The Tlingit-Haida Central Council is considering how to develop more tribal courts in Southeast even as Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens seeks to move federal funds for such courts to state venues.
Tribal courts typically hear cases ranging from child protection and custody to alcohol offenses and domestic violence. They have the authority to enforce written and unwritten laws over tribal members and, arguably in some instances, nontribal members.
Ed Thomas, president of the Central Council, which has a government-to-government relationship with the United States, said Stevens' action was "hard to swallow."
Many Native villages that are trying to set up tribal courts have no state judicial or law-enforcement presence, he said. Tribal courts can save the state money by intervening early in people's problems, he added.
"I think at a time when the state's getting its cutbacks, there should be innovative ways to talk about justice at the local level, like we are doing, rather than feed an overburdened urban system," Thomas said.
The Sitka Tribe of Alaska also defended federal funding for Native courts.
"Tribal courts ... offer a unique opportunity for communities to collaborate to address local concerns," the group said in a press release.
The Central Council on Tuesday and Wednesday held a workshop in Juneau about developing tribal courts in Southeast. Lisa Jaeger and Sue Hollingsworth of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of Interior tribes, talked about tribal courts in general and the conference's experience with 37 such courts.
In Southeast, only Sitka, Metlakatla and Klukwan have tribal courts. The Central Council operates a rarely used voluntary tribal court of elders to decide disputes about clan property.
But some members want the Central Council to run a court or develop expertise in writing statutes and court procedures, training court personnel and creating a pool of judges. Those resources could be offered to villages that want to operate courts.
Alfred McKinley Sr. of Juneau, a member of the Central Council's Judiciary Committee, would like to see a tribal court in Southeast that handles child protection and custody cases.
"Our position is we know more about the culture and the child and where the child should go than the state would," he said. "At the same time, we want to work with the state on all these things."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Lowell Halverson of Arlington, Wash., said he's committed to implementing an active tribal court system for all of Southeast, with the Central Council providing resources such as writing statutes and training personnel.
"I would predict our models are going to be less of the bells and whistles, the concrete-slab court systems, and more of the people justice," he said.
Jaeger and Hollingsworth said tribal courts are successful because tribal members are more likely to respect such a court than to fear it. Tribal courts usually are less formal than state courts. Often no lawyers are present. The judges are more likely to know the participants and seek a solution that is therapeutic, they said.
"The tribe knows the children," Hollingsworth said. "You know their families. ... You know what their strengths and weaknesses are. When I see a case in tribal court, I see the parents working harder. They seem to feel part of it rather than being put upon."
Douglas Luna of Edmonds, Wash., is an elected judge for the Central Council's court, which is inactive, and for the Northwest Intertribal Court System, which provides technical assistance and visiting judges to tribes. He also has served as an administrative law judge for the state of Washington.
The best benefit of tribal courts is restorative justice, Luna said. The first two rules of Indian law are to bring honor and respect back to the family, clan and tribe of the offender and to live in harmony with nature, he said.
In a case of illegal fishing, Luna said, instead of fining the offender, "I can order a person to restore their honor in the eyes of the elders by catching fish legally and feeding elders at a luncheon. ... I never had a repeat offender on this."
President Thomas said he'd like to see the Central Council provide villages with technical assistance on tribal courts, but some Judiciary Committee members want the council to run a court itself for child and family cases. Tribal members are frustrated at a backlog of child custody cases in Southeast.
But Thomas is concerned about the cost of a tribal court, and whether the state would continue to offer services such as child protection or Medicare and Medicaid to families whose cases are handled in a tribal court.
"We don't really have the money to supplement what the state is doing," he said. "We may find ourselves less reluctant if we can see some way to find the rights of the families are completely protected."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.