The foundation of any society is an
independent legal system. A fair and honest rule of law is fundamental
to civilized society. It builds the trust and unity without which
society cannot function. Without an open, honest and competent legal
system, society degenerates into chaos. We are left with a mess that
feeds on itself, festering violence, poverty, and unnecessary suffering.
fair and open legal system is also essential for the development and
operation of a functioning economy. Economic development at Red Lake
will never happen until people can protect their investments. An
independent legal system builds respect for individuals, for property
rights, and for the viability of the society as a whole. Until we can
hold the legal system accountable to the people, how can we expect the
people to be accountable to the law?
As Federal Reserve Chairman
Alan Greenspan said recently, "The guiding mechanism of a free market
economy ... is a bill of rights, enforced by an impartial judiciary."
There can be no denying that the lack of civil rights, the lack of
legitimate and impartial courts, and the lack of governmental
accountability is the single biggest reason there is so little economic
growth on Indian reservations, including Red Lake.
legal, system is corrupted, society falls apart. When certain
individuals have undue influence over that court system, it loses the
respect of the people and people tend to take law into their own hands.
The terrible recurring violence at Red Lake is
symptomatic of longstanding problems with the legal system.
have been serious problems with the legal system at Red Lake for at
least two generations. I first exposed the abuses of the Red Lake
tribal court in 1972 in a law review article. In November of 1986,
three Red Lake Indians sued the Interior Department in an attempt to
shut down the Red Lake court because of civil rights abuses. The BIA
issued a directive urging that tribal courts resolve the problems, but
made no serious attempt to enforce compliance.
The U.S. Civil
Rights Commission put the BIA on notice about tribal court abuses in
1988-1989. The BIA's only significant responses were to suppress the
most damaging sections of the Civil Rights Commission's report, to
increase funding to the tribal courts, and to shift the bureaucratic
structure so that more of the responsibility for tribal court abuses
fell on the tribal councils.
Over the years, this newspaper has
documented egregious abuses of the tribal court system at Red Lake and
on other reservations. It is clear that the BIA will not take any
initiative in solving the problems that agency has fostered.
can see the deep deterioration of the Red Lake tribal courts not only
with the bizarre legal nightmare confronting Jawnie Hough and her
daughter Meghan Brun (and too many other cases), but also with the
increasing violence and drug problems at Red Lake. Violent crimes,
abuse, and other problems are tearing apart the fabric of society at
Red Lake. People are not only afraid, they are frustrated at living in
these circumstances. They are at the mercy of violent people, including
drug dealers and bootleggers.
Society is disrupted. As Charmaine
Lussier-Sayers wrote in her letter to the editor this week, "I've been
told several times that one ALWAYS carries a pistol!" Red Lake
reservation should not be a "war zone." Our people deserve better than
that. Nobody should be faced with the bitter choice of leaving home and
community, or trying to raise their children amid chaotic reservation
violence where there are regularly pools of blood and the roads are
littered with "pieces of bloody [human] tissue." Violent crime is
tearing the community apart, and community morale is the lowest it's
been for thirty years.
Without an honest, competent, fair and
open legal system, people can not address the drugs, violence, and
other social problems which permeate the reservation. The pervasive
injustice exemplified by the Jawnie Hough situation, and the ability by
certain individuals and families to influence and have control of the
tribal court, is probably the biggest problem on the reservation. As I
see it, it affects everything. It stifles economic development --
people won't invest on the reservation because it is clear that under
the present legal system they cannot protect their investments. It
affects law enforcement and crime, since certain people are `above the
law' and law enforcement officials are afraid to do their duty (for
example, serve legal papers) because they could lose their jobs. And,
it creates despair for the people who must live with the injustices.
the people, should seriously consider changing the tribal constitution
so that we elect judges, and at mandating that tribal court records be
open and public records.
We have members who are lawyers, who
have taken an oath to uphold the law, who have made the considerable
effort to become educated in the law, and who are in most ways beyond
the influence of tribal politics and are capable of being impartial
adjudicators. We should require that tribal court judges have law
degrees, that they are subject to the same rigorous standards of
professional ethics as state and federal judges, and that they are
independently elected by the people.
Red Lake tribal elections
will be held May 15th. We have forty-nine people running for nine
positions -- all but two of the current tribal council are standing for
election in less than a month. It's time that we polled those running
for office. We need to demand that our society change, to see it
improve, to move beyond the escalating violence and the abuse and the
misuse of the courts for personal reasons.
We can spend all kinds
of money on pow-wows and other celebrations, but we have not found the
will to ensure that all of our tribal members are competently
represented in tribal court.
Press/ON has publicly documented
egregious example of how tribal courts can be manipulated, controlled,
and influenced by certain individuals and families, to the detriment of
the whole reservation. This kind of legal abuse breeds lawlessness, it
feeds on disrespect for one another and for each others' property. It
perpetuates the despair on the reservation. We need to get beyond that,
and the first step is the establishment of an independent court.