Law Professor's Book Explores Navajo Nation Court System
A new book published by Raymond D. Austin, a UA law faculty member, provides an extensive explanation about the history of Navajo courts and customary law.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
Feb. 23, 2010

Navajo courts are more equipped than are the nation's state and federal courts to handle "literally hundreds of issues" American Indians face, said Raymond D. Austin, who added that the system handles about 75,000 cases annually.

Yet few published texts offer a comprehensive overview of the workings of Navajo courts or explain the customary law that drive them, said Austin, an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.

The need for such a publication came to the fore for Austin, a Diné member of the Navajo Nation, during the decades he spent serving as a judge and lawyer in Navajo courts and aiding in the development of the system's customary law.

His book, "Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law: A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance," was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press, offering explanation of more than 130 cases the Navajo Nation's courts have handled using customary law. 

"Very few books on American Indian customary law have been written so the field is in need of resources," said Austin, the UA law school's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program Distinguished Jurist in Residence. 

Of note, in 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in the Williams v. Lee case declared that tribal courts have authority over reservation-based claims, promoting self-governance.

Since then, the Navajo Nation "has been at the vanguard of a far-reaching, transformative jurisprudential movement among Indian tribes in North America and indigenous peoples around the world to retrieve and use traditional values to address contemporary legal issues," Austin said. 

The book exemplifies ways in which Navajo courts are dealing with contemporary issues by applying long-held customary laws. And, Austin emphasized, the system serves as an exemplar for indigenous peoples everywhere. 

"I also wanted to explain to indigenous peoples around the world that their customs and traditions can be used to solve modern problems, achieve self-determination and control their own futures," he added.

For instance, Austin, who teaches tribal courts, tribal law and also supervises law students who clerk for trial courts, interpreted ways that Hózhó (harmony), K'é (peacefulness and solidarity) and K'éí (kinship) aid in modern day legal processes and decision-making. 

"Harmony, peacefulness, and kinship are guiding principles in Navajo culture. They all contribute to amicable resolution of disputes," Austin said. "The primary goal of Navajo traditional dispute resolution is to heal relationships among people and maintain the kinship structure." 

This is in direct contrast to state and federal courts, particularly in dealing with cases related to domestic issues – marriage and divorce, for instance.

"I wanted to show Indian tribes in North and South America and indigenous peoples all over the world that they can use their own customs and traditions to become self-determining peoples," Austin said.

Austin described the book as a "treatise on Navajo courts and Navajo customary law" – courts and legal practices that use traditional customs and tribal traditions to enforce restorative justice. 

"The book is for anyone who is interested in learning about Navajo culture, government, courts and customary law and how they are used by the Navajo courts to solve modern problems," Austin said.

That includes judges, lawyers, law students, professors, government officials and members of the community. 

Austin gleaned much of his resources for the book while pursuing his doctorate degree. He graduated from the UA's American Indian studies program in 2007, but continued to critically examine Navajo courts and customary laws.

"In fact, in many areas, the Navajo courts have expertise that state and federal courts do not have," said Austin, who spent three years working on his book.

Handling civil claims between members of the Navajo Nation, claims that cross tribal affiliations and claims related to Navajo lands that may involve those who are not American Indian are issues examined in the book.

Also reservation-based claims and those concerning the use of natural resources, economic activity, employment and education on Navajo lands are among others Austin pointed out.

"On the criminal side, there are thousands of criminal cases that move through the Navajo courts each year that involve offenses committed on Navajo lands," Austin said. "The Navajo courts are also the best interpreters of Navajo statutory laws and Navajo customary laws."


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Raymond D. Austin

James E. Rogers College of Law