political interference

Genomic Research Through an Indigenous Lens: Understanding the Expectations

Year

Indigenous scholars are leading initiatives to improve access to genetic and genomic research and health care based on their unique cultural contexts and within sovereign-based governance models created and accepted by their peoples. In the past, Indigenous peoples’ engagement with genomic research was hampered by a lack of standardized guidelines and institutional partnerships, resulting in group harms. This article provides a comparative analysis of research guidelines from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States that pertain to Indigenous peoples. The goals of the analysis are to identify areas that need attention, support Indigenous-led governance, and promote the development of a model research policy framework for genomic research and health care that has international relevance for Indigenous peoples.

Resource Type
Citation
Garrison, N. A., Hudson, M., Ballantyne, L. L., Garba, I., Martinez, A., Taualii, M., . . . Rainie, S. C. (2019). Genomic Research Through an Indigenous Lens: Understanding the Expectations. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, 20(1). doi:10.1146/annurev-genom-083118-015434

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."

Ned Norris, Jr.: Strengthening Governance at Tohono O'odham

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. discusses how his nation has systematically worked to strengthen its system of governance, from creating an independent, effective judiciary to developing an innovative, culturally appropriate approach to caring for the nation's elders.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Norris, Jr., Ned. "Strengthening Governance at Tohono O'odham." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. February 16, 2012. Interview.

Ian Record:

“Welcome to Leading Native Nations. I’m your host, Ian Record. On today’s program we are honored to have with us Ned Norris, Jr. Since 2007, Ned has served as chairman of his nation, the Tohono O’odham Nation, winning re-election to a second four-year term in 2011. He has worked for his nation for the past 35 years, serving in a variety of capacities, from Vice Chairman of his nation to Director of Tribal Governmental Operations to Chief Judge of the Tohono O’odham Judicial Branch. Chairman, welcome, good to have you with us today.”

Ned Norris:

“Thank you very much. It’s good to be here.”

Ian Record:

“I’ve shared a few highlights of your very impressive personal biography, but why don’t you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself?”

Ned Norris:

“Well, I’ve… born and raised here in Tucson, born at San Xavier when it was a hospital in 1955, and pretty much grew up here and spent all of my life here in Tucson, and got married to my wife Janice in 1973. And actually Friday, February 17th will be 39 years that she’s put up with me.”

Ian Record:

“Congratulations.”

Ned Norris:

“So I really appreciate that. We have children, we have grandchildren, and it’s great seeing them, and seeing how our kids have developed over the years and seeing how our grandchildren are coming along.”

Ian Record:

“Well, we’re here today to tap into your knowledge, your wisdom and experience regarding a wide range of critical Native nation building and governance topics and I’d like to start with tribal justice systems. You’ve taken on many different roles in your nation’s justice system including court advocate, child welfare specialist, and judge. And so I’m curious, generally speaking from your experience and your perspective, what role do tribal justice systems play in the exercise of tribal sovereignty?”

Ned Norris:

“As I was thinking about this, I was thinking about where we were as early as the late 1970s. For some people that’s not early, for some people that’s a long time, but when we think about where our tribal system, judicial system has developed since ’79 and forward, we have really come a long way in realizing that the court system itself plays a significant role in ensuring or demonstrating our ability to be a sovereign tribal entity. Obviously the tribal legislature’s going to make the laws and the executive side of the tribal government is going to implement those laws, but the court system really has a key, significant role in determining, in how those laws are going to be interpreted and how those laws are going to be applied. And for me that’s really a significant role in the tribal judicial system ensuring that whatever we’re doing internally with regards to applying the law as it is written by the legislature and implemented by the executive branch that it is ensuring that sovereignty is intact, that it’s ensuring that we have the capabilities of making the decisions that we need to make in order to govern our nation.”

Ian Record:

“A law professor here at the University of Arizona who you know very well, Robert Williams, who serves as a pro tem judge for your nation’s judicial branch describes this systematic effort your nation has engaged in over the past three decades or so to build an effective, efficient, tribal justice system from the ground up. Why has the nation engaged in that effort and why is that important?”

Ned Norris:

“I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve got tribal legislators over the years that have really began to take a holistic look at the tribal government as a whole and realizing that for the most part as late as the 1970s, early 1970s, our tribal judicial system was really what I would refer to as a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]-type system. Tribal codes were developed, but they were really taken off of boilerplates of BIA codes and so on and so forth. So I think that our leadership, our tribal council began to realize that these laws don’t always have the kind of impact that we would like them to have. And so in order for us to be able to govern ourselves and to determine our own destiny as it relates to [the] tribal court system, we’ve got to begin the process of changing the system and bringing it more up to speed, so to speak.”

Ian Record:

“And part of that I guess, regaining control of the justice function of the nation, things like making sure that you are charge of law and order, that you’re in charge of dispute resolution, that when you have a young person who has a substance abuse problem that they’re being taken care of, that issue is being taken care of internally versus them being shipped off the reservation, making the system more culturally appropriate, where the people in the community feel like this makes sense to us. Can you talk about that dynamic in the work that the nation has been doing in that regard to, I guess, make the justice system their own?”

Ned Norris:

“Well historically, I think it’s unfortunate that back then, and even to some extent even today, tribes do not have the level of resources available to address the more intricate needs of a substance abuser, an alcoholic, whatever the case may be, and so even today there are needs. There is a need to identify resources, whether it’s on or off the reservation to address that, but I think most importantly is the idea that we would be able to create the kinds of services that we’re using off reservation and bringing those services on the reservation where we’re playing a more direct role in that person’s treatment, in their rehabilitation and really looking at it like…from the perspective that this is family, this is part of our family. This individual isn’t just a member or a citizen of our nation, they are a citizen of our nation that we should take more of a responsibility to try and help within the confines of our own tribal nation, our people. And so I think when we think about it from that perspective, we begin to realize that maybe the services that we have are not as adequate or not as resourceful as we would like them to be. So we’ve got to be able to identify that and be able to identify where those voids are and bring those services into that program or create the program that…where those voids exist.”

Ian Record:

“It really boils down to the nation itself best knowing its own needs, its own challenges versus somebody from the outside that is simply just bringing in something from the outside that may not…”

Ned Norris:

“Not only that, Ian, I think that in addition to understanding that we have…we as the nation membership have a good understanding of what those needs are and what those resources are or aren’t, but also really realizing that if we’re going to bring or utilize outside resources to do this, those resources aren’t always going to be there. We’re going to be there, we’re going to continue to be there, our members are going to continue to be there and what makes more sense to us is to be able to take control and bring those services, develop those services where they lack and provide the services more directly by the nation’s leadership itself.”

Ian Record:

“One of the things that Professor Williams points to in this effort that the nation’s been engaged in around the justice system for the past 30 years is how the nation has invested in its own people, how it’s worked to build the capacity, internal capacity of its own people to provide justice to the community. Can you talk a little bit more about that? You’re a byproduct of that effort.”

Ned Norris:

“Well, I think that when we talk about investing in our own people, over the years in a more significant sense we’re…we’ve been able to establish our gaming operation. That operation has played a significant role in our ability to bring the kinds of services that aren’t there, that haven’t been there, or those kinds of services that we would for many years just dream about having and even to the extent that we’re developing our tribal members. I think, just to give you an example, pre-gaming we probably had less than 500, 600 employees that worked with the tribe and now we’ve got well over, I think it’s about 1,400 tribal employees and we’ve got a varied amount of programs that have been developed that are really beginning to address a lot of the needs that we’ve been having over the years. And not even that, the ability to develop our own tribal citizens in providing them an opportunity to train academically, whether it’s a vocational program, whether it’s a two-year or four-year college, whether it’s earning a bachelor’s degrees, master’s degree, doctorate degree, whatever the case may be. We’ve been able to provide that kind of an opportunity for our members to be able to acquire the kinds of skills that they lack academically and bring those skills back to the nation and apply those skills.”

Ian Record:

“Yeah, and I think what you’ve addressed is there’s a major obstacle for many tribes in that they’ll invest in their people, they’ll send them off to get a good education, but then it’s really critical that there’s a welcoming environment for those college graduates to say, ‘We’re sending you off to get a skill to come back and apply that skill here on behalf of the nation.’”

Ned Norris:

“Exactly, and part of our challenge as tribal leaders is making sure that we create the ability for those members to be able to come back. Too many times I’ve shared with different audiences over the years that we’re graduating more O’odham with bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees than in the history of the whole tribe, however, where we may lack in the ability to create the kinds of jobs that those individuals trained for. And so we need to prepare ourselves to be able to receive those tribal members back and provide them the kinds of job opportunities that they’ve spent four, six year, eight years in college acquiring, but also not only be able to do that, but to be able to pay a comparable salary for the kinds of positions that they’ve trained for.”

Ian Record:

“I’d like you, if you wouldn’t mind, to paint a picture. Before we went on air you were describing a little bit about what the nation’s justice system looked like when you came on board and started working within that system. Can you compare and contrast what the justice system and what the justice function looked like back in the early 1970s or mid 1970s, to what it looks like now?”

Ned Norris:

“Wow. It’s a night-and-day comparison really, because just physically we didn’t have the kinds of facilities necessary to really do… provide the kinds of justice services that our people should be afforded and we…when we talk about facilities, we talk about staffing, we talk about laws in themselves or codes, back in the late ‘70s, the early ‘80s, there was a time there that our law and order code was a boilerplate from the BIA code and I think that it took some years and some education and some effort to begin the process of understanding that this boilerplate code is obsolete in our mind and we need to begin the process of developing our own tribal codes. And so we began that process in writing our own tribal code, our law and order code, our criminal code, our civil codes and other codes and that took a process, but once we’ve done that and the tribal council adopted those codes, we started to apply them in the tribal judicial system. And so I think that when we compare where we were in the late 1970s to where we are now, the only… the concern that I have is, being a former judge -- I spent 14 years as one of our tribal judges and from ’79 to ’93 --and I’ve seen the court system develop over those years and seen how obsolete the laws were back in the late 1970s to where we were able to develop those laws. But also realize that back then in the early 1990s, I began to think about realizing the time that the court system is no longer processing and dealing with human beings, but they’re dealing with numbers. You become a number at some point, a case number or whatever because early on we came into this with the perspective that we’ve got this tribal member that is maybe committing crime, but there are a lot of factors that are contributing to why that tribal member has committed that particular crime and that we, the court system, although it has the law before it and the law may provide a jail sentence and/or a fine, the idea wasn’t always to throw this person in jail because of the crime they did, but to try and dig a little deeper into what’s really going on within that individual’s situation. Is it the home situation? Is it…was the person an abused person over a time of their life, was that person a victim of incest that just was never dealt with? And so we came to this with the perspective that the court system enforces the laws, applies the law and issues sentences, but some of that sentence has to take into consideration how can we help, how can we help this individual, how can we help the family address those issues that are impacting or having an influence in them committing the crimes that they’re committing?”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned that for several years you were a judge and so you’ve seen firsthand how the court system works and you’ve been a part of that court system. There’s an issue…there’s a major infrastructure challenge for a lot of justice systems across Indian Country. Can you talk a bit about what Native nation governments can do to ensure that their justice systems have the support they need to administer justice effectively?”

Ned Norris:

“One is, there was a period of time where the tribal legislature was what I refer to as the supreme authority on the O’odham Nation, at that time the Papago Tribe of Arizona. And as that supreme authority, there was really not a separation of powers between a three-branch system. And so, over the course of those years, early on the tribal supreme authority, the legislative authority really infringed on or encroached on what should have been an independent judicial system. And so I think, in answer to your question, tribal governments, tribal leadership should realize that it is imperative to the success of a tribal governmental entity that an independent system of judicial…a system to dispense justice is not having the kinds of influence by the other two branches of government that would impede its ability to deliver that justice. And I think that once we begin to understand that and realize that and realize that that not only does that involve the legislature not meddling into the judicial process, but it also has to involve an understanding that because in many tribal governmental entities the tribal legislator controls the purse, controls the funding, that they not use that as a basis to not fund the needs of the tribal judiciary. And I think that because the council has the authority to disperse funding resources that the courts still have to go to the council and ask and present their budget and ask for funding for infrastructure, for whatever the case may be. That there still has to be a relationship there, but I think that the tribal legislature needs to understand too that they shouldn’t use their role as a tribal legislator to deny the kinds of resources that the court system needs.”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned this issue of political interference and this is something that comes up in virtually every interview I do with folks on this topic of tribal justice systems and they all…almost all of them mention this issue of funding and how that can be rather than direct interference in a particular court case, but this kind of more subtle, insidious process of denying funding or reducing funding or holding funding hostage to…in exchange for certain considerations -- that that sends real messages and others have talked about how this issue of political interference can be a very slippery slope. That if a chair or a legislator, once they do it once for one person, word’s going to get around that, ‘You just need to go to this council person and they’ll get involved with the court case on your behalf.’ And in many respects doesn’t that distract the executive…the chief executive of the nation, the legislators from focusing on what they really should be focusing on?”

Ned Norris:

“Yeah, if we’re taking so much of our time and energy dealing with a relative’s court case and not allowing the court to apply justice to that situation, then obviously it’s taking us away from our real role, which is to provide the kinds of leadership and direction that we need to provide to run our government. So yeah, political influence, I think early on was an issue. Now, I think it’s rare. I think that we’ve educated our leadership to the extent that they understand the concept of separation of powers, that they understand that they shouldn’t use their position to try and influence a decision that the court is going to make. We’re not 100 percent, but we’re far less than what we were in the late 1970s and I think that that whole process just took a series of education and in fact, in some cases, some case law that’s already been established where the legislative branch was trying to encroach on the powers of the executive branch, we’ve had those cases in our tribal court system and those decisions are the law at this point.”

Ian Record:

“This wasn’t originally in my list of questions, but since you brought it up, I’d like to talk about the role of justice systems and the judicial branch, particularly your nation, in essentially being a fair umpire when there are conflicts between the executive function -- whether it’s a separate branch or not -- but the executive function of the nation and the legislative function. How important is it to have somebody, whether it’s your courts or an elders body or somebody, some entity that can, when there is conflict between those two functions to say, ‘Okay, let’s take a look at this and let’s be the fair arbiter here.’?”

Ned Norris:

“I think that it’s critical. I think it’s critical to be able to understand at some point in that particular dispute process that we’ve got to sit back and we’ve got to realize that as the two branches that are in dispute, is this an issue that we really want the courts to have a major role in deciding or do we want to come to terms or come to some level of understanding, try and resolve the matter before it ends up in court? I think that we should look at those kinds of issues from that perspective because once you get the court involved, the court is going to make its decisions based on the law, and the law is not necessarily always going to be the way to resolve or the way that you may… either side may want this particular issue resolved, and I think for the most part too, the court itself should realize if there’s an opportunity to resolve the dispute outside of the court, laying down the gavel and saying, ‘I hereby order…,’ that giving the parties an opportunity to resolve this dispute, whether it’s an encroachment by either branch, executive to legislative or vice versa, that we always have the opportunity to try and come to terms on resolution even if it means calling, I don’t know, I don’t want…I guess we could call him an arbitrator or mediator or a council of elders, to come in and provide some level of traditional means of resolving the dispute. I think that that’s important, but it’s important for the parties to make that decision. I’m not always open to the idea that court systems will order you to call in a council of elders or a medicine person to come help resolve this issue. I really think that that’s got to be the tribe themselves to make that decision. Over the years, the court has issued those kinds of orders and I think that they’ve worked, but for the most part I think that it’s the parties themselves need to make that determination and that decision.”

Ian Record:

“I would like to jump forward basically because of what we’ve been discussing and talk about the fact that virtually every tribe that I've worked with there’s always going to be some level of friction between the nation’s executive function and the legislative function. It’s just the nature of politics; it’s the nature of governance. And you being in that role of chairman now for multiple terms, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about that despite your best efforts, there are times when you come to an impasse or there’s a conflict that emerges. Can you talk about how do you build constructive working relationships -- as a chair -- with the legislative branch, the legislative function of government to try to make that relationship as productive and as seamless as possible?”

Ned Norris:

“Well, I have to say that I’m proud of what my first four years of leadership has done to do exactly what you’re asking because I felt and I sensed and I heard from many council members that there was really a breakdown in the relationship between the branches. And we knew then, Vice Chairman Isidro Lopez and I, and now even Vice Chairwoman Wavalene Romero and I realize, that it’s got to be a continuous effort to build that relationship, still maintain and understand there are certain constitutional authorities and powers that each individual branch has, that we need to understand what those constitutional powers are and that we don’t encroach our authority and violate what those powers are, because once you start doing that then you begin the resistance between the two and it doesn’t make for a good working relationship. We knew coming into office four years ago, and even continuing in my second term, that we’re going to need to continue to develop that relationship and I’m comfortable that where we’re at some, almost six years, five years later that we’ve been able to have a level of understanding that decisions are going to need to be made, that decisions that even though I have authority to veto decisions of our legislature, it’s been...in four years I think I’ve exercised that power twice and -- actually three times and -- both of those times those issues have been resolved. One issue is still pending in court, but I think that in itself speaks for the fact that we have a very understanding working relationship between the executive branch and the legislature and it’s really a continuous level of communication, it’s a continuous level to understand where they’re coming from on that particular issue, where you think you’re coming from and how do you work together to resolve your differences and how and at what point do you want to compromise in order to be able to accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. I think for the most part all of us want what’s best for the people of our nation. How do we get there from here to there, we may have some differences. And it’s discussing, resolving those differences to hopefully come to a positive outcome for providing the leadership that our people need.”

Ian Record:

“I’d like to switch gears now and talk about tribal bureaucracies. In addition to serving as your nation’s Director of Tribal Governmental Operations -- as I mentioned at the beginning -- you also have served as its Assistant Director of Tribal Social Services and as a former Commissioner for its Tribal Employment Rights Office, its TERO office. What do you feel from your diverse array of experiences, what do you feel tribal bureaucracies need to be effective?”

Ned Norris:

“Well one, I think clearly the individual that has a level of authority in that bureaucracy needs to understand themselves what…where do their powers derive from and to what extent do I have any power at all? And I think the individual then taking that in the whole from let’s say the tribal legislature or… I’m constantly having to make the kinds of decisions, leadership decisions that I need to make, but I’m constantly asking myself in my own mind, ‘Do I have the authority to do this?’ And I think that that’s the kind of understanding in our own minds that we need to continue to ask ourselves, ‘Do we have the authority to do this? What does the constitution say on this particular issue? What have the courts said on this particular issue? What has tradition said on this particular issue?’ And being able to understand that in all those perspectives I think is really where we need to…it’s going to help in the bureaucracy that’s created, because to me 'bureaucracy' isn’t a positive word in my opinion.”

Ian Record:

“Tribal administration.”

Ned Norris:

“Tribal administration, there you go. The Bureau [of Indian Affairs]’s a bureaucracy, but in tribal administration, I think that if we’re going to be able to…the end result is how do we get to be able to provide the kinds of needs that our people deserve and are entitled to? And are we going to create the kinds of roadblocks…and if there are roadblocks, then how do we break down those barriers, how do we break down those roadblocks, how do we begin to sit at the table with each other? I’ll tell you, there was a point in time where -- and I think it’s with any government -- but there’s mistrust, there’s a certain level of mistrust between the tribal branches or the governmental branches and it’s needing to understand that regardless of what I do there’s still going to be some level of trust. I’ve got 22 tribal council members. I still have to accept the fact that I know there’s at least one, maybe more, of those 22 council members that don’t want to see me where I’m at today and accept that. I accept that, but that doesn’t mean that I not continue to do what I think I need to do in working with my supporters and my non-supporters. They’re still a council member, I still have to work with them, I still need a majority of council to get the kinds of approvals or decisions to do things that I need. We need each other. The council needs the executive branch and the executive branch needs the council.”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned at the beginning of your response about the importance of every individual that works within the nation and for the nation understanding what their role is and what their authority is. Isn’t that absolutely critical when you talk about say, for instance, the nation’s elected leadership versus say your department heads, your program managers and things like that? That there’s a common understanding of, ‘Okay, when it comes to the day-to-day management,’ for instance, ‘of this program, that’s not my job as an elected official. That’s the job of the department head and the staff below them.' Because that’s a major issue that we’ve encountered across Indian Country, where there’s this constant overlapping of role boundaries if you will.”

Ned Norris:

“Micromanaging.”

Ian Record:

“Yes, that’s another way of putting it.”

Ned Norris:

“Yeah, micromanagement. I think for the idea or the idea of overstepping one’s authority where it appears, or at least you’re experiencing micromanagement, I think that for some time there was even a certain level of micromanaging that was going on and attempted to be going on from tribal council members or council committees on executive branch programs and we even see a certain level of that even today, this many years later. But I think how we handled those situations really has an impact, because I think for some time, we’ve got to realize that I’m not going to disallow my department directors, my department heads or anybody in those departments to not take a meeting with the tribal council committee if the council committee wants them to be there. That wasn’t always the situation in previous administrations, but for me, the council needs to be as informed on those issues in their role as a tribal council member. I think that when we think about micromanaging, again I think that it’s really a level of communication as to how you’re going to deliver. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Council member, you’re micromanaging my programs and that’s…I have an issue with that.’ I think that how we explain to them that we’re going to provide you the kinds of information that you need, but as the Chief Executive Officer under the constitution I have a certain level of responsibility to make sure that these programs are doing what they’re intended to do and I will assume that [responsibility]…I will exercise that responsibility, but we’re going to keep you informed, we’re going to keep…and if it’s personnel issues, that’s a different story. That’s clearly…we’ve got to protect the employee and the employer, but I think that for the most part we…how you communicate -- I’m trying to explain this. I’m not sure I’m doing a good job of it -- but how you explain without offending is critical to the outcome. And I don’t want our council to think that I’m prohibiting our departments to communicate issues with the council, because once we start doing that then you start to create barriers there and I don’t want those barriers, but at the same time the council needs to understand that if it’s an administrative issue that is clearly within my authority as the Chief Executive Officer for my nation. I have directors, I have people that are…that I hold accountable to make sure that those issues are addressed.”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned a term that I think is really interesting, I’d like to get you to talk a bit more about it. You said, ‘It’s critical to explain without offending.’ And we’ve heard other tribal leaders and people that work within tribal government talk about the fact that the impulse to micromanage, the impulse to, for instance, interfere, for an elected official to interfere on behalf of a constituent, for instance -- it’s always going to be there. The question’s how do you explain to that person that wants to interfere, that wants to micromanage, that this is not the way we do things because we have processes in place, we have policies in place that prohibit me from doing that? That’s not to say, as you said, that we can’t have a communication, that you can’t understand what’s going on and why, or why a certain decision’s been made the way it’s been made, but we have processes in place. How critical is that to have that…I guess to have that basis upon which you can explain without offending? That there’s these processes in place that are critical to the nation functioning well?”

Ned Norris:

“Sure. I think that it’s extremely critical to be able to have a level of understanding, but a certain level of trust. I think follow-up is key. I think if you’re going to have a council member or a council committee that is raising issues that are clearly an administrative function of one of my departments, then I’m not going to leave them out of that issue because they have a reason, they have an importance, they have a constituent out there that brought the issue before them. They need to know, they need to understand and so I’m going to make…I’m going to give them the assurance that as the chief administrator, I’m going to make sure that my people are going to follow up on that issue, but I’m also going to make sure you know what we’ve done. Not necessarily what disciplinary actions might have been imposed, but how are we going to address that issue? And make sure that I get back to them and tell them, ‘Here’s where we’re at with this issue, here’s what we’ve done. I want the program director to come and explain to you where we’re at on this as well.’”

Ian Record:

“You mentioned this issue of personnel issues, which are inevitable. They always arise -- whether it’s a hiring and firing dispute, whatever it might be -- and you mentioned it’s a whole different ballgame, that that really is critical that that’s insulated from any sort of political influence whatsoever. And we’ve heard others talk about how important that is to achieving fairness within the tribal administration, achieving fairness within how the nation operates, how it delivers programs and services. Can you talk a little bit about how your nation has addressed this issue of personnel disputes?”

Ned Norris:

“Well, I have to say that I…we have a lot yet to develop. We have a system to grieve, there’s a policy, personnel policies are in place, there’s the policies outline as to how individuals grieve an employee-employer situation. And I’m not…I haven’t always been 100 percent satisfied with the system itself. And so we’re currently going through a rewrite or a restructuring of what that system should be and really all in the interest of facilitating the process in making sure the process is more friendly to both sides, the grievant and the grievee and so on and so forth, because I think that our process involves a panel of individuals that may not necessarily have the level of training or understanding of what their duty and responsibility is as a panel member hearing that grievance. And so we have a panel and an individual or individuals on that panel that may think their authority is much bigger than what is really outlined or that they may need to make decisions that aren’t necessarily related to the grievance itself and those kinds of decisions have come out and our current policy provides that as chair of the nation, the chair has the final decision over a grievance that hasn’t been resolved at any one of the lower levels. And it’s by that experience that I realize we’ve got to change the process; the process needs to be more equitable I think to not only the process, but to the grievant, the person grieving it themselves. So I think that you want to make sure, you’ve got to make sure…you’ve got to ensure to your employees that we have a system to grieve that is fair, that they have confidence in, that they have the comfort that they’re going to…they know that when they get to the process, that that process is going to move along as fast as possible, but that their issue is going to be resolved. And I think too many times we don’t get to that point, but I think it’s the process itself that needs to be looked at, but we need to develop a process that is fair.”

Ian Record:

“I’d like to talk now about a symbol of pride for your nation, and that’s the Archie Hendricks Sr. Skilled Nursing Facility and Tohono O’odham Hospice. What prompted the nation to develop this amazing, what’s turned out to be this amazing success story and what has it meant for the Tohono O’odham people and in particular, its elders?”

Ned Norris:

“Archie Hendricks Nursing Care facility was a dream for many years. I was in tribal social services when, not long after the tribe contracted [Public Law 93-] 638, those social services from the Bureau. And it was really unfortunate that too many times when our elders needed nursing care that those elders were, as a figure of speech, shipped to some nursing facility in Casa Grande, in Phoenix, in other areas of the state and literally taken away from their home, taken away from their family. And too many times, the only time that those elders came back was in a box, when they’d deceased at that facility. And too many times having our elders placed in off-reservation facilities limited or to some…and in some cases prohibited family members to participate in their care in that off-reservation facility. And it just made sense that we begin the process of creating a facility on the nation where our elders can stay home at a location that we think is kind of central to where members, family members can commute, have more easily the ability to commute to that facility and visit. Too many times…a lot of our folks don’t have vehicles. A lot of our folks pay somebody else who has a vehicle to take them to the post office, take them to Basha’s or take them to somewhere, in a lot of cases drive them to Phoenix to visit their elder in the nursing home. And even though that still is the situation today with many of our members, the drive is a lot shorter than it is just to go to the Archie Hendricks facility. But also not only to be able to bring our elders home and have that service here on the nation, but also to…it’s an opportunity to instill tradition and instill who we are as O’odham into the care of our elders and in doing that, also having the opportunity to train tribal members in that particular service. We have a number of tribal members that have gone on to earn academic programs that are now applying those skills in the nursing home. So it had a win-win situation all the way around, not only bringing our elders, but a job opportunity; an opportunity to create a program that wasn’t there.”

Ian Record:

“Obviously that success story has addressed a particular need and as you’ve shared, a very dire need. But I guess on a larger overall level, doesn’t it send a very powerful message to your nation’s citizens that if we have a challenge, if we have a need, we can do this ourselves?”

Ned Norris:

“Oh, I think that’s true. I think that that’s maybe one of the bigger messages that we’re demonstrating because even today we think about…in fact, I had some, a family member come into my office that were concerned about their child or their nephew that was in an off-reservation youth home placement and that individual turned 18 years of age and was released from the facility. Well, the concern was there was really no services that was provided to him while in that facility and so in their own words they says, ‘Why can’t we build the kinds of facilities that we did for our elders for our youth? Why can’t we bring our youth home into a facility that can provide the kinds of services that they need?’ And why can’t we? We should. We should move in that direction. There was a time when the nation operated a couple of youth homes, a girl’s home and a boy’s home. I’m not sure right now what the history is as to why that doesn’t happen anymore, but I think the bureaucracy is what I remember, was the bureaucracy got hold of the situation. It was probably a licensing issue that the Bureau required that we weren’t able to comply with and so on and so forth, but I’m not suggesting we want to run off, run facilities without being accredited in some way or certified or licensed in some way, but I think that we need to understand that if we’re going to move in that direction…and I totally agree that we need to begin developing those kinds of services on the nation, but we also have to realize do we have the capability to do that? Do we have…? We can build a house, we can build the home, we can build the facility, but do we have the resources to run the kinds of programs that it’s going to require, do we have the trained personnel, do we have the…all the requirements that you need in order to run a sound helpful service to these youth -- can we do that? I think we need to do an assessment ourselves and if we feel we’re ready to make that move, then by all means let’s start putting the…making those facilities available.”

Ian Record:

“It’s interesting you mentioned that your citizens are now thinking, ‘Why can’t we?’ and that’s a very important shift in mindset, is it not? To where…from where in many Native communities 20-30 years ago, it was always, ‘Let the Bureau take care of it. We don’t need to deal with it.’ To now, ‘Why can’t we do it ourselves?’ That speaks to this larger shift that we’re talking about, the message that it sends to the people, does it not?”

Ned Norris:

“Well, it’s…I think about former leadership and I think about leaders that have had an impact in my life and I always share this story about…you remember the TV commercial, ‘Be like Mike,’ Jordan’s Shoes, ‘Be like Mike, play the game like Mike’ and all this and that? And I have my own ‘Be like Mike’ people out there myself. I think about the late Josiah Moore, an educator, a leader, a tribal chairman, former tribal chairman of our nation. I think about a Mescalero Apache leader by the name of Wendell Chino and think about other leaders that have gone on, but have demonstrated their leadership over the years. And I think to myself that those are the kinds of leaders that have vision, those are the kinds of leaders that have fought for sovereignty, that have fought for rights of tribal governments and those are the kinds of values as a leader that I think we need to bring to our leadership. Is, how do we protect the sovereignty of our sovereign nations? And it’s really unfortunate because somebody asked me, ‘Well, what is tribal sovereignty?’ And I says, ‘Well, I don’t agree with this, but too many times, tribal sovereignty is what the United States Supreme Court decides it’s going to be in a case or the federal government,’ and we can’t accept that. We shouldn’t accept that. We don’t want to accept that. We may not be a true sovereign, but we have certain sovereign authorities that we need to protect and we need to continuously exercise and whatever rights we have as a people, we need to exercise those rights, we need to understand what those rights are, we need to protect those rights just as well as protecting our tribal sovereignty.”

Ian Record:

“Isn’t part of that process… and you’ve mentioned this term a lot, assessing, assessing, assessing, assessing. Isn’t part of that process assessing where your nation could be exercising sovereignty or where it needs to exercise sovereignty, but currently isn’t and saying, ‘Let’s push the envelope here?’”

Ned Norris:

“Sure. I think that is. I think that…I like to do assessments, I like to do that mainly because you think you might understand what the situation is and you think you might have the right answer as to how you’re going to attack that situation or address that situation, but too many times we go into a situation not realizing what the impacts of your addressing that issue is going to be and so for me, I like to, ‘Okay, I agree with you, let’s address that issue, but let’s make sure we understand what it is we’re dealing with and whether or not we have the ability to address that issue,’ because to me to do something with half of an understanding really creates, to some extent, false hope because people are going to see that you’re moving in that direction. And if you’re not able to fulfill that movement, you’re going to stop and people may have liked to have seen what you were moving on, but don’t understand, ‘Why did you stop? We had hope in that. We thought you were going to address that issue.’ ‘Well, you know what, we didn’t do our homework and we couldn’t move it any further. That’s why.’ I think that we need to be, if we’re going to make a decision as a tribal leader, we need to fully understand the ramifications of what that decision is and to the best of our ability make informed decisions about the decisions we need to make and then move forward.”

Ian Record:

“I’d like to wrap up with…I’d like to wrap up on a final topic of constitutional reform. And as you well know, there’s been a groundswell of constitutional reform activity taking place across Indian Country over the past 30 years, in particular in the wake of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. And back in the mid-1980s, your nation, the Tohono O’odham Nation, completely overhauled its constitution and system of government. And I’m curious to learn from you, what did the nation change and why and what did it create and why?”

Ned Norris:

“Well, I had the experience of being involved in my tribal government under the old 1937 constitution and then the new 1986 constitution, and although I wasn’t as involved in the development of the 1986 constitution, I understand some of the history and that it took, and as I understand it, that whole process took some 10 years to accomplish, to be able to…there were several drafts of our 1986 constitution. The constitution committee had understandings and misunderstandings and decisions that they couldn’t come to terms on amongst themselves. So it was just a long, drawn-out process, but I think a 10-year process that was well worth it. And I say that mainly because I saw the government under the old constitution and I see it now under the ’86 and realize that even under the ’86 I don’t think that we fulfilled the possibilities under the current 1986 constitution. Going back to what I said earlier about that supreme authority under the old constitution, in many ways the council was the legislature, the executive and the judicial. And for me, you had that supreme authority under the constitution in 22 members of their tribal council. And so there were…because of that I think there were times as tribal judges or as…well, yeah, as tribal judges where we may have sat back and thought to ourselves, ‘Oh, I’ve got council person’s son or daughter in front of me in this courtroom, I better be careful on what I decide here.’ That consciousness or sub-consciousness about the fact that you’ve got a council member’s relative in front of you that you’re either going to throw in jail or you’re not going to throw in jail: ‘If I throw them in jail, then the council member’s going to come after me.’ I think there were those kinds of influences that the old 1937 constitution brought about and in different ways. That was just an example, but in different ways. And so when we…when the development of the 1986 constitution really brought on the whole concept of a government that is separated by three branches and three branches that are equal in power and authority and three branches that are clearly defined as to what that power and authority is in the constitution itself. I support that and I continue to support that. We’re going through a process now because over the last…since ’86 there have been some things that different districts and different and even I think need to be changed in the constitution. Literally, just take a look at our 1986, our current constitution and you’ve got more pages that cover the powers and authorities of the legislature than you do four or five pages under the executive branch. And so even on paper, is that truly a system that affords the level of powers and authorities that should be granted to each branch respectively. And so I think that constitution reform is good. I think that though there are still things in the constitution today that we don’t understand, that may not have been fully implemented or implemented at all, but I think that…and even educating our members on the constitution, I think, hasn’t been as adequate as it should have been. Because you look at the constitution, the constitution, the powers and authorities of the constitution is derived by the people. The people themselves need to understand the enormous power and authority they have under the constitution and they, under that power and authority, need to hold us leaders accountable for ensuring that we’re protecting not only the provisions of the constitution but protecting them as well.”

Ian Record:

“It’s interesting you bring this up. We’ve heard so many other leaders of other nations whose nations have engaged in reform, either successfully or unsuccessfully, and particularly among those who’ve engaged in reform successfully, in that they’ve implemented certain changes, they’ve had the citizen referendum and it’s passed and all that sort of thing, they’ve all discussed this sort of critical moment where you overhaul your constitution, it becomes law and everyone kind of sits back and goes, ‘Whew, that’s done.’ But it’s really not done because you’ve eluded to this challenge of not just changing what’s on paper, but changing the political culture, changing citizen’s expectations of their government, educating the people about, ‘This constitution has a very direct impact on your daily life and here’s how.’ Is that something that… a dynamic that you’ve seen in your nation in terms of the challenge that it continues to face?”

Ned Norris:

“I think that everything that you’ve just mentioned as a leader whether you’re chair, vice chair, council, whatever the case may be, we need to understand that. We need to understand that simply amending, changing, instituting a brand-new constitution on paper doesn’t solve the problem, doesn’t resolve whatever issues. Yes, it may be a better constitution in your opinion or a group of people’s opinion, but how we apply that, how we interpret that, how we educate the authorities to the people that the constitution is going to impact is a whole new process. And it’s a responsibility that we should take on as leaders to make sure that our people are… have at least an understanding of the constitution, but and I think to some extent have a working knowledge of what that constitution has to offer.”

Ian Record:

“You’ve mentioned vision and the importance of leaders having vision and you mentioned Wendell Chino and Josiah Moore. What’s your vision? What’s your personal vision for the future of your nation? And how are you working to make that vision a reality?”

Ned Norris:

“Vision, you’ve got to have visions in all aspects of leadership. What is the vision for the health area? What is your vision for the continuation of your economic development? What is your vision for the services that are delivered or that lack or that you dream about? What is your vision? And I think that one, the vision really has to take into consideration, where do you want to see your people, where are your people at now, where do you want to see your people five years from now, where do you want to see them 10 years from now? And we want to continue to educate, we want to continue to develop, we want to continue to be able to address the kinds of issues that are impacting, whether it’s a positive or negative impact on our people. We want to be able to identify a continuous identification of needs that our people have and how do we begin the process of addressing those issues, those needs, those whatever the case may be. I think that vision involves all of that and it’s not simply saying, ‘Well, my vision is that we’re going to rid the Tohono O’odham Nation of unemployment.’ That is a vision, but how do you get there? What do you…you have to…in order to have vision, you’ve got to be able to understand that there are things that are going on now that are going to impact your ability to apply that vision; and unless you understand what those issues are here, your vision isn’t going to mean anything. And so the vision might be big and it might have a bigger perspective, you want to address the health needs of…our vision is to eliminate diabetes amongst the O’odham. Great! I think all of us that have those kinds of problems on our nation want that as a vision, but how do you get there? What do you have to do now in order to address those issues? I want our kids to be positive, productive citizens of not only themselves and their families and their extended family and their communities and their nation, but I also want…I realize that there are things that are impacting our kids now that are going to have an impact on whether or not they’re going to be a productive individual. Too many times we take, we accept things, we accept things as the norm. Too many times, we accept alcoholism as the norm. Too many times, we accept drug trafficking or human cargo trafficking as the norm. That is not who we are. That is not the norm, and we need to impress on our people that those things are having negative impacts on us as a people as a whole and those things are going to have those negative impacts and are impacting our future, are impacting our ability to be the people who we are. And so the vision is being able to realize and understand those issues and make the kinds of changes in order to have a productive nation.”

Ian Record:

“Well, Chairman Norris, I really appreciate your thoughts and wisdom and sharing that with us. Unfortunately we’re out of time. There’s a lot more I’d like to talk about and I think we’ve just scratched the surface here, but I really appreciate you spending the time with us today.”

Ned Norris:

“I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.”

Ian Record:

“Well, that’s all the time we have on today’s program of Leading Native Nations. To learn more about Leading Native Nations, please visit the Native Nations Institute’s website at www.nni.arizona.edu. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2012 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." 

NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow: Rae Nell Vaughn (Part 2)

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Rae Nell Vaughn, former Chief Justice of the Mississippi Choctaw Supreme Court, shares how her nation methodically re-integrated Choctaw core values into its administration of justice, and how Mississippi Choctaw's creation of a fair and efficient justice system is paying social, cultural, political and economic dividends. 

Resource Type
Citation

Vaughn, Rae Nell. "NNI Indigenous Leadership Fellow (Part 2)." Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 22, 2009. Interview.

Ian Record:

"So the term 'Choctaw self-determination' is the motto of pretty much everything that the Mississippi Choctaws do. And I was curious to learn from you: how exactly does the tribal justice system, the court system that you were for a long time a part of, a reflection of that motto 'Choctaw self determination'?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Self-determination, in and of itself, has been key for Mississippi Choctaw. It's been the driving force of who the tribe has ultimately become, this very progressive tribe providing so many different services and outlets for the people, but it's so much more than that. It comes down to the very individual Choctaw member as to how you guide the people individually towards their destiny of being a successful people. There have been a number of areas in which self-determination has been very evident, one being the court system in and of itself. Within the court system, there could have always been the easier way of just allowing the tribe to go with state rule actually and just using the state system. What's the point of setting up your own court system? But just the mere exercise of sovereignty and having the ability to create your own laws and to develop your own court system is the very essence of self-determination and within that allowing your tribal members themselves serving in different capacities as a judge, as a bailiff, as a law enforcement officer, even as an attorney again only further defines for tribes and this tribe in particular self-determination. It's the mere exercise and expression of it."

Ian Record:

"So back in 1997, the court system underwent a significant revamping and strengthening, and it came at a critical juncture where Mississippi Choctaw had grown tremendously since the "˜60s and early "˜70s, particularly with their economic development initiatives and had come to this point where it said, "˜If we want to continue growing, we've got to do this.' Can you talk a little bit about that, and are you of the opinion that Choctaw could not have become what it has today if it were not for this strong and independent court system?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I think that the continuing development and evolution of the court system was key to every aspect of the tribe in regards to its development. The tribe in its forward thinking knew that with the growth of the population, which was very dramatic, it jumped significantly after 1994 once the gaming doors opened of our casinos and then we began generating more revenue and our population, the membership increased dramatically. Currently, we're at close to 10,000 members versus back in the early 19th century when we were less than 1,000, so it's been a very significant jump. And with the increase of population obviously comes with it social issues, social ills, offenses committed against property and people, civil matters, civil issues as the tribe in its economic growth begins venturing further into business, and those issues of litigation with those businesses ultimately will land within the well of this court. So because of that, it was key for -- and I believe was the government's vision -- to strengthen and provide to the court system the ability to execute justice properly and at a much higher standard. And again, the tribe could have just said, "˜Let's just follow the state motto. Let's just hire state judges and let's just go from there,' but they didn't. They knew again -- going back to self-determination -- how key it was to have tribal members sitting on that bench. Granted, the bench itself was very diverse. You had non-Indians, you had non-tribal members, and then of course tribal members sitting on this very large diverse bench, and the ability to have that exchange for those who weren't members of the tribe to teach them Choctaw customary law, culture, and of the people and of the community and the area, and how important and significant it is to just maintain that body of knowledge and it continues today, which I'm very grateful for."

Ian Record:

"So with respect to this, 1997 -- that seemed to be the watershed year in which the tribe made a very calculated decision to say, "˜In order to manage this growth, in order to continue to grow, we have to expand the powers, the jurisdiction and the authority of our court system, equip it with what it needs to be able to carry out justice,' as you say. So there's an expansion in terms of the types of cases it takes on, in terms of the kinds of skill sets that it's bringing into the court system, etcetera, but also during that time there was a concerted effort underway to more fully incorporate Choctaw values as you mentioned into the court system. Can you talk a little bit more about that and specifically discuss this project that you were involved with, which was documenting those core values in the form of oral histories provided by your elders? Maybe talk a little bit about how they've worked to inform the incorporation of those values into the court system."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"I believe that it was a lot of hands of fate that guided me into where I ultimately ended up serving as a judge, which I was very honored and humbled by being asked to do this. I worked in various areas within tribal government of the 23 years that I worked. I worked in the health area, in education and in the cultural center area, and all of these experiences, I believe, prepared me for that. So having said that, giving you that backdrop, once I got into the position as judge and ultimately serving as the principal judicial officer for the system, there were different projects that I felt would help us retain a lot of what we and who we are as tribal people in regards to what this thing was called, 'customary law.' Well, what is it? For the common person on the street looking at the general provisions of the codes, it's there, but what is it/. It wasn't tangible; it was an abstract thought, customary law. So how do we make that more concrete? And so with that I began looking at different models. Well, what's out there in Indian Country? What information has been generated and collected for the respective tribes? And I saw different models and I thought, "˜We can do this. We can do this here at Choctaw.'

And so we initiated what we call the Indigenous Law Project and this project basically...the original objectives of this project was to gather as much information from our elders concerning customary law, issues such as probate, disciplining of children, the structure of our society and how important -- being a matrilineal society -- those duties and responsibilities of individual members of the family and how important those things played in the role of the family, but not only the family, the community and the tribe as well. Now we weren't as fortunate as a number of the tribes west of the Mississippi to have been able to maintain and continue practices of traditional ceremonies and clan systems and things of that sort. However, there were few aspects that we continued to carry on that we needed to document. Now it goes against what normal translation would be in the sense of oral history, passing it down orally from one generation to another. Unfortunately, society has given us other opportunities with technology, unfortunately and fortunately, because the unfortunate thing is that we're not practicing this oral history, we're not sitting down and talking as a family. We're too busy texting one another half of the time. And so it seemed to me that the best thing to do is put the technology...benefit from this technology and use it. And so we initiated a number of interviews for, I believe, about three summers of just collecting interviews. And what I got away from the information or the exchange was how willing the elders were wanting to sit down and talk. Of course it was warming them up, putting them in front of a camera and the mic and all of this and of course we'd ham them up a little bit. "˜Well, you're going to be on TV,' and all of that. "˜You're the next movie star.' And so once they warmed up and you began asking questions, all of the outside distractions faded away and they went right into it and to be able to go back and pull all those memories and all of what they have been taught, that sense of pride of, "˜I'm proud of who I am and this is who...this is what I was taught and I'm so glad I'm able to teach you.' Now I did get my hand slapped at one point because I was asking my auntie, my great aunt, a question and she said, "˜You should know this.' I got put in my place real quick. "˜You should know this,' and as I sat there and I thought, of course I sat up a little straighter after she did that, but after I thought about it, I said, "˜Yeah, I do.' I had to go back and think because we weren't having that sit-down and we weren't having those opportunities without all the other distractions going on, of just sitting down and talking. And that's what we don't do anymore.

And so I say all that to say this: we got a wealth of just raw information, just conversations, and then...so what do we do with this? We begin extracting values out of each of these interviews and we're able to construct this circular...and we put it in a...we intentionally put it in a circular model because it's never ending. Our core values are never ending. And we developed about 12 core values and I can't think of each of them right now, but I do have that information, but it all centered around the family. It all centered around the family and one of the other objectives that I had...I had another project within the cultural center was, "˜Well, okay what do you do with information? How do you get this information across to the audience, the target audience you're shooting for here?' And so I looked at this project two-fold. One for the practitioner, the attorney that's coming into the court who may be arguing a child custody case and not understanding the matrilineal society rules as it were. And so there's a document that he can cite as he argues in court. Of course obviously -- if all things are equal with both parties -- society dictates...the tribe dictates traditionally that children would go into the custody of the mother. Discipline would continue with both sides, but the mother's brother, the uncle of the children also stepped in and took a role as well, whether it be a division... dissolving of a marriage or just within disciplining children. And so having that documented in a court opinion is very significant because it lays out for you customary law and it's there in black and white.

But the other objective, again two-fold, is how you use this information and we're always looking at... again, and it just... everything interweaves with one another, self-determination, and it's getting this information to the younger generation. "˜Well, how do we do that? How do you use this tool and where do you use it?' The most ideal place to use it was within the school system and we're fortunate enough to have a tribal school system. And so the next phase of this project was to develop a curriculum to incorporate this information into the school system starting at the very earliest level of elementary school, because you're in elementary school pledging allegiance to the flag -- to the [United States of America] flag. You're learning about presidents, you're learning about government, you're learning as you move along civics and your duty and responsibilities as a citizen of the United States of America, but what about your duties as a tribal member, talking about the importance of voting, the responsibilities of a leader, as chief, your council? Do you know exactly how many members are on your council? Do you know exactly how many and why there are three council members in one community versus only one in another? These are the things that need to go hand in hand with the instruction of state government, of local government and how state, federal and tribal all interplay with one another, and we don't have that, unfortunately, across the boards, across Indian Country really, you really don't have that. So my intention was using Indigenous law, this project, to relay what customary law is, but also incorporating information about government, tribal government, the judiciary. Because if you look at tribal government, Choctaw tribal government, we are so different from the U.S. government because we're a two-branch government. And, well, why is that? And then it goes into the IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution, it just...it just dominoes in information. And that's what's key. And so that was one of the projects that I initiated there as well.

Another project I initiated, again, and it interweaves with self-determination is the internship program, which was very important for us because we were looking at...with every tribe you want to have as many tribal members in professional positions as possible. We're a membership of almost 10,000 and there's only so many Choctaws and not everybody wants to be a doctor, not everybody wants to be an attorney, not everybody wants to be an accountant, but you also needed to provide a place for career exploration to say, "˜Well, maybe I might not want to be a judge, but I might want to be a probation officer or I may want to be a paralegal or I may want to be an attorney or I may want to be a judge or I may want to be a court administrator,' but giving them that opportunity. So I set up this project during the summer and it was a three-tier project. It started with your...the high school students, your juniors and seniors. We partnered with Boys and Girls Club. They have a leadership component to it called 'Keystone Club' and we opened it up to those individuals if they were interested and then of course to just the general population of that age group if they were interested to come in.

And we also had the second tier, which were college students who may be interested, and of course opening it also up to law students just to have an opportunity to see Indian law in action at the local level. It was a 13-week project. I partnered with a program called Youth Opportunity Projects with the tribe, which helped us with funding because money's always an issue and kids need money for the summer. So that was an incentive. We also partnered with a number of universities, Millsaps College, Southern [University], Mississippi State [University], Bellhaven [University] for those students, Memphis State University. For those students who were coming in at the college level, I didn't want them to waste this experience, and if there was an opportunity to utilize the internship program for them as well to gain benefit, I welcomed that. But also it provided us this window of opportunity to educate even the colleges as well, and so it's been a really great thing to see this thing progress. We've hit some dips here and there. Again, not everybody is wanting to go into the legal field, but we've had a number...we had a really large number.

Two years ago, we had maybe about four individuals going through. And then the year that the Edgar Ray Killen case was ongoing -- that was that summer of the 40th anniversary I believe, if I'm not mistaken, of the slaying of the three civil rights workers. That was just so important and a part of their internship program was to go and sit in that hearing and listen to testimony and to see...to look across the well of this courtroom and to see a diverse jury sitting there of African-Americans, of just the members of the community, which you would never have seen 40 years ago, obviously not. And to listen to testimony and to hear what had happened during that time, for them it's just...it's history, but it's something that people of my generation...I was born in 1964 and the things that I experienced growing up in the South during that time, not knowing how much of an impact it was going to have on me later once I understood, "˜I'm being denied service.' And so I want the young people to understand how difficult it was for the tribe to move forward, to get to where they are. They had so many different obstacles. And again, all these projects -- the Indigenous Law Project, the internship program, teen court -- all of these different projects have recurring themes of, 'Remember where you've been, how important your role as a tribal member is to our society.'"

Ian Record:

"You mentioned teen court, which is what I was going to ask you about next, as well as some of the other initiatives that grew out of the 1997 reform and particular initiatives that incorporated consciously the Choctaw values that you've discussed. So tell us a little bit about teen court and specifically, why was it developed, how does the process work, perhaps how does it engage those young people and work to teach them the value of their role in moving the nation forward?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"It's very interesting how teen court developed because we were in pretty much temporary housing and we were very limited in regards to detention space and we were seeing more and more of our young people getting into trouble at various degrees of severity and some of them very minimal, but still required some type of sentencing of sorts. And we weren't making an impact simply because our young people have been desensitized. "˜So I'm going to go to jail, so what? I'll go do my time, I come out.' And then secondly, because we weren't able to house them on site, on the reservation, we were having to use outside facilities that made it even almost more enticing. "˜Hey, I got to go to Scott County and be with the really tough people,' and that type of mentality. And so we were struggling, we were struggling. And within the youth code, it said that using detention was the very last alternative, but that's all we were using and we needed to find some mechanisms of using other alternatives to help deter juvenile delinquency.

And we were looking at other models. I'm real big about "˜look at a model.' There's no sense in reinventing the wheel. If something is working somewhere else, let's pull it in and let's pull pieces out to see if we can 'Choctaw-ize' it as it were and make it our own. So we investigated a number of models of teen court, a diversion program, which gives the youth court the opportunity to of course allow the juvenile delinquent a sentencing, but it's more so by his peers. The way the process starts out is the juvenile delinquent is brought before the court, goes through adjudication. If the court finds the delinquent...the juvenile delinquent of the offense, then if the judge feels that this is an issue that can be handled in teen court, then the case is then transferred into teen court. Teen court is more of a sentencing court of the teen's peers. Also we have members of our teen community who come in and serve in different capacities, as prosecutor, as defense counsel, bailiff, members of the jury panel, but the only adult that's in there is the judge himself or herself -- I've served as a teen court judge -- and the diversion coordinator. Those are the only adults that are involved, as well as the party's parents who are coming in. And so they go through this process, the go through the hearing, the case is presented to the judge again, but the jury ultimately decides.

And it was very amazing to watch the process when we set up a mock hearing or it was even the actual hearing, the actual first hearing. We'd gone and done some training with them and gave them the tools of what they needed and then we had an actual case. Well, they came back with a very severe sentencing. I can't recall exactly what the offense was, maybe breaking and entering or something of that sort, but they were given multiple hours of community service, they were going to write this letter of apology, they wanted them to stand at the corner of an intersection and say, "˜This is my offense,' and everything. And so we had to kind of reel them back in and say, "˜Let's really think about this.' And so when we initiated it in early 2000, it was very slow going because it's like, "˜Oh, what is this? Do I want to be a part of this? Is this geeky or what?' But as it moved along, people got more involved in it and we had more young women who were involved in it and we were really pushing hard to recruit young men, and eventually it's grown now. I went to their banquet last month and they have a total of 80 active members of teen court.

One of the other components within the sentencing of the juvenile delinquent is that he or she is to also serve three terms within a setting so if during a semester that there's three cases, that individual has to come after he's completed what he has to do for his sentencing, he's got to get in there and serve as a juror too, which was initially done by design to get him on the right track, him or her, on the right track basically and get them involved in that process because I want young people to see the other side of the bench. I don't want them to be only...their only point of reference is standing in front of the bench. I want them to know what happens behind the bench and so again, giving them that opportunity. Do some of them take it, they do and then they just kind of...either they embrace it or they don't, just like with anything else. But it was always good to see when you had success stories in that regard, because we know nationally that normally children who enter into the youth court arena eventually move into the adult criminal court setting, and you try really hard to get them out of that track of sorts. And so that was an alternative that we looked at, "˜Well, what else can we do?' Because obviously traditional form of court was not working, the adversarial form of court was not working. They were getting desensitized. It wasn't having an impact. So what do we do? And that's one of the things under my leadership I continuously looked at, "˜What are other alternatives that we can look at to help curb a lot of the offenses that are going on within Indian Country to create healthy communities locally at Choctaw and across Indian Country and so several different programs began cropping up. One of them was Healing To Wellness which..."

Ian Record:

"I was just going to ask you about that."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yeah, which was just phenomenal for me because we have such a high rate of offenses that were committed under the influence of alcohol. So what do we do? All we were doing basically was having this revolving door of people just coming through, domestic violence cases, public drunk, DUIs, so many different things happening and we recognized it was revolving around alcohol abuse. And so what do we do? So we looked at this model, we applied for an implementation...planning grant and we went to a series of trainings and found that this model meshed with the core values of this tribe and we eventually were able to receive a grant to start us off for three years. That grant has no longer, now has ended and we're no longer under that funding source. However, we presented to the tribe once our three years was up, "˜This program has ended and we really want to continue it.' And that's one of the issues that tribes face all the time is sustainability. And so how do we sustain this?

Well, we were able to present to the tribe how successful it was and that we were able to hit all the benchmarks that we had proposed in the grant. And a lot of...because it's a multi-disciplinary approach where an individual may be a first offender of DUI or alcohol-related crime and the judge feels that this may be a case that's prime for Healing to Wellness and then we'll transfer that case over into that program. It's a year-long process, which means the individual has the opportunity to opt in or opt out with it if the judge wants to transfer this over because they may say, "˜Forget it, I know I'm not going to be able to do this, let me pay the fine, let me do my jail time and let me move on.' But then you have those people who are really ready for change or who may be at the crossroads of their life and say, "˜I do need help and I do want to change.'

And so the individual then enrolls into this program and they have a multi-disciplinary team that works with them on a weekly basis and they go through the rigors of the program itself. Yes, they're required to meet with their probation officer, they meet with a behavioral health person, the judge is also involved, the Healing to Wellness judge is also involved in this. So you've got about maybe six to seven people that come together once a week, they review cases and then they have all the individuals, it's a group effort where they all come in and they go over what was the expectation for the week, what they were supposed to do, did they accomplish those things and then if they didn't, there are penalties and you're not able to phase -- it's a four-phase project -- you're not able to phase out so it just takes longer for you to move through the program.

And at the end of it, I've gone to a number of graduations. It's always been very emotional for these people because they see where they were going and they now know and have the keys basically because for them if they were...if this was a really big issue for them, dealing with alcoholism that it was going to be a day-to-day process. And so having those relationships developed with people in behavioral health was going to be more key for them, but we also recognize that we would have to cut the tether and that they themselves were going to have to make good choices. And so it was really...it was a really good exercise for them and for us as professionals within this area and also as community members to see this happen, because you want success, you want them to be successful and you want them to have the success not only for themselves, but for their family as well, because you know that there's a lot of them that come from very dysfunctional homes and they're the primary person who's bringing the income in and how important it is too, if not for yourself for your family, as well."

Ian Record:

"So these sorts of initiatives, the Healing to Wellness court, the teen court -- those are directly geared towards restoring health within the community and then there's the challenge of handling all of your relationships with outsiders that particularly grow out of economic development and all the commerce that involves outside entities, whether they're vendors, whether they're employees who are non-tribal who live off the reservation, whatever it might be. So when you guys really moved forward full bore with your economic development you had to be ready. And so you've put in several rules, policies, institutions within the court system, within tribal government to ensure that your justice is prepared for that challenge to meet the growth, the challenge of managing that growth. And I wanted to have you talk about a few of those and first off are a couple of things internal to the court system itself and that is the qualifications of judges. Can you talk about the qualifications that are mandated in the Choctaw tribal code for judges, how they're selected, approved, removed, and what sort of requirements do they need to be able to sit on the bench?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, the process itself, this...the judgeships are appointed positions. They are nominated by the leadership, by the chief, presented to the tribal council, the council then confirms them, but you have a list of qualifications that helps you filter through those individuals who may be interested or who you feel that might be qualified and able to sit on the bench. There's an age requirement, 35. So that tells you I'm over 35. You have to have a minimum of two years of college, a tribal member, which is key. One of the other requirements that -- because we had to have on the bench law-trained judges -- was that the chief has the ability to waive the membership. And so that's how we were able to have non-tribal members sit as well as non-Indians sit so that we could be able to provide, again to be able to handle the types of cases, the complex cases that would be coming in in regards to commercial law and civil jurisdictional issues on this bench. And so we were able to strengthen our civil division to be able to handle the types of cases that we anticipated coming before this court.

Another thing that the court did or the council did as well, which was earlier on in the mid to late "˜80s, was incorporate a canon of ethics. Initially that was set up primarily for the judges. And again, I think at that time it was more of setting the code up, "˜So let's get some models,' and so there never really was any deviation from the ABA's [American Bar Association's] canons of ethics. So they're pretty straightforward and mirror exactly what ABA states as well. Back in, I believe it was early 2000 or the late "˜90s, because the...no, it was the early-2000s era, because our system was growing, our staff was growing from a staff of prior to reorganization of maybe five to six people to now a staff of 32 people -- 12 members on the bench and support staff -- we felt that it was very important for them to also understand what it was to serve as a judicial officer and that they too needed canons of ethics to follow as well, although those should be inherent as just being people of the court and understanding why we're there, but we felt that they too were a part of this larger system of justice and needed to also have these canons as well. And we also shared with them, "˜It's not to hinder you. It's to also protect you because you will have other forces coming at you,' and so, "˜No, I can't. That violates my canons of ethics.' There you go, it's a shield. And so we incorporated and put that through the process of review with the Judicial Affairs Committee, which is the legislative oversight of the system and eventually brought it before the full council for approval and it was approved. There continues to be challenges because of where we sit within the organization of government, serving as a statutory court. Well, then you also are bound by your administrative personnel policies and that lack of understanding. Well, there are these things called canons of ethics and it's like this, what do we do with it kind of thing. We haven't really had any violations of canons of ethics on the judicial side of it, so we have not ever initiated any kind of mechanisms of removal, but the code is clear. If there are clear violations of the canons of ethics, that is grounds for removal and there is a process within the code, but beyond the language within the code, there isn't actually step-by-step processes, which was, as you know, there's a long laundry list of things to do and you just can't get to all of them. And so that was one of the other things that needed to be looked at. Well, you have this body of law, but there are no processes to...once the mechanism is triggered, what do you do? And so that was one of the other areas that needed to be worked on and hopefully they will at some point get back to that."

Ian Record:

"So there's this issue of the court ensuring its own integrity, essentially building those shields against either corruptive behavior, self-interested behavior -- whatever it might be -- and then there's this issue of, "˜Well, how do we help to neutralize any political impulses that may come from outside forces to actually interfere in the court's jurisprudence?' And so, specifically, there's a couple things that have been put in place to help mitigate against those impulses specific to the council and any behavior they may exhibit. So there's a couple things that you guys have put in place. Can you talk about those things? How has Choctaw worked to try to control any sort of political interference from the outside?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, even you as a judicial officer get inundated with a lot of ex parte[communications]. As I shared with you earlier in our conversation, as a judge you don't have the ability to just blend into the general populace; you can't. You've got people you see at the grocery store, at the post office, down the street at the gas station while you're pumping gas for your car and then someone will come up and say, "˜Hey, this is what's going on. Can you help me?' Or you have families that are in crisis and the only thing as a judge you can say is, "˜I can't help you, you need to get an attorney, you need to get advice from an attorney.' And that's one level, but then there's the other level of when you have tribal council crossing the line and wanting to apply pressure at making changes of decisions or in regards to possibly constituents in incarceration and things of that sort.

And I want to believe that council members are coming with good intentions. It may be the man who is the only person that works in this family of five and he's gotten picked up and he's got to serve 30 days in jail, which means the possibility of his...of losing his job is great, which means there will be no income coming in and so you have the councilman that is saying, "˜Can you reconsider, can you make this change?' And so I want to...all of these issues put it in the light of they're really looking at the best interest of the constituent. That may not be so, I also recognize that as well, and the code is clear in regards to tribal council members. They're not allowed to come into court and practice as an advocate. They cannot come and represent a tribal member within court. Just the mere presence -- and that was hard for them to understand -- because just the fact that you're sitting in the well of that court can be perceived as applying pressure on a judge because the judge is not naí¯ve; he knows why you're there. You don't come to court every day to sit and watch tribal court in action simply because you don't have anything to do. And so just the appearance of it really would...the messages are sent. And so having that in place, as well as not allowing council members to sign bond or post bond and bail for individuals in incarceration was also another body of law that they put into place. That was really hard for them to understand, that you can't...you're just not allowed to..."˜I can't accept your money,' you're just not allowed to do that. And what it also provided was this means of insulating the two bodies, the judicial body and the legislative body, from that appearance of impropriety. It's a hard call because you're shifting, your code and your law is shifting in such a way that you have all these very specific things and it's like, "˜Why can't I do this? I'm trying to help the people.' And the unfortunate thing is that you may be doing a disservice for them by not allowing them to pay the price, the consequences of their actions because it's obviously detrimental, possibly if this is a habitual person who are not making change. They need to go through the process; maybe we get them into Healing to Wellness.

There are just...you've got to allow the process to take place, you can't interfere with process because that's the entire premise of this sovereignty, is allowing process to take place to allow us to interpret law and to perform and to render decisions. And if you're not happy, another thing that we also put into place was strengthening the supreme court, because initially it was set up as a court of appeals with the lower court judges serving as the reviewers of the case minus the division that the case came out of and it didn't quite work well. And so because of all this growth and the economic development, the population and everything, the idea was, "˜There needs to be a higher tier of court totally separate from the lower court.' Has it worked? It has worked. Has it had problems? Yes, it has had problems because we're still trying to figure out the role of the chief justice because even internally that role of the chief justice, which I struggled with every day, was the fact that I served as the principal judicial officer. I had two roles: I was the judicial officer, the chief justice for the supreme court, but I also was the court administrator over all of this system. And so you had issues of conflict at times whereas, okay, there's a complaint coming in from a judge on a particular case; procedurally, as their supervisor, administratively, I would receive these complaints. And so we had to look at another means of getting this information around so that someone else can be a reviewer, but then as a supervisor how can I get in there and evaluate performance if...you might have a judge that just sits there and sleeps through the entire session and then just drops the hammer and says, "˜Guilty!' And so how do you do that? And it was a constant struggle. We looked at a number of models, and the unfortunate thing is we weren't ever able to execute a way that I could administer fairly without that appearance of becoming involved in cases that had the potential of moving into the supreme court and that continues to be a struggle because you certainly -- and again, I'm real bad about talking out of both sides of the mouth -- you certainly don't want to have a rule for everything. You've got to be able to use some judicial discretion in judgment."

Ian Record:

"So there's this challenge internally of building a strong and independent court system, demonstrating it in practice, and then there's the further challenge of having to serve as an advocate for that system and go out and actually educate not only your own community but outsiders to say, "˜Hey, you need to take us seriously. We're a strong and independent court system. We can provide fair and effective justice to not only our own members, but outsiders as well.' You and your colleagues within the court system have made a concerted effort over the years to advocate for the court system, to build those relationships with outside entities, intergovernmental relationships that have really served the tribe and the court system very well. Can you talk about some of those?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Yes, that's always a challenge when you're having to lobby for the court. It's a juggling act because again, it's that relationship and you're presenting to your council who approves your budget of the activities of the court, the increases of the docket and, "˜Well, why do you need this much money? All you're doing is sitting there and providing justice.' Well, it's so much more than that with operations and looking at other alternatives and means to provide wellness to the community. Going to the area of education, that is what is key because people don't understand the system and it's a very...it's not a difficult system, but it is a tedious system because you have to go just...my question always is, "˜What happens when the paper hits the window of the court? Where does it go because that is not only paper, that's a party, that is a person, that is an issue that is happening out in the community. What happens to it? Where does it go?' And it goes through so many different steps and council members, the legislative body, just really doesn't understand why it takes..."˜Why does it take so long? Why does it take so long to get the case before the judge?' And so it's educating them. We initiated a symposium back in 2001 and we had tried to do this on an annual basis for our practitioners, but also for the general public to understand Choctaw justice, the judicial system and the legal community itself and to help them navigate through it and to also bring to them very specific issues such as issues of gaming, the latest cases that are coming before the Supreme Court, where they are and the impacts they may have on us individually as tribes. We also looked at a topic of economic development and the importance of having our practitioners prepared for maybe minimal cases in the sense of you may have a salesman coming through the tribe selling his wares and for whatever reason it doesn't work out and it ends up landing in court, all this commercial information. And then also, whenever we had new laws that were put into place, this was the forum to get that information out and also for them to have their bar meeting. No, it's not a very large bar, but we also wanted to keep in touch with them to let them know what was happening because as an attorney you're going through the daily rigors of it and it's pretty...it's the same stuff over and over basically of what they're dealing with and so it's just preparing them for whatever may pop up and then when you least expect it, it happens, a membership issue, possibly a challenge -- things of that sort. And we also provide for the council an opportunity to have a summit to sit down and talk with them during the session of things that they may want to...and this is more in closed doors so that...I've always believed if we've got issues that we have to deal with that, let's deal with it here at home because we certainly don't need it out in the public. One, there in the community because then it questions the trust of the system, but two, out in greater society because then it really may reflect a negative connotation of this thing called 'justice' on the reservation. And so if there are issues or problems, let's hammer it out here, let me know what may be an issue or problem and also we can also reciprocate with that and share with you what some of the challenges that we may be facing. For example, as we talked earlier, this issue of ex parte [communications] or trying to get to the judge to make changes and how important our integrity as a court system needs to remain intact. And so we were fortunate to be able to have those communications, but even more so that we were able to reach out beyond our own jurisdiction to the jurisdiction of the state and that was one of the very key things that happened during my tenure with this court was the ability to open that door with the Supreme Court for the State of Mississippi.

I had this visit where Chief Justice Jim Smith and his associate Jim Waller, Jr. came down and they wanted to have a conversation. And we sat down and we talked and I shared with them what our system was all about and we...and that's what initially began the conversation and then he invited me to come in and talk with a group of municipal judges at their annual association and then we invited him to our symposium to serve as our guest speaker. We also invited the state attorney general to come in and serve as a speaker and so we've been able to have that give and take and I've always believed...it's like, "˜Well, why didn't it happen earlier? Why didn't it happen way before my time?' But I truly believe it's time and place that really plays a key role and we were both open to having this dialogue. What else has spun from that, on the federal side we're able to have...because of relationship building more so with the leadership and at the federal level we have the ability -- which we may have already talked about earlier -- having a U.S. District attorney come to the tribe and office with us one day a week to handle cases that may be going through the federal system, which is unheard of. You don't have that across Indian Country if...I'm sure it's very few, if any, that have that ability to have a U.S. District attorney come in on the reservation and sit. We also have a U.S. probation officer that comes in as well. And again, that was developing relationships, [intergovernmental] relationships."

Ian Record:

"And don't those have really powerful benefits in terms of understanding because you have these outside entities that for many tribes have long interfered with tribal justice systems and now they're -- instead of being adversary or a constant source of irritation or interference -- they're now potentially an ally, or at least saying, "˜We recognize your authority, we recognize your competence,' etc.?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Exactly and I believe that is, that's the clear message that it sends and that we are all partners now in this. And also we've experienced the same type of relationship building with the county system as well. We had two tribal members who had an issue in county court and the judge picks up the phone, and it was an issue he felt that could be handled in our peacemaking court and he says, "˜You know, I think that you could better deal with this than I can,' and he transferred a case out of county court to tribal court. And I don't...it never...for some people they just never really wrapped their mind around that, and I'm like, "˜Can you believe that even happened?' That was just something that was just really, to me it was historic, it was something you just don't...you wouldn't even think it could happen and it happened. But again, it goes back to that...the thinking that this is a stable system, this is a court system of integrity. You will receive fairness in this system. Some people may not agree with the system all the time, but they know they got a fair shot in there. And so if anything that's the clear message."

Ian Record:

"I want to wrap up with a quote from former Chief Phillip Martin and he made this statement a few years back. He was delivering, I believe, delivering a talk at Harvard and he was asked by a student, "˜Are you at all concerned that all the economic growth you've experienced has had a negative impact on your culture?' And he said -- he thought for a second -- then he said, "˜I don't know. It used to be everyone was leaving and now they're coming home.' And really what he was talking about was through this economic growth we've had an opportunity to create stability and to bring opportunities to our people. Can you comment on his statement and perhaps address specifically the role of the justice system in creating that environment of stability and opportunity?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"With the dramatic growth, you have your members coming back in, but how does this relate to the system, to the justice system? Twenty years ago, you would never have...I would never have had the opportunity to come as a tribal member and sit in a position of authority to assist our people in regards to justice. It may not have ever happened. I completed my college education. I could have easily left, but I chose not to; I chose to stay and become a servant of the tribe and to provide that service to them. And had the landscape not been such where I could have had that opportunity, it wouldn't have happened. Where would we have been had things not taken place, we probably would not have moved mountains as we have now. And so it just sounds so much like Chief Phillip Martin. "˜Yeah, they're coming back, they're not leaving anymore.' And if anything it strengthens who we are as a people. And we have so many talented people and now there's an opportunity to show that talent, for them to step up and take on these roles of leadership in different capacities. Not just the ultimate leadership but leadership within your community, leadership within the work that you're doing, leadership even within the State of Mississippi coming in as an entrepreneur, bringing employment and economic diversity to not only the tribe and the state. So yeah, they're not leaving, they're coming back and there's something to come back to and that's home."

Ian Record:

"Well, great Rae Nell. I really thank you for your time. It's been quite an education. That's it for today's program of Leading Native Nations. To learn more about Leading Native Nations, please visit nni.arizona.edu. Until next time, I'm Ian Record. Thank you for joining us. Copyright 2009 Arizona Board of Regents." 

From the Rebuilding Native Nations Course Series: "Clarifying Roles and Delegating Responsibility"

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

Native leaders discuss the need for Native nations to define the distinct roles of elected leaders and administrators, and the importance of leaders delegating responsibilities to those appropriately charged with day-to-day administraion. 

Native Nations
Citation

Diver, Karen. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations seminar. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 16-18, 2009. Presentation.

Ducheneaux, Wayne. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Spearfish, South Dakota. April 11, 2012. Interview.

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

Marquez, Deron. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy. University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2009. Interview.

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

Minthorn, Antone. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 17, 2009. Interview.

Mitchell, Michael K. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. 2008. Interview.

Michael Mitchell:

"And I had one policy. I didn't think we had any business running the administration side. We're politicians. So I had discussion with council, saying, 'Let's do our politics, and we hired these people -- let them do their administration.' So separating administration and politics was one of the first objectives, and it worked."

Urban Giff:

"...Have a better understanding among all the players, all the decision-makers as to who has the resources to do what, and that's where the bureaucracy comes in. The bureaucracy [is] there, the bureaucrats are there because they have qualifications in their respective areas. The politicians are there because they have rapport with the voters and they have the vision for the tribe. And if you put those two together, the politicians with their vision of what is to be done, what they're striving to get done, and the bureaucracy and the bureaucrats of how it's to be done, that can't help but win for the tribe. So no one segment can do it alone. They have to work together as best as they can."

Leroy LaPlante, Jr.:

"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 gonna 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 elected to do. And so that's what I meant by a short-term effect and a long-term effect."

Wayne Ducheneaux:

"I think that's most everybody's approach is to bail in and get busy and get helping. It's a very hard thing to do to step back, especially when you're an elected official. You only have 'X' amount of years to get what you want accomplished so of course you're going to want to bail in and make that quick change. It is hard to plan out for the future but that's what we have to do is when you become an elected official is you have to think about the bigger picture."

John McCoy:

"That's where the leadership, the elected leadership – their role is to set policy. Their role is not day-to-day administration. They set policy, then let their organizations function. Trust them – they'll do the right thing."

Deron Marquez:

"Having the right people in place from legal to the chief financial officer to the operations of our various businesses is critical when you're out there trying to address and deal with state issues, county issues, federal issues. To rely upon those individuals makes my job a lot easier. Yesterday we talked a lot about micromanagement. If you want to have a big headache and you don't want to sleep at night, micromanage. There's a quicker, easier way to get this done and that's not it. Hire talented people. Put them in the position, give them the authority to make decisions, support their decisions and you will have an easier life as a chair."

Antone Minthorn:

"Let managers manage. Don't micromanage, and hire the people that are smarter than you, meaning that that's their job. I can't go in and be a real estate agent, 'cause I'd have to do a lot of study for a long time to make that happen. So we have to bring in the right people."

Karen Diver:

"I have 28 different divisions. I'm not an educator. I am not a healthcare administrator. I certainly am not an environmentalist. Why on earth wouldn't I use the expectations and the skills of my staff to inform my decision making? The accountability comes is if they get it wrong. 'Okay, you mucked that one up. Now what you going to do to fix it?' That's their role. We set policy and vision. They know what the vision is. They have to come prepared to us to own it. I am not going to take responsibility for every single bit of work that comes out of my reservation. We have 2,000 employees. How could I even think I could do that? But they did. Then they wondered why they had eight-hour meetings and never had time for people and never were able to set the vision. It's a vicious little cycle. We use our own power to keep us out of touch with our own people. And we don't hold our staff accountable because of it. Basic management principles: distinguish between decision making and what is planning; use your tribal council to plan; use what you have to under your own rules for decision making; and then let your staff do their work." 

Honoring Nations: Loren Bird Rattler, Ray Montoya and Jay St. Goddard: Siyeh Corporation

Producer
Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
Year

Representatives from the Siyeh Corporation present an overview of the corporation's establishment and growth to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Bird Rattler, Loren, Ray Montoya, and Jay St. Goddard. "Siyeh Corporation." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Thank you, Amy. As she mentioned, my name is Loren Bird Rattler. I'm the Manager of the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery, a business line of the parent company Siyeh Corporation. I would like to first thank the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development for allowing us a forum to certainly showcase our successes that we've had at Siyeh Corporation back in Blackfeet Country.

With that said, I'd like to begin with the question, 'Why was Siyeh Corporation created?' First, a legal enterprise was needed to develop and operate business opportunities for the Blackfeet Tribe. This enterprise needed to be a for-profit entity that would provide an alternative source of revenue for the Blackfeet Tribe as well as create a source of revenue...I'm sorry, a source of revenue for the Blackfeet Tribe as well as create additional jobs for the local economy. But more specifically, it was to create an enterprise whose day-to-day business decisions and practices were separate from tribal politics and decision making. This process happened in four phases: analysis and bench marketing, petitioning the Secretary of Interior, the approval of that petition, and finally ratification by the Blackfeet Tribe.

In 1997 the Blackfeet Planning Department began to script plans for a for-profit company that would be semi-autonomous from tribal political influence and decision-making. The Planning Department embraced a new paradigm of thinking that would change the dynamic of how the Blackfeet Tribe would and could create and sustain profitable businesses. The first task was an analysis on the approach to economic development on the Blackfeet Reservation. During this analysis, the Planning Department began to benchmark other tribes to find out what types of infrastructure they were using in tribal enterprises and businesses. From this analysis, a new comprehensive economic development strategy was put in place to create a for-profit corporation. Many of the principles were taken directly from the concepts of 'Reloading the Dice, Improving Economic Development on American Indian Reservations,' which was found in the publication American Indian Economic Development from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

In early 1999 the Planning Department drafted the corporate charter for Siyeh Corporation under the framework of Section 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Upon completion of the draft, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council passed resolution number 10899 and shortly thereafter petitioned the Secretary of Interior. Upon approval of the petition by the Deputy Commissioner of Indian Affairs on July 8th, 1999, the proposal was sent back to the Blackfeet Tribe for ratification. During this time, a new council had been elected and inaugurated and a referendum was passed changing the structure of terms for the council from two-year terms to staggered four-year terms. Of course this created a new problem for Siyeh. We had to re-lobby a new council, that some of them serving two years, some of them serving four years in 2000. After this lobbying effort was launched, we were able to convince the Chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and therefore get the rest of the council on board. After that happened, of course the charter was ratified on January 3rd, 2001. Because of the language of Section 17 of the Indian Reorganization Act, once ratified by the tribe, it requires an act of Congress to dissolve, further limiting potential influence or potential political influence.

From the drafting of the charter to present day, Siyeh Corporation has and will continue to have struggles. In the beginning, it was very difficult getting local businessmen to serve on the board of directors simply because of the mistrust toward tribal enterprises following a number of failed business ventures. The tribal government and to a greater extent the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council's role is continually being defined and redefined with every incoming council. In the very beginning of course, there was problems with a lack of funding to get the corporation off the ground. The struggle with public perception and the old political philosophy that the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council should have the final say on all matters coupled with Siyeh Corporation's approach to problem solving presents a public relations challenge that Siyeh Corporation continues to address and remedy today.

Siyeh Corporation has five successful business lines. In 1999, the Blackfeet Tribe acquired Starling Cable Company, which was in jeopardy of losing programming. The company has increased subscriptions and offers a public access channel for community programming. In April 2000, under the threat of closure from the National Indian Gaming Commission, Siyeh inherited the Glacier Peaks Casino in Browning. Glacier Peaks Casino now operates seven days a week with exceptional revenue. Kimmie Water was created in late 2000 to deliver five-gallon water jugs to the community due to the poor quality of water with the present water system that exists on the reservation. And in 2002, Discovery Lodge Casino was created to tap into the eastern reservation gaming market. And finally, in mid-2002 with the acquisition of the inventory from the Northern Plains Arts Cooperative, Siyeh Corporation created the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery. The center provides an outlet for local artists, artisans, and crafts people to market their work as well as advocate through programming Blackfeet cultural and traditional preservation.

Currently, there are four future projects that are being developed under Siyeh Corporation. A grocery store has surpassed its planning stage and now has a site as well as a distributor identified. The design for the store has been completed. An expansion to the Glacier Peaks Casino is underway. Construction began on a new 30,000-square-foot facility that will house 300-plus class two gaming machines, a 250-seat Bingo hall and a restaurant, lounge and gift shop. Plans have just got underway for a wireless internet business that will bring wireless internet service to rural residents of the Blackfeet Reservation. A feasibility study and business plan are now underway. Siyeh Corporation has completed an SBA 80 application that will aid in marketing Kimmie Water and integrated information technology services and solutions. It may also help with future federal contracting.

Siyeh Corporation has been instrumental in the development of the local economy. In 2004, Siyeh's five business lines paid out over one million dollars in payroll and disbursed $963,173 in dividends to corporate shareholders, the Blackfeet Tribe. Siyeh assets in the year 2000 were around $300,000 compared to nearly $800,000 today. These assets include real property, equipment, vehicles and inventory. Vicariously through its business lines, Siyeh Corporation aids in community development. By providing bottled water to community members, elders and diabetics, Kimmie Water provides a necessary resource that was lacking before. Starling Cable Television, through its community access channel number 37, provides local programming, including Blackfeet Tribal Business Council meetings, public forums, high school sports, and Blackfeet cultural and educational programming. Siyeh also helps with the cultural preservation by purchasing, marketing and exposing Blackfeet artists, artisans and crafts peoples' work. This practice in turn will allow the Blackfeet Heritage Center and Art Gallery to conduct educational workshops on traditional artistic practices. This venue, which includes Blackfeet culture and history teaches both non-Natives as well as our own youth about ourselves.

Siyeh Corporation was named after the Blackfeet warrior Siyeh or Mad Wolf. The spirit of Siyeh in the telling of tribal elders embodies independent thinking, shouldering responsibility for the work that has to be done, and taking bold action. Because of this inspiration, Siyeh Corporation will continue in its efforts to span strategically while protecting the environment, culture and tradition and will continue to be fearless, independent and true, as their motto states."

Alfreda Mitre:

"Congratulations. I had formulated three questions and during your presentation you answered all three of them, so I'll just take this time and say thank you for a wonderful presentation and I'll let the others if they have any questions to go ahead and do so."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Thank you."

Elsie Meeks:

"So I would imagine that this was fairly controversial in incorporating a Section 17 corporation."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Yes, it was."

Elsie Meeks:

"Well, that's an issue that I think a lot of tribes would struggle with. I guess if you could talk a little bit more about the reason that you decided to do that, because I know that that must have been a hard decision for you all to make but there must have been a good reason why you did it, and I'd just like you to expand on that a little bit because I think there's some good lessons here."

Loren Bird Rattler:

"Certainly and I'll defer that question to the economic development coordinator Ray Montoya."

Ray Montoya:

"Okay, I'll try to shed a little light on that question. One of the reasons we went with a federally chartered corporation was because in the past and up to that point in time most of the businesses were under the auspices of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council directly under tribal government and unfortunately under that structure the Blackfeet Tribe hasn't had one successful business as a tribal-owned business directly under the tribal government. And so we saw this as a way of changing that lack of success and then allowing a business to grow as it should without the lack of governmental interference."

Brian C. McK. Henderson:

"I would like to ask a follow-up question. You've basically created what in effect is a tribal holding company with a variety of different businesses underneath this one structure and if you could project out into the future and given the challenges that the tribe actually has in economic development and getting businesses going. Do you see the structure on the...under the Section 17 format helping you in the future or do you see it at some point something that you may want to actually change?"

Jay St. Goddard:

"Speaking on behalf of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and the experience I've had as a previous board member on the Siyeh Corporation, it is a model and we expand on it and we want to keep it because it does help us for future businesses and that's one of the main reasons it was put into place. And from past experience and being a leader on the council and knowing what goes on in the political realm and views you get from your membership, I feel it's important it stays in place because it does help our economic future, because changeover in Indian Country as everyone knows happens so regularly and each time there's a change, although we're elected officials, some of them come in thinking they know every answer to economic development or there's that certain money savior out there that's going to come in and save the tribe but that doesn't happen. And with this charter being in place, I think it helps the corporation sustain its ability to prove to the community -- slowly in some ways but fast in other ways -- that this is what we needed in place for a long time, to help us be a successful tribe and business-minded people we have. We have a lot of management people under this corporation that are helping us move these projects along. But it will definitely be a future need and as a tribal leader I hope this would stay in place and it's not taken away, it stays out of the realm of politics. I'm one of the tribal leaders that fight for this corporation every day and help the other tribal leaders understand that this is needed, it's not to be tossed around every time it's brought up to vote it down again. I use that because it's...the charter under the government or wherever it's...however it was created was a great idea. It just makes it harder for a simple motion or resolution for a new council to come in and dissolve this company. That's what'll keep it successful."