Navajo chief justice to discuss tribal courts during Native American Heritage Month

As part of Native American Heritage Month at Bates College, the Honorable Robert Yazzie, chief justice of the Navajo Nation, will discuss traditional Navajo legal principles and how the tribal courts operate within the overall context of the U.S. judicial system at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, in the Benjamin Mays Center. The public is invited to attend free of charge.

The Navajo Nation, similar to other Native American nations and tribes recognized by the federal government, has the status of “nation within a nation,” and as such, has internal responsibility for a number of judicial, legislative and administrative government functions.

Yazzie grew up in Rehoboth, N.M., with traditional Navajo values and attended Oberlin College. Following his graduation from the University of New Mexico School of Law and Harvard University, he practiced law in the Navajo courts, acted as a Navajo-English interpreter in the U.S. District Court and served as a consultant to law firms. After seven years as presiding judge of the district court in Window Rock, Ariz., he was appointed chief justice of the Navajo Nation in 1992.

Yazzie is a formidable leader in the Navajo campaign against domestic violence. In October 1992, the Navajo courts announced domestic violence rules in criminal and civil proceedings that allow victims to obtain relief. They integrate Navajo and U.S. common law concepts. The rules were developed through careful research of the extent of Navajo courts’ powers under common law and equity.

Yazzie is a strong advocate for victims’ rights. Since his appointment as chief justice in 1992, he has developed court rules, initiated a sentencing commission and expanded the Navajo Nation Peacemaker Division. The Navajo Nation Judicial Branch has received a Bureau of Indian Affairs grant to hire community organizers and liaisons to appoint peacemakers, also known as a “Naa’taanii,” in each of the 110 chapters located within the Navajo Nation.

The sentencing commission Yazzie created is composed of Navajo trial judges. The commission has established a sentencing plan which requires and presumes that in criminal cases the victim will receive relief under a Navajo common-law principle and will also be made whole for his or her injuries.

Internationally recognized, Yazzie has traveled to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji to compare Navajo peacemaking with the traditional procedures of those jurisdictions. He has participated in United Nations proceedings in Geneva, Switzerland, on the proposed Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He has discussed Saami rights under international law in Norway and he is a frequent visitor to Canada to discuss traditional Indian law and court policy. In the United States, he has presented Navajo perspectives of religion and law, traditional law, restorative justice and community justice.

Yazzie’s talk, along with other Native American Heritage Month events at Bates, is sponsored by college’s Multicultural Center. For more information, call 207-786-8215.

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