are coming before the court say, "˜I want to try that because I'm ready to make that change,' then there's that vehicle."

Ian Record:

"So I would assume under the CFR system, there's no way that you guys could have developed these restorative functions."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"There is no way, no."

Ian Record:

"So essentially by developing your own court system, by taking ownership of that critical function, you provided yourself the freedom to say, "˜What's going to benefit our community in the long run? What's the best way of doing things, because the status quo is simply not working.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"No, it's not working and it doesn't work in Indian Country. And what may work for Choctaw, what may work for the tribes in the east may not work for tribes in the southwest or in the west or in the northwest or in the midwest or northeast. It works for us and looking at the different models you can see things that will work. There's this term I use, "˜Choctaw-izing it' -- making it your own, bringing in Choctaw values, culture, customary law into this model and it works, and it works, and the people understand it. That's the thing, the people say, "˜Hmmmm, yes, I know what you're talking about.'"

Ian Record:

"So can you give me just a...you mentioned this term 'Choctaw-izing' it. Can you give me one example, maybe one case of how the court system applied a core value of the Choctaw people to essentially try to bring that restoration to the community?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"As I shared with you earlier, we have a teen court process and in that process the individual, the juvenile delinquent goes through the formal youth court system. Teen court is more of a sentencing type court, but the uniqueness of it is they are judged, are sentenced by their peers, other teenagers in the community. We had a particular instance where there was this child who of course offended, committed a crime against the tribe, was found delinquent. The case wasn't or the offense wasn't to the level of the judge issuing the sentence so he transferred it to teen court and it went through the process, but the uniqueness is -- and this is where the cultural aspect came in -- is we had the judge bring the mother and the grandmother and auntie because we are a matrilineal society. And before the sentence was rendered by the peers, by the jury, the women stood up and they talked and they talked with both sides of the parties who were there -- because this was a boyfriend-girlfriend, teenager-type thing -- and how it was important to respect your family, respect your parents, to listen, and if that wasn't the most empowering thing along with their peers giving them the sentencing, I don't know what would be. It was so powerful and moving. And let me tell you, people sat up and took notice and you gave respect, you listened. And that's one instance where that...we were able to have that and that was just such a learning tool for our young people to sit there and go through that and to listen. Even though they weren't the offenders, but they knew exactly, they knew exactly. It was almost like a reawakening. "˜I know this, but we don't do it all the time,' and like, "˜Whoa!'"

Ian Record:

"So in that instance, the court was not even an intermediary between the community, the culture, and the issue at hand. They were actually just a mechanism for connecting those two."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Facilitating just basically, just putting those people and things together. And it's...one thing of...and when I first entered the court system I served as a youth court judge. And the one thing I would tell our kids, when they'd come before the bench and with that attitude, being rebellious, and "˜You can't tell me what to do,' is, "˜The offense you've committed, you think maybe committed against this particular individual or this particular family or to the school, vandalism, whatever.' I said, "˜But you're not hurting those particular individuals, you're hurting the tribe, and in essence you're hurting yourself. So what has to happen here is you have to make this right and you're making it right at the end of the day for yourself.' And for some kids it didn't click, of course being rebellious and angry and everything, but for some it did. They understood. And again, you never really had a lot of successes. You had some successes and statistically Native American Country and as well as in dominant society you knew that there were higher chances of your young people moving into the adult system, but we tried very hard and that's why we were looking at all these other alternatives. Many Native communities have such small memberships, and so when you have a lot of delinquency going on, number-wise it may not appear to be a lot, but there on the ground it's epidemic and that's one of the things governments need to recognize and why it's such an important thing to make sure that you're supporting and investing in all of these types of things that keep your system, your justice system strong, consistent and stable."

Ian Record:

"So what do you see as the major challenges facing tribal jurisdiction today?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, my goodness. That's something that tribes are facing all the time and it's amazing to me how we do have the jurisdiction that we do have. There have been challenges locally, and as I'm trying to think back here, we've had a number of cases that we've dealt with ourselves at Mississippi Choctaw where you have a civil matter that came before the court and they were running concurrently with the circuit court, the federal court. And it was an issue concerning a, it wasn't a loan company, a bank, it was a bank and a big problem with a salesperson going into the community and of the lender reneging of sorts -- just a really basic background of that case. And tribal members who had signed up for this service, which I believe was a satellite case, then did a class action against the lender. The party then went to the federal court, the federal court in turn sent the case back telling the parties that, "˜You have to exhaust tribal jurisdiction before you can even attempt to make it here,' which I think said a lot for not only our tribe, but for tribes in Indian Country to have a federal court say, "˜You have to exhaust all remedies before you even make it here.' Now you and I both know that that's not commonplace and I think that sent a very, very big message. Why would that have ever been decided? I think a lot of it had to do with the court itself because it was a functional court, it is a functional court, renders opinions, clear decisions and it's consistent. And I think that had a lot to do with why we were able or the federal court made the decision it made.

Now Indian Country, tribes in Indian Country are constantly faced with issues of jurisdictions and I can't speak so much for these other tribes, but just from the readings I've seen and in the issues that I've heard about, it's constant. For example, I know that there was a tribe in California that had the state come in wanting to look at employment records. If that wasn't a clear crossing of the line, a failure of respect of another sovereign, I don't know what is and that's clearly overstepping jurisdictional lines. But those types of things happen and that's where you really have to, as a government, make sure that you have the type of legal representation for yourself to protect you as a tribe because you have it coming from every angle, from every area of wanting to chip away at what jurisdiction you do have. It's bad enough that we don't have criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians and as a gaming tribe there's a lot of issues that we have to deal with and we're at the mercy of the county or we're at the mercy of the federal government and its system. It makes no sense to me. Logically, we know when, I know when I cross the boundary and I go into Philadelphia, if I commit a crime, I'm going to be dealt with in Philadelphia court. It's a no-brainer. And this is an issue that's been talked about time and time again. I know I'm not going to change it, but I'm going to give you my two cents. It sucks, it's not productive and there are people who agree. There are people on the outside who do agree that you should have the ability to incarcerate, to judge any individual who commits a crime, an offense against the tribe or this jurisdiction. And we don't have that ability. And then you have the civil jurisdiction, which is always being tested and it's just so important that when we have issues that come up through tribal court systems that as a judiciary you're giving well-thought-out opinions and it's iron-clad so that you can't...it won't be unraveled and then there you go, you've lost more jurisdiction."

Ian Record:

"And it's not just making the decisions, it's actually documenting those decisions and having those ready in an accessible fashion, and that's where it's important to build the system of justice not just have judges making decisions."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, exactly. You're exactly right because you have a lot of these systems that are in varying degrees of development and I am a big believer of having tribal members sitting on the court. Unfortunately, you don't have enough people who come to the court, come to the bench with a legal background. I'm not law trained. And so it's challenging and it's a struggle. Fortunately, our tribe made investments of having individuals on the bench with the juris doctorate providing us with legal technical consultation so that we're not standing there twisting in the wind, "˜Well, what do we do?' And so we're able to have this body of law, opinions that come from this court, that are guiding tools for not only us as a tribe, but also for other tribes should they wish to use it. I know that there are different companies or organizations who collect all of these opinions across Indian Country, which is good so that there is a body of law for other tribes to go in and take a look at and look at precedent and things of that sort. And we need more of that, but what we also need to do is be able to reach out and get this information to people. As I said earlier, you have a number of people whose systems are at varying degrees, tribes whose systems are at varying degrees and there are times where I think we do a disservice. Again, I am a big proponent for having tribal members on the bench, but you also have to be able to have someone there who is knowledgeable and can understand law, the analysis, the logic and to be able to generate really good opinions and good decisions. Are we right all the time? No, not necessarily, even those who have the jurisprudence isn't right all the time, but it's based on interpretation."

Ian Record:

"So it's really important then for tribes to invest in capacity in not only of people...tribal members who eventually will be judges, but also those clerks and other people in law enforcement."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Because let me tell you, those clerks are down on the ground doing all the work and there have been instances where I have seen they have ultimately become judges and they come in with all the knowledge of working every facet of that system in the sense of dealing with attorneys, looking at orders. It's amazing to me. Some of these clerks that I've talked with in my travels would say, "˜Yeah, I knew that wasn't what needed to happen.' It's just amazing the knowledge, the experience they gain and I have seen many instances where some of these clerks did step up or were appointed to serve as a judge and made excellent judges because they had the hands-on training and going through the process of the documentation, the order development and things of that sort. So it's key, it's very key in regards to having strong judges training and education."

Ian Record:

"So backing up a bit to what you were discussing a few minutes ago and this issue of...essentially, what you were talking about was transparency and jurisprudence, that it's not enough just to make decisions. You have to make sure that those decisions are clear, that they're open to not only the citizens of the nation, but to the outside world and that they're understandable and that they're accessible. Is that what Mississippi Choctaw has done? Is that what you're seeing other tribes starting to do? Are more nations really beginning to understand the importance of transparency in jurisprudence?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"For Mississippi Choctaw, yes, it's something that we strive for; it's not cloak and dagger, it's no big secret. Whatever decision is rendered and the opinion is generated, we had a procedure where we informed all arms of government, especially if it was something that was very critical, maybe a jurisdictional issue, something that would affect the tribe. They received notice, they received a copy of the opinion, and then in general opinions that were generated from the Supreme Court, that's 101. You need to get them to see this and also there may be messages in these opinions that say, "˜Look, this is how we ruled, but if we don't make changes to the body of the law that we have, we're going to hit this time and time again. You might want to think about it, but we're not telling you...we're not changing the law, we're not going to change this piece of legislation, but we want you to think about it.' And so it is, transparency is important. Again, going back to the issue of where tribal courts are and the varying degrees they are, those more established courts such as Navajo Nation have a large body of opinions and a body of law there that you can...I tap into it. I've tapped into that as well as Eastern Band of Cherokee -- your bigger, more established systems. And so you have that transparency there, but again it goes back to where the systems are in development."

Ian Record:

"I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about an ever-present dynamic in tribal jurisprudence and that is tribal politics and there's a reason why you're laughing. I assume you know exactly what I'm talking about."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"It's the bullseye right there."

Ian Record:

"But I wanted to get your sense of what you've seen in terms of the impacts of political interference in tribal jurisprudence and dispute resolution and essentially how far-reaching those things can be."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"There are many tribes that face this very question of political interference. And it's a hard line to walk, it really is. I think a lot of it has to do with who you are as a person and your integrity and what you yourself are willing to allow and not allow. And at the end of the day, just like I tell my children, "˜If it's an issue that you're really passionate about and you know this is what you need to do, sometimes you're standing by yourself,' and as judges that's ultimately what we end up doing is end up there standing by ourselves and telling whomever it may be, "˜No, you cannot cross this line.' Are there ramifications for those choices? Yes, in some instances there are. And that's unfortunate because of the messages that it sends not only to your community, but -- again as we talked about earlier -- to the outside world. If an individual makes a decision and in the eyes of the government it's perceived as a bad decision and it possibly wasn't in favor of what they wanted and they make sweeping change, who is going to want to step up and serve if there's the possibility of failing to comply or abide by what they're wanting. When you step up and become a judge, all of what you may have supported or your political views all fall by the wayside. Your primary concern is the interpretation of law, dealing with that case that's before you, that's it -- not what the politics are because they cannot be influential, they cannot be influential to what you're doing because if that's the case, then why have a court? Why not let the tribal council run the court? They want to, I know they do, but it's again checks and balances and the maintaining of independence. And I see it time and time again. I've heard so many war stories."

Ian Record:

"Yeah, we see some tribes that still have, particularly with those tribes that have Indian Reorganization Act systems of government where the standard constitution said, "˜The council can create a court system as it sees fit,' essentially and..."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, in our code it does state that. It says, "˜If funds are available,' and I thought, "˜Well, what does this mean?' But for the time that that code was developed, that's again going back to, "˜Well, is this is a system or is this a program?' It's clear even in our general provisions, "˜If funds are available, we will operate this court.'"

Ian Record:

"Yeah, some of those IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] systems you still see to this day where the root of appeal of a tribal court decision is back to the council."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"And we do have that in Choctaw in some instances. Example, if there's an election challenge the court has no...there's no venue in our area. It goes directly to the tribal council once it goes through the election committee. And there is a valid challenge then it's ultimately the tribal council which makes the decision whether to say, "˜Yes, this is a void election or no, it's not.'"

Ian Record:

"You mentioned a few minutes back the messages that are...the very clear messages that are sent when there is political interference and tribal jurisprudence and I was wondering if you'd maybe perhaps talk about that a little bit more specifically because you mentioned messages not only to the community but to the outside world. What kind of messages do those send when you do see that political interference? And perhaps how does that impact the tribe in the long run?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Oh, yes. It does not put tribal government in a very good light when you have that type of interference. Sometimes it comes across as being more of a dictatorship versus a democracy. It really makes greater society doubt in the ability of that government of being able to provide for the people true leadership. And I know as a sovereign nation there have been other tribes and this is just from my travels and visiting with other jurisdictions and sharing war stories. We are under such a microscope, not only the judicial system, but the overall tribal government in Indian Country. We are constantly being held at an even higher standard. Yes, we need to be at a high standard, yes, but it appears when there's just a small hiccup or a small misstep it's magnified 100 times. "˜Well, you see, that's why we don't deal with that tribe,' for whatever reason it may be and it could be miniscule, but for the outside world it's like waiting. They're lying in wait for you to trip and fall. Choctaw itself has had its ups and downs. There's not a tribe that hasn't. We've seen successes, we've seen challenges, but we continue to persevere because of our membership. We're not going anywhere. At one point we were the third top employer of the State of Mississippi providing economic development, providing income for this state and that speaks volumes. Now we're dealing with the issues of the economy, the national economy and the effects that it's having on our tribe and we're having to act and react to those things and it's not been favorable, but we also have to be sustainable for our people and there are hard decisions that we have to make and we've made those decisions, rightly or wrongly, whatever may be perceived on the outside world, as a sovereign we have to maintain for the people."

Ian Record:

"You mentioned this issue of outsiders are looking very closely at what tribes do and in many respects they're waiting for tribes to mess up and using it as an excuse to say, "˜Okay, either we don't want to deal with them or they shouldn't have sovereignty,' whatever it might be. And I think that's really where court systems are critical because in many respects they're the most tangible connection, the most visible reflection of what tribes are doing and what tribe's abilities are, what their capacity is, how they make decisions. Is that something you've experienced at Choctaw?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, very much so, very much so. We've been fortunate. Legal communities -- whether it's on the reservation or off reservation -- are small and word of mouth is very powerful. People know what's going on, whether they're on the reservation or not, they know what's going on and it's really key on how you bring these people in and how you...and also educating, educating them about what we are and who we are as a sovereign nation. One of the things that we provide as a system is a form of a bar meeting and providing them training, bringing to them things that are happening on the national level, educating them, and that's key -- going out and educating. And that's a lot of what I did as well during my time with the court. I've gone to Harvard, to Southern, to University of Southern Mississippi, to the University of Mississippi Law School, to Mississippi State [University], to a lot of the local universities within the state to talk about this very system. And they're so amazed at one, we're not just this casino that they see talked about on TV. Secondly, that there is a functional government, but what they're also very surprised at going back to what we've talked about earlier is the fact that there is no jurisdiction over non-Indians and that's always been the big, "˜Ah ha. Are you kidding me? How can that be if we're in this country of the land of the free and our constitution, our U.S. Constitution,' but that's what the cards we're dealt with. And that's how fragile these systems and governments are because I'm sure if the federal government wants to, and again looking at how governments are exercising their sovereignty or lack there of, they would be more than willing to come in there. It just says that we have to provide you with health and education, but it doesn't really say to what degree so I can...you'll take what I give you and that's where as sovereign nations we really have to be diligent about our exercise of government and of our sovereignty. We have to be. I know I sound like this...I sound like this caped crusader, "˜We've got to be. Somebody has to be at the gate and it's going to be me,' but there needs...there really needs to be more development of people who understand public service of giving back to the people and we've got to cultivate that."

Ian Record:

"So you've made references to the incredible growth of the Mississippi Choctaw's economy over the past several decades and I'll ask you a very blunt question. Could Mississippi Choctaw when it comes to economic development be where it is today if they, for instance had what's often referred to as a 'kangaroo court'?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"The short answer, no, I don't believe they could be. This system was and is, continues to be an evolving system and I think with the right leadership it was determined that there are certain things we're going to have to put in place in order to be successful and strengthening the court system was one of them. This system was taken into management of the tribe in 1985 and was operating with a very skeletal group of people and then they expanded the service. And then in 1997 there was another reorganization where they developed very distinct divisions of court. This would give the system the capacity to handle all civil matters. We had well over 1,000 people working for the tribe in the hospitality portion of it and of the industrial arm of it. The majority of these people were non-Indian. Where are civil actions going to take place? In our court if they're working for this tribe. You also had, once gaming came into play and tribal members were receiving per capita, a rush of people wanting to enroll and so our enrollment jumped by leaps and bounds from 3,000 to 4,000 to almost 10,000. And so you had to have the ability to handle all the issues that come with the economic growth and the court system and law enforcement are the people that deal with a lot of the day to day issues that come with that prosperity."

Ian Record:

"So in many ways the court system is the primary vehicle for managing growth for tribes."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I would say so. People may disagree but I would say so."

Ian Record:

"So I wanted to ask you a bit more about this issue of justice systems and how they maintain stability in law and order and how does that... how does the justice system at Choctaw provide that for the people?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, we've been fortunate that the tribe has taken over, like I said earlier, management of the law enforcement division. It's now the Department of Public Services, as well as the court system itself. The tribe itself has also contributed to our legal community and I include law enforcement in that and detention as well by providing legal counsel for the tribe. We have an attorney general's office that's set up as well as a legal defense, which is the equivalent of legal aid for individual tribal members and so we have a pretty diverse legal community there. This provides for the community, for the people the ability to be represented within our system, but not only within our system, should there be issues that occur off reservation they have the ability to use legal defense to represent them as well in issues such as maybe child support type issues if it's a non-Indian and Choctaw union and the marriage dissolved and there are challenges and things may end up taking place off reservation for whatever reason. Also, the ability if they need counsel in federal cases as well because you know as well as I do that there's always challenges there where the level of adequacy of representation at the federal level. We've seen time and time again where Native people have just not had proper representation, which also dovetails into the additional work that I do as a commissioner for the Mississippi Access for Justice, ensuring that all people have the ability to have legal representation for their issues. But for the people, just knowing that there's law enforcement, there's a police officer there who is not out there on his own. There's a strong department and when I call I know they'll be here not in three hours, maybe within 30 minutes or 15 minutes depending on the location because we are managing our own law enforcement. What does that say for the greater communities? We're able to assist them as cross-deputized officers, peace officers, to assist them with whatever issues may be taking place. Again, going back to jurisdictional issues, there's always, "˜Well, where are we? Are we on Choctaw land or are we on county land? Where are we?' And so it's a tough call at times. Sometimes somebody has to pull the map out and say, "˜Yeah, well, here's the line.' And so it speaks volumes as to partnerships that have to be developed and strengthened to show stability, for them to see the stability of this system. And it spills over even into the court. We had an instance where there was an issue off reservation with two tribal members being dealt with in the county court and the court was familiar with our peacemaking, Itti Kana Ikbi, court, our traditional form of court. And he called up our peacemaker and said, "˜Look, I have this issue here. I think that it should be better resolved...it could be better resolved with you and peacemaking.' That is unheard of for a county court to turn its jurisdiction over to a tribal court. Even I was taken aback. But societies are changing and there are times of tension in race relations, yes, we recognize that. And to see something like that happen only proves more to me that we as a people, not only tribal members, but as people are changing and recognizing that we are just as capable as our counterparts are and that also signals stability."

Ian Record:

"I think in that particular instance, part of to me is them probably saying, that county court judge saying, "˜Hey, those guys do things, they do it right, they... yes, they have their own systems, their own principles that they administer justice on, but they do it consistently, they do it fairly and I have confidence in turning this over knowing that they'll resolve this dispute in a good way.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And so that generated even more conversation and we have a very good rapport with the county courts and so there have been times where other issues, other instances have taken place, but that was just the turning point. And to be quite honest, I never would have thought I would have seen things like that happen in my lifetime. There's always been this sense of separation and I'm sure it is with other Indian tribes. "˜You're the Indian tribe, you're over there. Here we are metropolitan society. You do your own thing and we'll do our own,' but we're all members of the community, of our communities, and it's being able to interact with one another and working for the greater good of the entire people because don't forget, it's the people who are living outside that are probably working for the tribes on the reservation. So there has to be, whether they like it or not, there has to be a relationship."

Ian Record:

"Yeah, we hear this more and more often, this refrain from tribal leaders of, Native nations aren't islands and they can't act like there are. They can't exercise their sovereignty in isolation, that for them to advance their strategic priorities they're going to have to, of their own volition, build these working relationships with other sovereigns, with other jurisdictions, with other governments, with other municipalities in order to advance their priorities and create a better community."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly, and I think that's what has been the successes of what has created an environment of success for our tribe, for Mississippi Choctaw, has been those relationships whether it's local, state or federal, having those relationships not only within your executive branches and legislative branches, but also within your judiciary. Maybe I was in the judiciary the fifth year of my tenure and I had the opportunity, and it was such a very moving moment, when I had the Chief Justice of the State of Mississippi and his associate justice come down. He came down to Choctaw and sat down and had a conversation with me, the Chief Justice of Choctaw Supreme Court, his counterpart to talk about, "˜How can we help one another?' And that's something that is...I couldn't even imagine that happening. And I shared with him... and we got to know one another and we've become good friends and I said, "˜It had to do with the people and the timing.' Everything just came and lined up and it worked. And so we were able...and we have and we've continued that relationship even with the new Chief Justice, that there continues to be and as well as my new counterpart, there continues to be this continuation of the relationship and it has to be. And it's good that it's now recognized."

Ian Record:

"A couple more questions here. This issue of...getting back to the issue of when you have a justice system creating this environment of stability, of law and order, of certainty, of essentially offering a fair forum for the resolution of disputes where people feel that, "˜If I need to go have a case heard, whether I'm an offender or the one that's the victim in this case, that it will be resolved or adjudicated based on the merits of that case.' Doesn't that send a pretty powerful message to not just those outside investors, but also to your own people that, "˜Hey, this is a place where I can come or I can remain and invest my time, invest my resources, invest my skills, my ideas and the future of the nation.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"One thing that I know people struggle with is understanding the system and once you enter in and begin going through all the different processes, they then realize how difficult it is to go through the court system per se. And it may have been designed specifically for that, because you certainly don't want frivolous actions coming before the court. You certainly don't want a manipulation of the system and so it's holding all parties accountable. And the messages that it sends to the people, I would hope, and that was always our hope, was that, "˜You will receive fairness here when you walk through these doors. You will see an individual there who is going to render justice, whether it's on your behalf or not, whether it's for you or it's not.' Of course when the person fails to get the decision they want, you have that as well. But I know that in my dealings with the legislative body, they recognize it as well and at times you have to let the community member vent. They're also your constituents and so you've got to let them vent, but also talking them through, "˜Well, this is what it is but you also have the ability to appeal,' which is the beauty of it all. There is still another forum to go to if you're dissatisfied and if it's a true error of law, then you do have another venue to go to. In some instances, most tribes don't have that luxury."

Ian Record:

"Several years ago we were talking with Norma Gourneau, she was...at the time she was the vice chair at Northern Cheyenne, and they were dealing with this issue of...the court judges were just getting steamrolled by councilors every time...they were having a big issue for instance with automobile repossessions by off reservation dealerships and these off reservation dealerships would get a default on a car loan, they'd come on the reservation to get the repo order enforced so they could actually come on the reservation and pick up the car. The tribal member who was in default would go to a council member and say, "˜Oh, I need my car.' The council member would lean on the judge, the judge would rule on the tribe's behalf. Before long nobody's selling cars to tribal members. And so what she said was they put a fix in there. They did a constitutional reform, they insulated the court from political interference and she said, "˜What I found was I had a lot more...I found myself empowered because I wasn't dealing with those issues anymore. I could now...I wasn't putting out those fires of having to interfere in the court system so now I could focus on what was really important for the tribe, which was where are we headed, where are we going and how do we get there?' Is that...do you see that as an important dynamic to have when the court system is insulated from that essentially liberates elected leaders to focus on those things?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I wish there was more of a way to make that happen for all of us because we all deal with those...again, it goes back to what we talked about earlier -- political interference -- and again it's up to you as an individual of your integrity whether you allow it or not. Yes, they can be pretty quick to apply pressure on you. Yes, we've dealt with those types of things. It was always astonishing to me when a vendor would call and say, "˜Well, this is happening and I'm not getting service, I'm not getting the court system to react quickly enough.' And our council would be so quick to step up for those vendors and I'm like, "˜You have to allow the process to take its paces. It has to go through its paces. You can't speed anything up for anyone in particular. It doesn't matter, it just does not matter.' But yes, we have experienced in the past where because you had a number of tribal members defaulting on a lot of things, businesses begin then questioning, "˜Well, do I really want to do business with a Choctaw?' Not so much about the judicial process itself, but if I'm not going to be getting my money back or if I'm not going to get paid for whatever service I render, is it worth my time? Which is a much bigger question, but going back to insulating yourself, we as a judiciary, as many judiciaries, have canons of ethics and it depends on what those things mean to you. The legislative body as well as the executive body, unfortunately in our instance, don't have canons of ethics and...but those are to me things that are internal. You should have those types of ethics. You should know that it's not proper to go to the judge to say, "˜Change your decision.' It's not proper. You would feel...if there were clear lines of language that said, "˜No, you cannot approach the court,' then the atmosphere would be different. The atmosphere would be very different. Yes, there are tensions, there are questions, "˜Well, what's going to happen with the impact of this decision I've made? How is that going to affect possibly my appointment? Will I still be here in four years?' But if there were that...if there was the ability to have that happen where language could be developed and there were clear separations, you would be able to be in a position to judge more effectively without the fear of repercussion. You would. It's bad enough you have a lot of other things that you have weighing on you as a judge, to have that extra layer put on you and the sad thing is it's your own people, these legislative members are also your members, members of your community and of your tribe. I've heard one councilman tell me...he told me once, there was a case that was being dealt with and he was insistent on trying to get involved, to come in. And I said, "˜It's clear in the code, you can't stand as an advocate. It's clear in the code that you cannot post bond for this...bail for this individual.' And he would tell me real quick, "˜Well, out in this county I'm able to call the judge and da da da da da.' And I said, "˜Well, you know what, that's that court system, not here.' Needless to say, he wasn't my friend anymore, but that's the whole point of it. It's where your integrity lies and you have to. But again, it's also educating, educating the legislative body because of the evolution, the changes of a justice system, what justice systems mean, fairness and that, "˜No, you can't go and ex parte the judge.' It's about fairness and not so much about control. And that's the problem, it is an issue of control."

Ian Record:

"So the tribal code for Choctaw prohibits elected officials from, I guess, involving themselves in court cases in certain respects."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, that's correct. If I as a tribal member would ask a councilman to come in to serve as an advocate or a speaker on their behalf of sorts, it's not allowed. They're not allowed to post bail or bond for anyone. It's right there in black and white, but they still continue to try to do that. I've always told my staff, the judges, when we look at the canons of ethics, "˜It's there to protect you so use it,' tell them that this is what the canons of ethics tell us in regards to appearance of impropriety, of political influence and things of that sort. That's what it's there for. And it's a struggle, it is a struggle and this is something that I know a lot of tribes face, a lot of judges face. It's a hard...it's a hard line to walk because again you are a member of the community, you do not have the ability to blend in with the general populace. It just doesn't happen. Like I said, for our tribe, we're a membership of almost 10,000. We have on the reservation over 6,500 people."

Ian Record:

"Do you think part of it, when elected leaders feel that impulse to interfere on behalf of a constituent, that they maybe haven't gone through the paces perhaps as you've termed it to think, "˜What's the long-term implication of my action here? Because I might be helping,' because that's their feeling, "˜I'm helping this person. I'm helping this person, but am I really helping the nation in the long run because this is going to be the ramifications of this. There's a ripple effect to what I'm doing.'"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, and you're exactly right. I know in some instances their intentions are good, their intentions are good, they do want to help their constituent. They feel that someone needs to step up for them, someone needs to represent them, and maybe for whatever reason the different programs may not be able to help that particular individual, for instance, a vulnerable adult, an elderly person who may be being taken advantage of with his grandchildren taking the monthly check. And so I can see that, but when you don't allow the process to happen and if you don't follow the letter of the law, then the messages that it sends out is that, "˜Well, you can change the rules whenever you want,' and you can't do that. The rules are the rules for everyone, whether you're the community member, whether you're a member of the council, whether you're the chief, the rules are the rules. And although some people may think they might be able to change those rules; that's where the strength of your judiciary is the test not to allow those things to happen. I know within...in Indian Country those things happen where they're tested all the time. Like we talked earlier about jurisdictional issues, everyone is coming at you from different angles and let me tell you, being...living the life of a judge is not an easy thing. It's rewarding at times because you're providing a service to the people, the successes that you see make it worth all that you have to go through, but the political side of it can be at times very disheartening, very discouraging because you're having to deal with this mountain of things that are coming at you and you're trying to do the best you can do for your system. And sometimes people just don't see it the way you see it and it's trying to reach consensus with people, to get them on your side, get them to understand. Education, it's...it always goes back to education, teaching the membership, teaching the legislative body what these systems are all about and how important it is because at the end of the day that's going to be what makes you successful as a people, as a community. For me, it's always been my philosophy that tribal courts are the guardians of sovereignty. It's our job to make sure that we protect this sovereign through the well of the court, through this legal system and it's something that when you take on this judgeship, it's not about the notoriety, it's about what you provide, what you bring to the bench and the protection of the sovereign. That's the bottom line of all of this." 

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "What Strong, Independent and Legitimate Justice Systems Require"

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Native leaders and scholars discuss what Native nations need to do to create strong, independent and culturally legimate justice systems.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Fineday, Anita. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 5, 2010. Interview.

Jorgensen, Miriam. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Spearfish, South Dakota. Apil 19, 2011. Interview.

LaPlante, Jr., Leroy. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

Laverdure, Donald "Del". Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. August 12, 2010. Interview.

McCoy, John. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Interview.

Tatum, Melissa L. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. January 25, 2012. Interview.

Vaughn, Rae Nell. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 15, 2009. Interview.

Yazzie, Robert. "Why the Rule of Law and Tribal Justice Systems Matter" (Episode 3). Native Nation Building television/radio series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy and the UA Channel, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2006. Television program.

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

“I think a strong, independent tribal justice system, first of all, is tribal. I think that it should be tribal in the sense that it knows how to deal with tribal issues. And yet it’s diverse enough to handle and adjudicate all matters that come before it. I think you should have competent judges. I think that you should have strong advocacy for clients. And it must have a way of measuring its performance. But yeah, a strong tribal system should be tribal in nature. In other words, what I mean by that is, it shouldn’t just be a boilerplate replication of what a state court looks like and promulgate those laws. But those laws should be traditional in nature. It should reflect our customs. It should reflect our customary law, our traditional laws, and we should know how to deal with those and inject those viewpoints into our decisions.”

Melissa L. Tatum:

“I don’t think I could draw you a picture of a strong and independent court system, because they can take so many different shapes and many different forms. I can tell you what the support beams are, and then the way the drywall and the paint and the decorating is going to be different. And the support beams may be put together in a different way to form shapes for different tribes. But you’ve got to have an independent judiciary, you’ve got to have the funding to be able to resolve the disputes, you’ve got to have someone to make a connection between the past and the present, and you’ve got to have the capacity to solve the disputes the community brings before you in a way that everybody accepts as legitimate. And that’s what a strong and independent court system looks like. Now that may be a peacemaker system, that may be an Anglo-style adversarial court, that may be a hybrid of the two. That may be, you know, the court may be in a single-wide trailer; the court may be in the most absolutely beautiful, technologically up to date building. But it can take a wide variety of forms. Its function is what’s critical.”

Miriam Jorgensen:

“I think that we oftentimes trip immediately to saying, ‘Oh, that justice system has to be a sort of Western-style court system.’ And in fact, I almost always find myself using the word court. But, it doesn’t have to be a court with the judges and robes and the bench and all that kind of stuff. It has to be a dispute-resolution mechanism that’s effective and efficient and transparent about the way decisions are made, and that can hold people to those decisions. But it can be as indigenous as you like. It just has to be one that works to meet those standards.”

Donald “Del” Laverdure:

“I think it needs independent decision-making authority without political interference, first and foremost. Secondly, I think it needs to be fully funded. My experience among tribal justice systems -- and I have served on a handful and also helped create a number -- is that they need the funding to have the staff, the clerks, the recorders, the people keeping track of the files. It’s absolutely critical for all of the day-to-day functioning. The third thing, I think, for them is to apply that nation’s law according to how they view it. And I think the Navajo Nation really has emerged as a leader in fundamental or Diné  law in their statutes, interpretation of those, and it’s widely accepted by the community. I think we’re making steps there. It’s always two steps forward, one step back. And I think if we have all of those markers that it’ll be the institution that we need to be independent and stable.”

John McCoy:

“They have to be independent. They have to be independent and not worry about political consequences. So consequently at Tulalip, the court system comes in, here’s the budget. So normally, without hesitation, they say, ‘Okay, here’s your money.’ They can’t tell them how to spend it; they just give them the money. And then the court administration then takes care of the budget. So you have to give them that autonomy.”

Anita Fineday:

“Well, you need to have a few things. Number one, you need to have independence from the tribal council, from all elected officials, whoever they may be. And this is a struggle in Indian Country, as we all know. It routinely happens that tribal judges are replaced if they issue a decision that is really unpopular. And so the tribal court needs to be independent, and it needs to have adequate funding. That’s the other thing that happens is I’ve seen tribal councils say, ‘Well, we’re not going to get rid of the judge, but we’re going to cut off all funding to the tribal court.’ So no one is getting paid any longer. So you need to have an independent stream of funding. You need to be independent of the elected officials. And you need to not fear that if you issue a decision that’s unpopular, that you’re going to lose your job.”

Rae Nell Vaughn:

“It’s just so important that when we have issues that come up through tribal court systems, that as a judiciary you’re giving well thought-out opinions, and it’s ironclad so that you can’t -- it won’t be unraveled. And there you go, you’ve lost more jurisdiction.”

Robert Yazzie:

“When Navajos go to court, they expect certain things to happen. One is to say [Navajo word], which means ‘my mind will become at ease’ when this problem that I have is addressed. And people look for a satisfied result. And so when people feel confident with the court system, especially establishing a relationship with the judge, knowing that the judge’s role will be carried out to bring peace to the problems at hand.

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "The Importance of Cultural Match"

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Dr. Manley Begay provides an overview of cultural match, which the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project have identified as one of the five keys to successful Native nation building.

Native Nations
Citation

Begay, Jr., Manley A. "Introduction to Native Nation Building." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2011. Lecture.

"Cultural match, really interesting piece of the research that took place. To be effective, governing institutions must have legitimacy with the people. In other words, the people have to think and believe in the government that this is the way that Ysleta Pueblo operates; this is the way we have always done it; this is the way Laguna operates their government; this is the way Navajos really do it -- this is the Navajo way; this is the Blackfoot way; this is the O'odham way. There is this perception, there is this belief that this is the way we do it, so that sort of sends the message that the government is legitimate in the eyes of the people. It is a reflection on who they are as a people.

They have to match Indigenous ideas about how authority should be organized and exercised in the contemporary sense. Look at the third and fourth bullet points: in the contemporary sense. You go to Flathead reservation where there are three tribes -- Pend d'Orielle, Salish, and Kootenai -- and if you are thinking about putting together an Indigenous idea about authority at Flathead, whose culture do you follow? One of three? All of the three? Two of the three? How do you do it? So it has to be in the contemporary sense because we've changed in a lot of different ways, and our kids have changed as well, and they are going to change even more so. So how do we think about it in a contemporary cultural setting? Places where traditional culture is still very strong -- like at Cochiti Pueblo, or like at Jemez, and a lot of the Pueblos, and a lot of the other tribes. Like at Iroquois with the Onondaga, where the traditional culture is still very strong, they've incorporated that type of thinking into the government itself. At Navajo, where I come from, we have the fundamental law of Navajo incorporated into our judicial structure. Not necessarily in the legislative branch, or the executive branch, but clearly in the judicial branch. It's present there, so decisions that are rendered by the Supreme Court judges at Navajo are based on fundamental laws, customary law, custom law, traditional law, natural law. So it's based on our creation stories, it's based on how we think about the world. But if you don't have that present, you sort of basically have to re-invent yourself and think about: how do we think about it in a contemporary cultural sense?

The same with economic strategies -- the last bullet point there. Some tribes go [with] tribal enterprise economic systems where the tribe owns all the businesses, some tribes go [with] private entrepreneurship where they support individual entrepreneurs, some tribes have done both and those have cultural ramifications as well. How we think about the world determines what kind of economic strategy we choose, because if it is going to be legitimate, it gets the support of the people rather than tearing it down. So culture matters." 

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Justice Systems and Cultural Match"

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Professor Robert A. Williams, Jr. argues that Native nations can reintegrate their unique cultures and common law into their governance systems, specifically their systems for resolving disputes and providing justice to their citizens and others.

Native Nations
Citation

Williams, Jr., Robert A. "Justice Systems: Moving Your Nation Forward." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2012. Lecture.

"I have heard many tribes, many tribal members and council members -- when we talk about the need to build tribal courts that are responsive to the community and understand the communities' traditions and culture and language -- and I've heard them say, 'Well, we've lost our traditions, we've lost our culture, we've lost our language,' without really thinking about what it means that you are letting go so easily. There is a rich tradition of tribal law and custom and practice that Indigenous peoples relied upon to survive here for five hundred years, for thousands of years before non-Indians came. Here is the amazing thing: that despite three hundred years of overt colonization and genocide, Indian people have been able to maintain their tribal customs and traditions and still hang around. Federal Indian law is not the reason that Indians are still here. The reason that Indians are still here is because tribal people and tribal leaders clung to their traditions and found ways to perpetuate them -- below ground.

The idea the judge is a sacred position in every tribe. If you study any tribe, if you study your tribe's culture, the people that you would identify in history as most closest to those who are judges, who are peacemakers, always spoke with sacred authority. That was the tribal worldview. And this person had a special knowledge that was respected and revered.

In towns of the Cherokee Confederacy, people gathered annually to hear the tribal orator -- a priest that was sometimes called 'the beloved man' -- recite the common law of the Confederacy. When the orator spoke the law, he was reading the meaning of history and tradition contained in the tribal wampum, and he held the ancient and sacred wampum belts in his hand.*

And so when you say, 'We've lost our traditions, our language and our culture,' you're letting go of something very easily that has great power, and can be found again. There are many tribal courts and tribal nations that are actively involved in the process of rebuilding their tribal law and traditions with very little. You don't need a lot to get the process going. And I think one of these ideas that I really want to plant in our hearts and our minds is that the source of our salvation, the source of our strength to re-build our tribal nations will come from tribal law and traditions. Because that's the knowledge that you grow up with. Nobody tells you, 'Oh, this is how Lumbees act.' Nobody tells you, 'This is how Lakota act.' Or this is how Cree people act. You just grow up in a house and your grandmother slaps you upside your head when you don't act right. And after a while you learn to adapt to your Indian environment, and you act right! And you learn what it means to be an Indian without anyone telling you that. And 200 years of colonialism and residential schools hasn't knocked that out of you. I can close my eyes and go into any community in the United States and I know when I'm in an Indian community, either by the smells, the food, the talk, the silences. We're just different. We have maintained our cultural continuity. There's a reason you're still here. The fact that you're here insisting on your right of self-government isn't something somebody has invented for you. It's something that you have always had, and you've never let go of. So, don't let go of your tribal traditions and your law. Find ways to rebuild that too."

*Quoting Rennard Strickland's Fire of the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Oklahoma Press, 1982), p. 11.