Opening Statements

10 Questions: Native American judge devotes legal career to restorative justice

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It sounds like you experienced discrimination and harassment. Did that make you mad? Did you ever feel discouraged?

The whole point of being in court was to stand next to people who had no one standing next to them. At least they could have someone with them who cared and understood what they were going through. Someone who knows their families. Sometimes I would get angry, but I would feel like my obligation was to them and not to myself. It’s different if you’re walking down the street and someone is a jerk to you; you have different choices. When you’re in court, you don’t have as many options. These people have had enough grief. They don’t need me getting in a fight with someone in the courtroom.

I know you’re active in initiatives to help Native American students go to law school and helping to train people to become tribal court judges. Do you think it’s important that tribal court judges are themselves Native American?

That’s every tribe’s call—what they want to do. It’s helped me. People said, “You can’t be a judge because you know everyone.” I said, “You’ve seen too much TV.” That’s true of their system, but not our system. Before the invasion, who did we turn to to solve problems? Older people in the village. Let’s take that practice and modernize it. We’ll change our practices, but not our values. If your value is harmony, and you want to make this right, then it’s a big plus to know the people. It’s a small community, and I am in the community. And they know I am. I can say to someone, “I heard this, I know it’s true and I don’t like it,” and they know it’s true. It’s like being someone’s aunt: You can get in their face, in the modern vernacular.

Many of the judicial programs you’re involved with rely on outside funding. It’s my understanding that you have to do much of the heavy lifting to get grants and donations, yes?

That’s totally true. Court systems are not designed to make money—they shouldn’t be—so trying to get money in a nation that doesn’t have a financial infrastructure is really, really hard. I spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming up schemes to finding funding. It’s a constant grind. It’s the part of my job I like the least.

What do you do for fun? Do you have hobbies?

I read a lot. I read usually between 80 to 100 books a year. I opened up a used bookstore called the Book Nook because we didn’t have a bookstore on the reservation. We give away children’s books—I go around and collect them, and people donate them—and grown-ups can buy books. We charge $2 for hardback and $1 for paperback. At the Salmon Festival, we had over 200 kids come through and take books. It’s helpful, and the kids love it.

Last question: If you could have three wishes to make your job easier, what would they be?

The ability to put more people in the field, to work with more people and to spend more time with people. The thing that works best for us as a culture is face time. I spend a lot of time one-on-one, and my staff spends a lot of time one-on-one. A lot of what we do is talk over [issues like] what would be the best for this family? What can we do to help this situation? Can we create a village? Can we meet our responsibilities on a given day? There’s just so much to be done.

This article was published in the March 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "Community Contribution: This Native American judge has devoted her legal career to creating remedies that incorporate tribal values."

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