Self-Determination and Tribal Court Systems

By Lauren VanderWall

Native Americans have struggled with the United States government and political systems since it was formed in 1776. The first formal treaty between the U.S and a Native American Tribe was signed in September of 1778. The treaty called for perpetual peace, trade, territorial rights, and representation in congress, among other things.[1] Many similar treaties were made between different tribes and the United States government. The treaties were created in such a way that the tribes involved were recognized as separate sovereign groups from the U.S. This was further established in the constitution which states that congress must deal with native nations as a sovereign, independent entity.[2] These treaties were quickly extorted and broken so that the government could lay claim to the Native American’s ancestral land and take the land rights from the tribes. On top of having their land taken and being placed on reservations with little to offer in the way of resources the Native Americans also had to deal with being treated poorly, such as having their food rations kept from them in an attempt to control them. These instances are just a few reasons as to why Native American groups need to be able to create their own tribal court systems as well as be able to use them in ways that they feel will benefit their fight for self-determination.  Tribal give tribes a more power to decolonize and become self-governing entities.

An example of this is can be seen in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians whose court system has been working and continues to work towards a system that respects, retains, and builds upon the traditional ways of doing things but still follows the statutes that are set before the state court system.  The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians first began when six bands of Ottawa and Chippewa bands were living on a reservation together in the Grand Traverse region. The Grand Traverse Band petitioned for federal recognition three separate times before finally being granted recognition in 1980. In 1988 the United States Department of Interior accepted the tribe’s constitution. The constitution ensures that, through the treaty created with the federal government, the Grand Traverse Band is seen as a self-ruling government independent from the United States government.[3] The tribe has since been actively participating in tribal self-governance since 1991.[4] The court system is continually attempting to align the tribal court system with the statutes set for the state by the United States government while still following traditional ways. A big step taken in doing this was when the tribe allowed a man who was not of native decent to become the acting chief judge.

Judge Michael J. Long grew up in the Grand Traverse area but when he became a lawyer he did not originally intend to become part of a tribal court system. He originally became part of the court system in 1998 when he was representing some juveniles who were in the system at the time, he began taking on more responsibilities as time went on until he was asked to take the position when the previous judge stepped down.[5] Judge Long says that a common difficulty faced by tribal court systems face is that to be recognized by state court systems tribal court systems need to generally follow the same lines but need to be able to handle situations differently as well as having different end goals. While state courts largely focus on prosecuting the crime the tribal court system has a larger focus on community. With a much smaller population compared to state systems there needs to be a focus on the reparation of the relationships going forward.

There is a similar difficulty when dealing with drug and alcohol related cases, it is easy to get people the help they need when they want it but these people are in a sense stuck in the same place with the same stressors and triggers, so how can the community come together to make things better for the individuals involved[6]. In the state court systems a lot of that responsibility falls upon the individual being prosecuted to handle those things. The fact that the Grand Traverse Band is seen as a self-governing entity gives them a little more room to work within the confines of traditional ways as well as what will benefit the community it also gives more power to the tribe to set up the judicial system in a way that works best for them. At times this can be difficult because Judge Long has to balance the needs of the community and what the state sees as a proper court system but the fact that they are not considered part of the state court system it can make his job a little easier.

While the Tribe uses their sovereignty to their advantage the separation of tribes and reservations can make it difficult for other tribal court systems to communicate with another one. Currently Tribal Judges try to get together at least once a year to discuss cases and how other tribes are handling certain situations. If there was an easier way for tribes to communicate with one another on legal issues it may make it easier for tribes to face a new obstacles.[7] Another advantage to having an easier way to communicate would be that it would allow tribes and bands at different points of the indigenous decolonization process to look at what other tribes did and determine what will work best for their community based upon others experiences. Being able to look at what other tribes did will also allow them to see how the tribal court system was used to dismantle policies put forth by the U.S. government, decolonize, and reconstruct the tribe in a way that allows for them to return to the traditional way of doing things. An example of this is how the Grand Traverse band has built traditions and rituals in to the court statutes so that the court system recognizes the communities needs while still operating in a way that will allow them to be continually acknowledged by the state court system.[8]

Overall, tribal court systems give more power to tribes to decolonize and become self-governing entities. The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa used the tribal court system to reconstruct the system in a way that better benefits the community, they can also use the court system in a way that allows them to better the community for everyone involved with each case. Communication between tribes allows for them to see how different tribes have handled situations and allows them to look at ways they could handle it and what would work best for their community. Tribal court systems are greatly important because they are greatly important to the self-determination of the tribes. By having tribal court systems the tribes are better able to rebuild their communities in a way that recognizes traditional ways while still allowing them to fit within modern culture in a way that they feel comfortable.



[1] Bernholz, Charles D., and Suzanne L. Holcombe. "The Charles J. Kappler ‘Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties’ Internet Site at the Oklahoma State University." Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services 29.1 (2005): 82-89. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

[2] Tyler, Alice S. "THE CONSTITUTION." Bulletin of the American Library Association 19.3 (2007): 4. Government Printing Office. Government Printing Office, 25 July 2007. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.


[4] "Sovereignty and History." Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians -. Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

[5] "Acting Chief Judge: Hon. Michael J. Long." Personal interview. 29 Nov. 2014.

[6] "Acting Chief Judge: Hon. Michael J. Long." Personal interview. 29 Nov. 2014.

[7] "Acting Chief Judge: Hon. Michael J. Long." Personal interview. 29 Nov. 2014.

[8] "Acting Chief Judge: Hon. Michael J. Long." Personal interview. 29 Nov. 2014.

Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians