Federal Proposal Except: Alaska Native Justice Center

Project Overview

The Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC) proposes to take a two-prong approach with this project in working with tribal court development. First, in partnership with the National Judicial College Tribal Justice Center in Reno, Nevada and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in Fairbanks, Alaska we will set the foundation for tribal court standards by developing a curriculum specific to Alaskan Tribal Courts that will lead to certification of tribal court judges and personnel. Second, we will be instrumental in the development of the first professional organization for tribal court judges and court personnel – an Alaskan Tribal Court Association.

The last few decades have seen a general increase and interest in alternative justice processes within the United States. This interest has given rise, within the Alaska Native/American Indian community, to rejuvenate tribal justice systems that existed prior to the Western Justice System. This resurgence has fostered renewed interest to develop tribal courts that can address tribal judicial matters at the tribal community-level. In the Lower-48 (as the continental United States is referred to by Alaskan’s) tribes operate more than 300 tribal courts under the federal laws governing “Indian Country.” Alaska however, is considered a Public Law 280 State as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA). Subsequently, Alaskan tribal courts are challenged with jurisdictional issues between Tribe and State including; respectful professional recognition as afforded to the Western Justice System. Although tribal courts in Alaska are challenged, they have prevailed to develop more than 100 courts. That stated, there are approximately 229 recognized villages that are eligible to develop tribal court system.

Alaska tribal members are continuing to seek the skills needed to become tribal court judges or tribal court personnel so they can serve on local tribal courts to achieve tribal justice through traditional ways in handling disputes at the local community level. Skills that would have been passed on by community leaders have been suppressed or ‘lost’ and now, tribal members must depend upon the oral wisdom of Elders before it is too late and, the educational system to implement traditional practices as clearly expressed:

“In order for the villages to be empowered to handle issues, they need fully educated, trained, organized tribal courts. Each community has a unique was of handling issues that affect individuals and families. We need to make sure that we continue to have workshops for capacity building to have strong tribal courts. Many of the minor criminal matters and others can be handled at the local level.” Mike Williams, Akiak (Commission Report page 13)

A concern shared by all tribal courts, the Alaska Native Justice Center, the National Judicial College Tribal Justice Center, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and organizations dedicated to the preservation of traditional Native tribal justice systems, is the question of how to maintain and keep Native traditional ways a key components in the operations of tribal courts.

Since 1963, the National Judicial College has served as an important resource for sitting judges, people in the process of becoming judges, and other court personnel in acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to serve in their capacity. Each year approximately 2,700 judges receive National Judicial College training. This project will draw upon the collective expertise of our organizations to develop and implement a curriculum that incorporates tribal justice systems unique to Alaska and P.L. 280 states, as well as the issues of remoteness and diversity within Alaska’s Native cultures. The project, which leads to certification, will be the first step toward professional standards and respected professional recognition.

In 2002, the National Judicial College Tribal Justice Center was formed to provide tribal judges and tribal court personnel with the unique skills and knowledge they need to enhance their tribes’ ability to operate a tribal court. The National Judicial College Tribal Justice Center is among the first institutions to address the needs of Alaskan Native and American Indian tribal law judiciaries. The main objective of the Center is to improve justice through national programs of education and training directed toward judicial proficiency, competency, and understanding. Toward this end, the National Judicial College Tribal Justice Center offers a certificate program in Tribal Justice Education.

The Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC), in cooperation with the National Judicial College, and University of Alaska Fairbanks, will address the gap in training for tribal court personnel by developing and implementing curriculum that includes incorporating traditional practices into tribal court operation. This coursework will become a key component of the Tribal Justice Education certificate program.

A description of the community to be served/ location

Defining our community is a complex task. Some of the more significant reasons are: 1) the relationship between the Native people of our state and our federal government was constructed using a different model than the rest of the U.S. and; 2) the state tribal jurisdictional issues that resulted from Public Law 280. Understanding these aspects of our community is an important part of understanding our needs. First, unlike the other states, Alaska has only one reservation, The Metlakatla Reservation. However, the federal government compensated all other tribes, as part of the 1972 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, by designating land holdings and funds to create incorporated corporations, which assumed responsibility for the social and economic well-being of its tribal members known as “shareholders.”

Second, Public Law 280 is a law allowing for the enforcement of State civil and some criminal jurisdiction within Indian country. Indian tribes retain concurrent, or shared, jurisdiction. That is the shared view of the Federal Government and the vast majority of courts that have directly considered the issue. The application of P.L. 280 in Alaska was best expressed by the Alaska Supreme Court in John v Baker, “P.L. 280, which grants states jurisdiction over disputes in Indian country, has limited application in Alaska because most Native land will not qualify for the definition of Indian country.”

Though P.L. 280 has no significant legal effect in Alaska, it has had a significant effect on Alaska tribes because Alaska Natives have been falsely led to believe that P.L. 280 was an obstacle to tribal jurisdiction. P.L. 280 is a grant of concurrent jurisdiction to the State; it does not terminate any jurisdiction or powers that tribes have. This shared jurisdiction makes cooperation and collaboration between the State of Alaska, and Alaska’s tribes even more important, since real and perceived judicial barriers are created.

The ANJC Curriculum Project service area will be statewide such that all tribal members seeking Tribal Court Certification will be eligible to participate. Because the curriculum developed will include a focus on Alaska as a P.L. 280 state, other Lower-48 states that are considered a P.L. 280 state will be eligible to enroll in the Certification program. The ANJC Curriculum Project will provide services to over 150 tribal court judges, clerks, planners, financial officers, village council representatives, and administrators through this program.