It is hard to believe that the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Court is already eleven years old. Seemingly, it was only yesterday that the court began, perhaps because all of the hard work that goes into developing and maintaining a court system is continuing.
In 1995 our community, through its elected council, made the decision to develop a tribal system of justice. Starting out slowly, with only a few tribal codes developed, the community recognized the need for the Tribe to have an internal mechanism for dispute resolution and enforcement of tribal laws. This mechanism is the backbone for tribal self-governance and an exercise of its sovereign rights.
After the Tribe’s initial decision to begin its exercise of sovereignty through the establishment of a tribal court, the Tribal Council appointed the court’s first judges who were sworn in August 11, 1995. The Court began hearing cases in January 1996, and soon recognized more needs for the community. It became very apparent that our community members, using the court, needed assistance to help them through the court processes. Therefore, the Court established a tribal court lay advocacy program where a number of our tribal members were trained through a program sponsored by the Wisconsin Tribal Judges’ Association with the assistance of Wisconsin Judi care. This program trained lay people to provide legal representation to parties using, not only our tribal court but also all tribal courts in Wisconsin. Later, as the needs increased, the Court has organized additional trainings for the lay advocates, specific to the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Codes.
The Tribal Court began hearing more cases involving disputes between people in our community; the Court realized a need for a more traditional way to resolving these disputes rather than using the adversarial approach. As the Council’s vision had provided, a peacemaker system was established. Although slow in starting, the Court now has several community members who have received some training and guidance in helping people resolve differences in a peaceful, healthy and respectful way. This approach is more in line with the Native American traditional practices used long before the introduction of the European adversarial system.
From its beginning, where the Court handled only a few types of cases, the Tribal Council has expanded the Court’s jurisdiction to include many of the problems facing tribal communities. The Court now hears cases involving: Administrative appeals, probate cases, a youth code including youth in need, guardianship cases, termination of parental rights, adoptions, determination of paternity, truancy cases, juvenile delinquency, public peace and good order, financial responsibility, regulation of door to door sales, enforcement of the Tribe’s natural resources code including fish and game regulations, regulation of tobacco sales, fireworks regulations, tribal land ordinance violations, housing codes, ATV regulations, curfew, and employee rights cases including employee preference disputes and enforcement of fair labor standards. The Court also hears requests for changing legal names, divorces, temporary restraining orders and domestic abuse protective orders, and the judges perform many marriages. This list will continue to expand.
In addition to the work being done in the tribal court, much work has been done outside the tribal court to enhance tribal systems of justice nationwide. The tribal judges have been extremely involved in developing respectful working relationships with the state courts of Wisconsin, developing training programs for tribal/state and federal judges throughout the country, and helping to develop long term Indian legal studies programs in tribal colleges. Tribal justice systems are not only becoming recognized as being competent, but are being recognized as being innovative in an overall picture of peace.
After nine years, the Court in continuing to look at ways to improve services to our community. The future of our tribal court is to continue to provide a community based system for dispute resolution and enforcement of our own laws. The Court’s vision includes expanding our peacemaker system to include talking, healing, and/or sentencing circles. Also on the horizon is the establishment of a Youth Court using traditional circle concepts, a Wellness Court program to address alcohol and drug problems that may exist in our community, and expanded use of community service programs that will assist our elders.
The cultural sensitive nature of tribal courts is serving Indian people well. Having a cultural thread weaving throughout tribal codes and through tribal court processes is helping to make Tribal communities stronger. The Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Court pledges to continue in this endeavor.