Joe Garcia: Tribal justice systems not a 'quirk'

"On Feb. 1, the Wall Street Journal published a front page article, 'Native Americans on Trial Often Go Without Counsel,' highlighting one effect of the dramatic underfunding of tribal criminal justice systems. While we applaud the Wall Street Journal for raising this important issue, several aspects of the article lacked context and require a response.

First and foremost, the headline of the article is misleading. Most tribal courts provide counsel for indigent defendants and many tribes use their own tribal revenues to provide these services. The article cited one example from Tohono O'odham where the tribe lacked the resources to provide counsel for multiple co-defendants, to draw the conclusion that Native people often go on trial unrepresented, when in fact these types of prosecutions are rare.

Second, the article suggests that it is 'a little-known quirk of federal law' that tribes 'are considered sovereign nations.'' To the millions of Indian people and hundreds of tribal governments who have functioned as autonomous sovereigns since time immemorial, our governments are much more than a 'quirk of federal law.' The sovereignty of our governments has been recognized by the federal government since its founding and is acknowledged in hundreds of treaties, the U.S. Constitution, countless statutes and executive orders. Any discussion of tribal justice systems must acknowledge and embrace tribal jurisdiction.

The article wrongly suggests that Indian people lack one of the guarantees of their basic civil rights. Because our sovereignty predates the U.S. Constitution, the provisions of the Bill of Rights do not apply to tribal governments. Tribes were recognized as foreign sovereigns outside the authority of the federal government when the Bill of Rights was developed. But to say that 'the Constitution acts as a floor ... that no state can go below'' and that no such floor exists for Indian people is simply not correct and reveals a profound misunderstanding of Indian law."

Get the Story:
NCAI President Joe Garcia: Tribal justice is not a 'quirk' (Indian Country Today 2/9)

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -

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