The University of Idaho Law School became the first non-ivy league university to host the Navajo Nation Supreme Court March 21.
The court came to UI thanks to the efforts of second-year law student and member of the Navajo Nation, Neomi Gilmore, and the Native American Law Student Association and College of Law professor Angelique EagleWoman. During their visit the court heard oral arguments in Neptune Leasing, Inc. v. Mountain States Petroleum Corporation and Nacogdoches Oil and Gas, Inc. and hosted a forum where they explained the principles and traditions that guide them.
Gilmore said the process started after she met the justices at the Native American Pre-law Undergraduate Scholars Program. She said she knew the court had hosted oral arguments at law schools like Yale and Harvard before.
“I just asked myself, why not Idaho?” Gilmore said.
During the morning session the court heard arguments from Neptune and Nacogdoches, as well as the amicus argument from the assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation, Paul Spruhan. Neptune argued that the case should be decided by Navajo courts, while Nacogdoches argued it should be decided in Texas courts. Spruhan said the Navajo Nation did not have an opinion based on the shaky factual record of the case.
“The last lease we have in this case is from 1974,” Spruhan said. “We don’t know what happened since then. It could be that the three parties are arguing over something none of them have any right to.”
After hearing the arguments the court took the matter under advisement. A decision will be handed down in the next few weeks.
During the forum, Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said it is important to educate the public about tribal law in order to preserve their way of life.
“Whenever we decide, we have to educate the public, meaning we have to explain why a particular ancient law, a particular ancient value, applies to a case,” Yazzie said. “Our structure of government, at first glance people notice it is a three branch government and the assumption is that it is based on the American government with its constitution and with its branches.”
Yazzie said this isn’t the case. The structure is based on ancient laws about leadership of people.
“If you dig deep enough there is actually a fourth component, and that’s what we call in Navajo nayee, meaning those who have the responsibility of protecting,” Yazzie said. “In ancient society there has always been the protector, and you may think of the warrior society.”
He said the judicial branch administers justice based on ancient laws.
“Laws don’t necessarily come solely from human beings,” Yazzie said. “Laws come from the creator, the holy people, mother earth, the Universe. This is where laws come from, and human beings can never change that. They are absolute.”
Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley said the sovereign Navajo Nation occupies roughly the same amount of land as the state of West Virginia and has almost 300,000 residents. She said they have 11 district courts and the supreme court.
Associate Justice William Platero explained some of the workings of the Navajo court system. He said they have several volumes of codes and statutes, and that procedural rules are based on the federal rules. Lawyers must be licensed by their state Bar Association, as well as the Navajo Nation Bar. He said judges are appointed for life.
“I was appointed and confirmed in June of 2008. I went through my two year probation period and became a permanent judge. So it’s an appointment for the rest of my life, as long I behave myself,” Platero said.
Platero mentioned the traditional Navajo peacemaking courts, which are used to settle disputes between family members. He said peacemakers are usually community elders and the peacemaking courts are a cultural way of settling disputes based on respect.
Platero mentioned the tradition of asking for your family’s blessing before becoming a judge.
“I had to ask my mother, my father if they were ok with me becoming a judge,” Platero said. “Within Navajo society, at a meeting like this I would be expected to introduce myself by telling you who my mother and father are, and where I am from. I had to ask my parents if they were willing to be known in the public because of my judgeship.”
Platero said if they had any reservations about being known he could not have become a judge.
Yazzie said the closest translation for justice in Navajo means at peace. He said justice is commonly considered to mean that the offender is punished or hurt as retribution for the hurt of the victim. He said within the Navajo system it is important to restore the offender within the community, that there is more to justice than just punishment. He said the criminal justice system is foreign to Navajo, and that it was imposed on them by the federal government.
“The United States military were our prison guards at a concentration camp and they imposed a lot of practices before they would allow prisoners free, to go back to their lands,” Yazzie said. “One of them was that this is how you resolve disputes: you select a person wearing a black robe and you have these champions present the arguments. The person in the black robe makes a decision. That’s the imposition of the criminal justice system.”
Yazzie discussed his time as attorney general for the Navajo Nation. He said the federal government would ask them for nation’s position in cases where Navajo were being tried outside the reservation and the death penalty was being sought.
Yazzie said it is a struggle to get the government to acknowledge that they have Indian nations they have to deal with.
“We made an agreement recognizing each other years ago. It is important we uphold that agreement and that recognition. This government that you profess to represent in North America can only survive if you give respect to all native people, because we know one thing — the American government is totally dependent on diversity,” Yazzie said. “When we don’t get that respect, we have to do what we have to do to survive. EagleWoman mentioned the international forum to get the American government to come to its senses. Maybe that’s what it will take.”
Gilmore said the lack of recognition of Indian nations extends to education as well.
“If you read the history it’s amazing that we as Native Americans made it through all the travesties, and I think maybe that does have a lot to do with why people don’t know much about Native Americans. We’re taken out of history books,” Gilmore said. “I’m not sure why people don’t talk about these things. Maybe people feel uncomfortable. But I think through education and being positive we can come to a time where we are going to be able to respect each other as individuals. That’s something I was hoping would happen by bringing the Navajo Nation Supreme Court to Idaho.”
Andrew Deskins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org