Monday, November 1, 2021
November marks Native American Heritage Month. I had the chance to celebrate Native Heritage Month a bit early when the University of Arizona hosted its first Tribal Leaders Summit. I had the opportunity to attend a lunchtime address by Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Principal Chief Hill and his Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri spoke about the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in McGirt, which recognized the existence of the Creek reservation in Oklahoma. As a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I was honored to meet Principal Chief Hill. (I have tried to post a picture, but the blog is working against me....).
Many of the Native Nations in our country have well established justice systems. Over the past months I have been blogging about the most recent issue of the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, which focuses on what lawyers and judges can do to help ameliorate the division in our country. As Judge Nicholson and I were putting together the issue, I really wanted to include a piece from a Tribal court judge. I was thrilled when Chief Justice JoAnn Jayne from the Navajo Nation's Supreme Court agreed to write a piece. Chief Justice Jayne was the perfect pick for a number of reasons. First, she has served on several different Tribal courts and as a state court judge. Second, she has a diverse practice background that includes service in the Montana Legislature. Third, according to the Navajo Courts webpage, "[t]he Navajo Nation court system is the largest Indian court system in the United States and has been called the 'flagship' of American tribal courts."
Chief Justice Jayne's article highlights several key points of Diné (Navajo) justice, including Kinship, Harmony/Balance, and Leadership. For example, lawyers are viewed as leaders. According to Chief Justice Jayne,
Lawyers and jurists take a solemn oath (Naat’áanii’ ‘ádee hadidziih) incorporating these tenets: to obey and defend the Navajo Nation and its laws (Diné bi na’hat’á doo ‘bibee nahaz’áanii bee sézįįdóó, bik’ eh ánísht’éé doo, dóó bich’ąąh sézįį dooleeł). In addition to defending laws, they swear that they, as leaders, will administer to the Diné with honor and respect. Finally, the affirmation of making and living a good life moves toward complete-ness. (Díí hózhǫǫgo bee ‘iiná ‘adeeshłiił doo hózhǫǫgo shí ‘iiná siláa dooleeł.)
Further, the concept of Kinship and Harmony guides how courts resolve disputes. As she explains, "Through 'talking things out' under the principle of K’é, 'courts assist in bringing litigants into Hózhǫ . . . courts bring people in dispute into harmony.' Through consideration of different approaches, parties are brought 'back into harmony' which is consistent with Navajo beliefs and principles."
Navajo culture teaches individuals to respect one another. The Navajo Supreme Court has said, "'Words are . . . not to be used to offend or intimidate.' 'Words are sacred and never frivolous in Navajo thinking.'”
Respect. Solidarity. Compassion. A duty to community. These are the principles that guide Navajo justice and culture. These are also principles that we can learn from.