Reflections: Voice Within Two Systems

The last Friday of March 2019, the Tribal Law Journal hosted a symposium for its 20thAnniversary. At the event, a documentary, “Tribal Justice” was screened. “Tribal Justice” follows the narratives of two female tribal judges working toward asserting a different voice and solutions to problems affecting their respective tribes.

The film’s narrative centers on two tribal judges, Justice White and Justice Abinanti. Each Judge must navigate between two systems of justice and jurisdiction in order to help distinct members of their respective tribes. Justice White finds herself fighting to gain guardianship over her nephew, who is facing felony charges from the state. The narrative shows how love, familial bonds, and traditional practices begin to place in the life of her nephew. Unexpectedly, the narrative ended with the nephew’s arrest.

Judge Abinanti’s narrative follows a young member of her tribe who faces many challenges with the criminal justice system because of his addiction issues. This story also speaks of tribal participation, and the Judge’s hands-on involvement in this young man’s recovery in both social and medical terms. 

The stories juxtaposed against one another is a reminder that outcomes are never determinative even in the best of situations, but it is especially fraught with pitfalls when the situation requires navigation between different systems of justice and corrections. 

The documentary prompted keen audience participation in the Q&A portion of the event. Immediately following the film, many in the audience wanted to know what the plight of the young people depicted in the film. Many others wanted to know if there have been any increased efforts by the states to encourage intervention programs illustrated in the film. States by nature are slow to change but the Judges see their roles as educators and hope that their efforts will bring meaningful impact that is life altering. Being a voice of change, and a platform for that voice, can be challenging. The Tribal Law Journal strives to continue to be a resource for both. 


Kaythee Hlaing, Multimedia Editor

Photo courtesy of @IndigeLens

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