Flagstaff Lawyer Discusses Indian Sovereignty

Flagstaff, AZ – Being qualified to practice law on the Navajo Nation and in the Hopi Tribal Courts is a privilege I do not take lightly.

Indian sovereignty results in unique laws, enforcement, processes, and other cultural phenomena within the Courts of Indian Country. Indian sovereignty is, at its most basic level, inherent. Granted, the Treaty of 1868 established the Navajo Indian Reservation, with the approval of both the Navajo signatories and the U.S. government.

However, it is still a treaty, such as one the U.S. would make with an independent sovereign.

The Navajo Nation Code has codified the laws of the Navajo Nation, not including many cultural matters. For example, the Navajo Nation Code contains an entire section on criminal laws, enforceable in the Navajo Nation courts. Many aspects of Navajo criminal law are the same as American criminal law: charges, prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, and trials. But the laws are unique, and the criminal justice process has many nuances and cultural aspects not found in non-Indian American criminal cases.

Sovereignty also leads to struggle over jurisdiction. Can the F.B.I. march into the Navajo Nation and remove a criminal defendant for federal prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office? Can the Navajo Nation imprison a non-Indian who has subject himself to the jurisdiction of the Nation? What are the limits of federal powers versus Indian powers?

Those questions must be answered on a case-by-case basis. And criminal law is just one example of the many areas of law unique to each Indian sovereign.

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