The documentary Tribal Justice explores tribal courts in two Native American communities in California and their efforts to integrate traditional models of justice into a modern justice system. Filmmaker Anne Makepeace documents the efforts of Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok tribe on the north coast, and Claudette White, chief judge of the Quechan tribe in the southern desert, as they work to create alternative systems of justice that focus on rehabilitation, restoration and reintegration into the community rather than punishment and prison.
Native American communities have been resolving disputes by finding ways for offenders to right wrongs and restore balance for generations, and more than 300 tribal courts across the United States are now integrating culturally relevant practices that focus on healing to wellness.
In this lesson, students will examine the tribal justice model used in the Yurok tribal court and its impact on defendant Taos Proctor. Proctor is one strike away from a 25-year sentence when he is deferred to Chief Judge Abby Abinanti’s court. Through Proctor’s journey, students will come to understand the important role community plays in healing and wellness and how the collaborative process of talking circles can help to establish networks of support, resources and accountability that extend beyond the courtroom.
One 50-minute class period plus homework
By the end of this lesson, students will be able to:
- Describe what is meant by a tribal justice system and tribal healing and wellness courts and the key components of these systems
- Explain the practical applications of tribal justice models as demonstrated in Tribal Justice and through the talking circle model
- Understand the community’s role in conflict resolution and the peacemaking process
- Assess the effectiveness of the talking circle model in resolving school-based conflicts
- Film clips from Tribal Justice and equipment on which to show them
- Student and Teacher Handouts
- Student Handout A: Understanding Tribal Justice Approaches
- Student Handout B: Viewing Notes
- Student Handout C: Taos Proctor’s Journey
- Student Handout D: Talking Circle Viewing Notes
- Student Handout E: Talking Circle Tribal Justice Plan
- Teacher Handout A: Talking Circle Roles
- Chart paper and sticky notes
- Talking piece (any object that can be safely held and passed around the circle, for example a feather, a stick, a piece of chalk or a small stuffed animal)
1. Tribal Justice: Healing to Wellness
In preparation for viewing and discussing scenes from Tribal Justice, students will learn about the tribal justice system and tribal healing and wellness courts and understand the key components of these systems.
Share the following definition for the tribal justice system from the Legal Information Institute and ask students to rewrite the definition in their own words. Have students discuss their rewritten definitions with partners then share with the class. Using the students’ feedback, create a working definition for the tribal justice system and revisit and refine it throughout the lesson.
The term “tribal justice system” means the entire judicial branch, and employees thereof, of an Indian tribe, including (but not limited to) traditional methods and forums for dispute resolution, lower courts, appellate courts (including intertribal appellate courts), alternative dispute resolution systems and circuit rider systems, established by inherent tribal authority whether or not they constitute a court of record.
The tribal justice system can take a variety of forms and the model employed is often tailored to the community in question and the conflicts the model is being used to resolve. In the film Tribal Justice, we will see an example of a tribal healing to wellness court. In 2014, it was estimated that there were 72 such courts in the United States.
According to the book Overview of Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts, this type of court “applies the drug court concept in a manner intended to meet the needs of the community, particularly the need to address the devastation caused by alcohol, other drug abuse and crime. The design of a tribal healing to wellness court program is developed at the local level, to reflect the unique strengths, circumstances, and capacities of each nation. Many sectors of the nation’s community are integrally involved in the planning and implementation process of a healing to wellness court collaborative, which includes multiple disciplines, services and people. They include, but are not limited to, criminal justice, substance abuse treatment providers, law enforcement, cultural programs, educational institutions, employment and vocational programs, antidrug organizations and tribal leadership.”
Display and review the components of healing to wellness illustrated in this chart from the Tribal Law and Policy Institute:
Have students organize into small groups and discuss Tribal Justice using Student Handout A: Understanding Tribal Justice Approaches as a guide. Have volunteers share and discuss their responses to the handout questions with the class.
Review: Ask the class, “What questions do you have about tribal justice?” (Record the students’ questions on the board and refer back to them throughout the lesson.)
2. Tribal Courts
Through clips from the film Tribal Justice, students will examine how tribal courts are adapting traditional justice models to use them in modern justice systems. They will also begin to explore the difference between punishment-based justice and wellness courts.
- For this lesson, we will be watching clips from the documentary feature film Tribal Justice. This film explores tribal courts in two Native American communities—the Yurok and Quechan tribes—and their efforts to adapt the tribes’ traditional models of justice for use in a modern context.
- Has anyone heard of tribal courts before today? If so, can you share what you know about tribal courts and how they are different from mainstream courts?
Distribute Student Handout B: Viewing Notes to each student and play Clip 1. Instruct students to take notes while viewing the clip using the prompts in the handout. After screening the clip, have students share their notes and feedback.
Talking circles are traditional models of justice often found in tribal courts. First Nations tribes throughout the United States and Canada have used talking circles to resolve conflict. The Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative explains talking circles as follows:
Many traditional tribal practices involve some form of talking circles. A talking circle involves individuals sitting in a circle, taking turns to express their thoughts on a particular issue. In the circle, everyone has an equal place; there is no hierarchy. Often times, a talking piece is used and passed around the circle. The talking piece can be a feather or other treasured object. Only the person holding the talking piece is allowed to talk. This process requires active and deep listening. Historically, native cultures used talking circles as a way of bringing people together for the purposes of teaching, listening and learning. More recently, talking circles are being used to facilitate healing processes in both tribal and non-tribal communities.
Distribute Student Handout C: Taos Proctor’s Journey and play Clip 2. Have students take notes using the prompts in the handout.
Have students share their notes and ask for volunteers to summarize the tribal justice model that the Yurok tribe uses as described by Judge Abby Abinanti. Record the responses on the board to review later in the lesson.
Organize students into small discussion groups and distribute chart paper, sticky notes and markers to each group. Instruct students to brainstorm all the possible consequences that Taos Proctor could or should face and write each one on a separate sticky note.
Have each group hang its chart paper on a wall and draw a line vertically down the center, dividing the paper into two columns. Tell them to write Punishment at the top of one column and Rehabilitation at the top of the other, then share the definitions for both terms with the class. Have the students place their sticky notes in the category that fits best. (For example: “life in prison” would be a Punishment and “going to drug rehab” or “apologizing to the man whose yard he drove into and fixing the damage he did to the man’s property” would be Restitution.)
Definitions (from Merriam-Webster)
• Punishment: the act of making a wrongdoer suffer: the state of being made to suffer for wrongdoing: the penalty for a wrong or crime
• Rehabilitation: the act of restoration (as a convicted criminal defendant) to a useful and constructive place in society through therapy, job training and other counseling
Instruct groups to form larger groups of six to eight students each and review and discuss each other’s responses.
Which of the consequences we identified reflect the tribal justice principles we discussed and the talking circle model the Yurok tribe is using?
3. Talking Circles
In this activity, groups of six to eight students will learn how to form talking circles and how to use a talking piece. Students in each circle will take on the roles and responsibilities of members of Taos Proctor’s community and work together to develop a tribal course of action that will serve both Proctor and his community.
Each group of six to eight students will become a talking circle for the case of Taos Proctor. Explain:
A talking circle should offer an opportunity for the offender, the victim, family, wellness professionals, justice department representatives and community members to work together to develop a plan of action. Since we cannot sit in on Proctor’s meetings with Judge Abinanti in tribal court, we will act as part of an extended talking circle for his case.
We will watch additional clips from Tribal Justice featuring statements and testimony from Proctor, Judge Abinanti, professionals working on the case and Yurok community members. After watching the clips, the members of each talking circle will discuss what has been said and—using what we’ve learned about tribal justice—work together to develop a course of action that will serve both Proctor and his community.
Creating a talking circle:
- Have the groups organize their chairs into a circle (or sit in a circle on the floor).
- Give each group a “talking piece.” This can be any object that is easily held and passed around the circle. Explain the rules of the talking piece:
The talking piece helps your group ensure that everyone has a chance to talk and to listen. When someone is holding a talking piece, they can share their thoughts, opinions and ideas. The other members of the circle should be listening actively and taking notes. If you have questions or a counterpoint, you can raise your hand to request the talking piece, or you can wait until the talking piece is passed around the circle to you and then voice your thoughts. The success of a talking circle relies on members respecting the person who is speaking so that everyone has the opportunity to make their voice heard.
(Note: Talking pieces can take many forms: a feather, a stick, a piece of chalk, a shell, a small stuffed animal and so on. Students can also make their own talking pieces in advance of the lesson.)
Assign a role to each student in the talking circle from Teacher Handout A: Talking Circle Roles and review the responsibilities associated with each role. (Multiple students in the talking circle will have the same or similar roles. They can work independently or collaborate to fulfill their responsibilities. Roles can also be adjusted, edited or added to suit the classroom’s curriculum goals.)
Distribute Student Handout D: Talking Circle Viewing Notes and instruct students to pay close attention to the statements and testimony of participants in the tribal court. Students should take notes and write down quotes that will help them fulfill their roles in the talking circle. (If needed, clips can be played twice to give the students the opportunity to take detailed notes.)
Play Clips 3 and 4.
Distribute a copy of Student Handout E: Talking Circle Tribal Justice Plan to each talking circle group. Have students use the talking piece to share their screening notes from Student Handout D, then ask them to work with their fellow group members to develop a tribal justice plan for Proctor. (If students need more space to record their responses, encourage them to use separate sheets of paper or the backs of the worksheets.)
When all of the groups have completed their tribal justice plans, have the circles share their plans with the whole class or have circles pair up and share with each other.
Students will reflect on Proctor’s journey and the impact of the tribal court model on his outcome and clarify any remaining questions about tribal justice.
Reconvene the class and ask the students what outcome they anticipate for Proctor.
Play Clip 5 and follow with a brief reflection on the following (this can be a discussion or a journal assignment):
- How did Proctor’s outcome compare with your expectations for him?
- What would his outcome have been if the tribal court did not exist?
- Why was it important for the victim and the offender to have a team of people invested in their tribal justice process?
Conclude the lesson by revisiting the questions students had about tribal justice from earlier in the lesson and follow up on any questions that still need clarification.
Writing Assignment: Have students identify a school-based conflict (real or hypothetical) that would benefit from the tribal justice model and describe the possible process and outcomes using this method.
Tribal Justice in the Classroom:
Have students work in groups to design a customized tribal justice model that can be used for the classroom community. Groups can take turns sharing and refining their ideas with the class through role-play presentations, and then each model can be tested in the classroom for a week. At the end of the test period, the class should combine the best qualities from each idea into a tribal justice model that will be used in the classroom for the remainder of the year.
Tribal Justice in the Community:
Have students work in small groups to research the justice system in their community and learn if and how tribal justice is used. Have each group interview at least three people working in the justice system in their local area to learn how the system functions and what needs to be improved. If there are no tribal justice programs in the area, students should ask interview subjects to share their thoughts on this model and whether they think it would be benefit the community. Students should collaborate to develop interview questions in advance and film the interviews, if possible. Their research can be compiled into a written report or a multimedia presentation.