Tribal Law Journal 20th Anniversary Symposium and Film, Tribal Justice

On Friday, March 29, 2019, TLJ held its 20th Anniversary honoring Indigenous dispute resolution at UNM School of Law. The event began with a traditional lunch of Indian tacos and a prayer given by former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, Robert Yazzie. After lunch, Chief Justice Yazzie presented to the audience, discussing his perception of the evolution of tribal law since he first attended law school. He described how proud he was to see so many young Native students pursuing justice for their communities and encouraged all to keep going. Next, attendees heard from keynote speaker, Congresswoman Deb Haaland from the Pueblo of Laguna. Congresswoman Haaland similarly reflected on her time as law a student at UNM School of Law and culminated her speech with the message that we, as law students, have the tools to forge our own paths in this nation regardless of race, age, or gender. 

After lunch, TLJ screened the movie ‘Tribal Justice.’ Tribal Justice presented the story of how two female tribal judges negotiated with California to assert jurisdiction over tribal members in criminal and civil law cases[1]to focus on healing and “restoring rather than punishing offenders” in their communities. The film first introduces the Honorable Abby Abinanti and Taos Proctor from the Quechan Indian Tribe in northern California. Justice Abinanti works with recovering addict and repeat offender Taos by assisting him with finding employment, ordering his participation in narcotics anonymous meetings, and holding him accountable for regular drug screening as part of his requirements for Wellness Court. Taos describes his struggles with the criminal justice system and with sobriety—ultimately, his story is one of success as a result of his commitment to bettering his life and his consistent work with Judge Abinanti. Since the filming, Taos has maintained his sobriety, married the mother of his son, become an integral part of his son’s life, remained gainfully employed, and built a house from scratch for him and his family. 

Next, the film introduces Chief Justice Claudette White from the Yurok Tribe in southern California. In the film, Justice White takes on two roles. First, she presides over multiple hearings dedicated to reuniting a minor child with his family after the state placed him in a mental heath facility where he was sequestered for days as a solution to his behavorial issues. Then, Justice White allows the world into her own home as she attempts to help her 17-year old nephew, Isaac, with complying with the terms of his state court felony conviction for theft. Because Isaac’s case could not be transferred to tribal court, Judge White assists him as best she can, including requesting temporary guardianship of Isaac, allowing him to live with her and her son, and involving him in traditional tribal practices. Unfortunately, the film ends with Isaac’s arrest showing that, while real life does not yield a success story in every instance, support of family members and the community is vital to rebuilding the lives of our youth. After the movie, both Judge Abinanti and Judge White, who were honorary guests of the TLJ, answered questions on their collective experiences in their respective tribal courts and in filming the documentary.

Finally, TLJ heard from Cheryl Fairbanks and peacemakers from the Pueblo of Isleta who presented on their formal peacemaking process within the Isleta judicial system. The peacemakers described both how and why they believe peacemaking to be a beneficial form of dispute resolution within the tribal community. The panel concluded with a presentation of ethical considerations in conducting peacemaking in tribal courts. 

The 20th Anniversary Tribal Law Journal Symposium was a success. The sold-out crowd showed TLJ, the University of New Mexico School of Law, and local Indian nations, that we are all committed to restorative justice and need only work together, as have Judge Abinanti and Judge White, to make change within our communities. On behalf on TLJ, we’d like to that all of our sponsors for making this even happen; we’d also like to thank Congresswoman Debra Haaland, Former Chief Justice Robert Yazzie, the Chief Justice Claudette White, Honorable Justice Abby Abinanti, Professor Cheryl Fairbanks, and the peacemakers from the Pueblo of Isleta: Chief Justice Verna Teller, Ben Lucero, Mona Chuwiwi, and Joyce Jojola. 


Dominique Oliver is a third-year law student and member of Navajo Nation from Oakland, California.  At UNMSOL, Dominique currently serves as the Citations Editor for the Tribal Law Journal. In addition to her editor position at UNMSOL, Dominique assists native and indigenous clients in her position as a clinical law student for the Southwest Indian Law Center. Dominique also serves as a coach for local high-school students selected to compete at the National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition in Washington, D.C. in April 2019. Prior to coaching students in the Marshall-Brennan program, Dominique taught Albuquerque high-school students Constitutional Literacy, educating youth about the individual rights granted to them under both the United States Constitution and New Mexico Constitution. Dominique’s practice area interests include Federal Indian Law, criminal law, and civil rights. In May 2019, Dominique will graduate from UNMSOL with her J.D. and Certificate in Federal Indian Law. 


[1]Note: California is a Public Law 280 state. Under Public Law 280, tribal members are subject to the federal and tribal policing power of the sate rather than the tribe. In states where Public Law 280 is inapplicable, tribes maintain exclusive jurisdiction over their members consistent with the laws and codes of their tribe. See Pub.L. 83–280 (Aug. 15, 1953) codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1162, 28 U.S.C. § 1360, and 25 U.S.C. §§ 1321–1326.

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