In a rare appearance outside its reservation in New Mexico and Arizona, the Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation came to Yale to meet with students and hear a case on campus Monday evening.
About 250 Law School students, faculty members and visiting scholars watched in the Law School auditorium as the Court judged the case Navajo Nation v. RJN Construction Management, Inc., Robert J. Nelson and The Home for Women and Children, which involves a dispute over land ownership. In addition to overseeing the proceedings during the two-day stay, the three justices held a panel about careers in Native American law, ate at Pepe’s Pizza on Wooster Street with the Native American Law Students Association and joined members of the Native American Cultural Center for dinner at The Study on Chapel Street.
Joanne Williams, LAW ’12, co-chair of the NALSA and one of the event’s student organizers, said the event was intended to raise awareness of the Native American legal system that is separate from U.S. federal law.
“One of the big things we’re trying to do is show students something they might not know about,” she said.
Differences between the law of the Navajo Nation and United States include the fact that Native American law is not founded on the U.S. Constitution and takes into account Navajo common law.
Still, law professor Gerald Torres, who introduced the justices and the Court, emphasized in his introduction that the tribal justice system is a vibrant part of the American legal system, and stated that “it’s important to remember that Navajo laws stress restorative, not punitive law.”
Eugene Fidell, a lecturer at the Law School who teaches a course on Native American law, told the News he believes that all educated Americans are morally obligated to be aware of Native American culture because of the Unites States’ conflicts with Native Americans in the past. Fidell added that this event was “a way of breaking out of a rigid vision of law” and served as a useful reminder that there are many ways to design a law system. Torres added that he believes familiarity with tribal law and court systems is very important for law students since reservations within the country’s borders help shape United States law.
Lucas Mills ’05 LAW ’10, who started a Native American law reading group with several other students while at the Law School, said that seeing another law system at work can great expand the perspective of law students.
“This isn’t a special presentation,” he said. “They’re just doing their thing, and we’re privy to that. We can’t ignore the cultural impact of an event like this.”
All seven audience members interviewed said they appreciated the chance to see a tribal court in session. Elizabeth Reese ’11, a member of the Nambe Pueblo tribe who traveled from New Mexico to attend the event, said it was “amazing to have the Navajo Supreme Court demonstrate the meaning and power of our sovereignty,” adding that the proceedings marked an “important moment for native people on this campus.”
Jennifer Skene LAW ’14, and a member of NALSA, said the experience made her reflect on the merits of the American justice system.
“Seeing this whole other process was eye-opening, and makes you see that the American system isn’t the only way to render justice,” she said.
The event was sponsored by the Law School Dean’s Office, the Office of Student Affairs, the Native American Law Students’ Association and The Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, with support from the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School.
Correction Nov. 19 An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the relationship between the Native American legal system and U.S. federal law. The former is not independent of the latter, but it is separate.