The sovereignty of the people of Southeast Alaska factored heavily into Tlingit and Haida’s lunchtime chat as participants talked about the tribal court system.
“We keep talking about our tribal values and holding each other up and this is where we can really exercise it,” said Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson during the webinar. “I’m really proud of it.”
The tribal courts are part of the tribal government, and are built to provide a user-friendly, culturally appropriate forum that cleaves to Tlingit and Haida’s traditional values.
“This gives us a way of addressing those underlying issues that are bringing people into court,” said Ashley Hurt, a wellness court coordinator, speaking of the wellness court’s role in helping the community. “We want to be very holistic in our approach and it’s very important that we incorporate our traditional values into the system.”
The courts operate in a variety of realms, dealing with civil and criminal issues, said Frances Andrews, the tribal court administrator.
“Our quickest growing area, sadly, has been our civil protection area,” Andrews said. “Any time you enter into the tribal court it’s considered to be a forum for dispute resolution.”
The courts vary significantly in format from the western justice system present in the State of Alaska’s judicial system.
“I think timeliness is one of the benefits of coming to the tribal court. A case that could take up to two years in state courts could be done in six months in tribal court. I think people also feel safer in our courts. In the state court there’s just so many rules that burden the dispute resolution process,” Andrews said. “We all know when you’re in court proceedings with a domestic violence case, or your children, or the elder sitting next to you, you don’t want to worry about whether you submitted a piece of paper.”
The court also has options to help guide youth to a path less precipitous than the one they may be on, said Michaela Demmert, the youth healing to wellness specialist.
“We want them to come in and breathe and talk about what’s on their mind and teach them self care,” Demmert said. “A really good point made in a recent circle was how can I be a good relative? And how can I be a good ancestor? The goal is to take care of ourselves with the image of doing this for future generations.”
The court will soon gain access to major national criminal databases through the Tribal Access Program, Peterson said.
“It’ll help us to do domestic violence background checks when cases come into the court,” Andrews said. “It’ll give T&H access to four databases that we’d otherwise have to go through the state of Alaska, the City and Borough of Juneau or other channelers for access.”
The TAP will give Tlingit and Haida the ability to check protective orders in domestic violence cases, provent domestic abusers from obtaining firearms, register and track sex offenders, run background checks on those who may have contact with or control over tribal children and help locate absent parents to enforce child support orders, according the slideshow. Tlingit and Haida also uses their resources to help other tribes in the region setting up or supporting their own tribal courts when requested, Peterson said.
“I’m really excited about the directions we’re going. If we’re successful we’ll be moving the dial in the right direction for our people,” Peterson said. “It’s one of the clearest ways we can display our sovereignty.”