Tribal Court Clearinghouse          

Traditional Law

This page contains links to information and resources concerning tribal custom and tradition, traditional law, traditional methods of dispute resolution, and other related issues.

Resources Available for Purchase

NAVAJO COURTS AND NAVAJO COMMON LAW: A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance, by Raymond D. Austin (Navajo) - The Navajo Nation court system is the largest tribal legal system in the world. In his new book, Justice Raymond D. Austin considers the history and implications of how the Navajo Nation courts apply foundational Navajo doctrines to modern legal issues. In addition to detailed case studies, Justice Austin provides a broad view of tribal law, outlining how other indigenous peoples can draw on traditional precepts to control their own futures. Raymond D. Austin is the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program's Distinguished Jurist in Residence at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona. A member of the Arizona and Utah state bars and the Navajo Nation Bar Association, he served on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court from 1985 to 2001. Justice Austin is Diné from the Navajo Nation.

Online Resources Available for Free

Justice In a Circle: How a Peacemaking Court Works, by Brady Johnson, discusses tribal peacemaking courts and the peacemaking court operated by the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. (2016)

Rethinking Customary Law in Tribal Court Jurisprudence, by Matthew L.M. Fletcher, attempts to provide an adequate theory as to how tribal judges should find and apply customary law on a normative level. (2006).

An Evaluation/Assessment of Navajo Peacemaking, by Eric Kenneth Gross, finds that Peacemaking is a type of "restorative justice", since its objective is conflict resolution through the healing of relations between individuals in conflict. Like many other justice programs identified as "restorative" in objective and process, Navajo Peacemaking occurs outside of the halls of formal justice. It eschews the characteristic elements of adversarial justice and does not admit lawyers, judges or legal support services. (1999)

The Navajo Nation v. Ethelyn Begay, a/k/a Ethelyn Peterson. Navajo District court decision which upholds the authority of the court to dismiss a criminal complaint based upon a showing that the defendant had complied with a peacemaking agreement.

Indigenous Justice Systems and Tribal Justice, by Ada Pecos Melton, writes that Indigenous justice systems are based on a holistic philosophy, and that law is a way of life, and justice is a part of the life process.

The Reemergence of Tribal Society and Traditional Justice Systems, by Carey Vicenti, writes that in their efforts to establish tribal culture, Indian tribes are relying on the restoration of traditional forms of adjudication. (1995)

Indian Tradition and Custom in Adjudication under Rules of Evidence, by James Zion, addresses how tribal courts receive evidence of Indian tradition and custom under rules of evidence, discusses the definition and nature of tradition and custom in court settings, and their recognition as a legitimate form of law.

The Dynamics of Navajo Peacemaking, by James Zion, explains the traditional Navajo justice process using social psychology and Navajo discourse.

Programs and Organizations

The Tribal Law and Policy Institute’s Tribal Healing to Wellness Training and Technical Assistance project includes onsite and offsite technical assistance, regional and national trainings, a Publication Series, and a webinar series.

Real Justice is a not-for-profit program dedicated to fostering the spread of "conferencing," a process that can revolutionize the response to wrongdoing in criminal justice systems, schools, workplaces and communities. Conferencing is part of a worldwide "restorative justice" movement which seeks to shift the focus of criminal justice systems away from just dealing with offenders and toward addressing the needs of crime victims and communities (and it incorporates traditional Native American restorative justice concepts). Real Justice conferencing brings together offenders, victims and their respective families and friends to provide a victim-sensitive forum for people who have been affected by an incident to express their feelings and have a say in how to address the wrongdoing and repair the harm.

The Center for Court Innovation is a unique public-private partnership that promotes new thinking about how courts can solve difficult problems like addiction, quality-of-life crime, domestic violence, and child neglect. The winner of an Innovations in American Government Award from the Ford Foundation and Harvard University, the Center combines action and reflection to spark problem-solving innovation both locally and nationally.


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