50 Years Ago: Nakai praises rez court system

Back in 1967, the tribal court system was plagued with a number of problems, including judges who were appointed not because of what they knew about the law but many times because they were supporters of the chairman who appointed them.

They had little training but so did many of the people who came before them in the criminal and civil courts.

Decisions often took months and judges were always being accused of favoritism and there were reports that in some major cases the administration or local chapter officials would use their influence to determine the outcome.

There was no Supreme Court but there was an appeals process that nobody, even the judges, felt was fair all of the time.

In other words, if you had to go to court, you basically had to hope that the judge who heard your case was in a good mood that day.

But no matter what problems it had, everyone probably could agree that it was a lot better than the court systems of many other tribes.

But you wouldn’t believe the tribal court system had any problems if you listened to Navajo Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai who usually had only good things to say about the court system.
He got that opportunity on May of 1967 when he was invited to speak at an Indian law seminar at the University of New Mexico.

Now as a tribal chairman speaking to an auditorium filled with off-reservation lawyers and judges, you would think that this would be a perfect time to bring up some of the problems in order to get some good advice on how to fix them.

But that was not on Nakai’s agenda that day.

Instead, he issued a challenge to any off-reservation court system to hand down its decisions with as much accuracy and speed as the Navajo courts.

“We don’t find any difficulty in dealing with our own people in our own courts,” he said. “Our laws are simple but precise. We hand out a brand of justice that find favor with our people.”

That may have had some truth because most of the tribal judges at that time were from a traditional background and made their decisions not on the basis of Anglo law but more on traditional law, which was big on making things rights more than punishing people who had broken the law.

You could say that there were early peacemakers who believed that in order to make things right, the defendant oftentimes would have to dig deeply in his pocket to appease the victim of the crime.

One major difference between the courts then and today is that lawyers were not permitted to represent clients so the defendant either had to defend himself or hire an advocate, a tribal member who probably had little training in the law.

Nakai, in his speech, said the ban on lawyers in the court was a good thing because when you get lawyers involved, the whole process slows down and gets mired in the legal process when all it should take is a good judge who listens to both sides and, using Navajo traditional law, makes a decision that is in line with the teachings of Navajo culture.

But he did say there was one thing he admired about the off-reservation courts and that was their ability to make sure that the rights of those who came before them were honored.
That is not the case on the Navajo Reservation, he said.

“When I set foot on the Navajo Reservation, there is nothing to prevent the Navajo Tribal Council from passing legislation that would abridge my freedom of speech, religion or assembly,” he said, adding that the U.S. Constitution does not prevent this from happening on the Navajo Reservation.

“To remedy this, I have proposed that the Navajo Tribe adopt its own constitution setting up a framework of government that would apply specifically to the Navajo people,” he said, adding that he has already overseen the first draft of a proposed constitution.

“I need hardly say that it contains a bill of rights guaranteeing that the basic right of the individual may not be abridged,” Nakai said.

In other news, the Window Rock public school board held an interesting discussion at its meeting this week and it had nothing to do with education.

A group of businessmen from the area and Gallup went before the board asking them to adopt a policy regarding payment of debt by school employees.

They complained that the Navajo court system was slow in dealing with the problem of tribal members who owed a debt to a reservation or off-reservation business.

As for non-Indians, who made up the vast majority of teachers, trying to collect from them was even worse because the courts were in St. Johns and even when the business got a favorable decision they still had a hard time getting the person to pay.

A spokesman for the group said having a lot of their employees owing money wasn’t good for the image of the district and urged that a system be put in place that would allow a business owner to see restitution from employees who owed them money.

He said that too often when a school employee resigned, they left the reservation owing a lot of money to businesses in the area. The situation was getting so bad, he said, that some businesses were looking at not giving credit to school employees.

The school’s superintendent, George Burns, told the board that this may be a good idea but he would have to seek a legal opinion from the Apache County attorney on ways the board could help business people collect these debts.

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Categories: 50 Years Ago

About Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.