Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, Navajo Nation

Interviews

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, Navajo Nation

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, Navajo Nation

Emily Gold spoke with Herb Yazzie, Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation, about his thoughts on collaboration, defining success, and the personal and professional experiences that shaped him as a leader.

What factors contributed to you becoming a lawyer and judge?
As a young person, I noticed that many people resort to the law and the U.S. legal system to resolve the problems they become involved with. But historically, there has been a failure to recognize within that system that Native Americans have their own values, their own culture, and their own laws. History is full of incidents where Navajos and Native Americans were pressured to apply only statutory law as developed by states and the federal government. There has always been resistance to this domination because those laws are not compatible with our values. But I also learned early on that the Navajo people are going to have to understand American laws before we can improve the situation, so I decided that I might as well learn to use the knowledge as a tool. Learning about American law was difficult for me, particularly in criminal law because I realized how profoundly different it was from how my people view justice. 

How has practicing in both systems shaped your views?
There are many differences between the two systems. American courts distinguish between civil and criminal law, their judges play a different role, and they have different procedures to address criminal behavior. While many of these practices have been used by the Navajo people for some time, there are still stark philosophical distinctions between the two systems. The Navajo system is based on what I call restorative justice. What should the community do when a person doesn’t behave per our values? How can we help restore the person and get them to acknowledge and accept the traditional value system? On the other hand, the American system is focused more on punishment and retribution. I practiced in American courts for many years, and I’ve seen firsthand how it impacts Native Americans. I’ve had my own relatives appear before that process, and I’ve seen that it affords little opportunity to get to the core of the problems and the appropriate solutions. It was hard for me to see tribal court judges adhere to the American system at the cost of the restorative approach.

Is there a trend towards bringing the Navajo courts more in line with traditional tribal values?
I’ve worked in many capacities within the Navajo courts—representing individuals as a legal services attorney, at the Navajo Nation Department of Justice as Attorney General, as the Chief Legislative Counsel of the legislative branch, and now as Chief Justice. I’ve seen that my colleagues’ attitudes are largely shaped by a generational divide and what particular employment framework they’ve worked in, especially during their early years as legal professionals. The generation that lived through the imposition of the American court system on the Navajo Nation and has worked with it since seem to have lost some of the vision about the alternative—the traditional Navajo philosophies and practices. On the other hand, those who are members of the tribal community and speak the native language and who are now in government—like myself—they remember the traditional Navajo law and seek a return to that approach. We’ve had a lot of support from professionals in other disciplines—such as social workers and teachers—who recognize the importance of and have tried to apply the traditional value system. But returning to the traditional law is not easy. With much of the funding coming into the tribal courts from the U.S. government, there are times when there is still tension about which direction we should be moving in.

What role have you played in addressing the divide between the two approaches?
When I became chief justice, I started talking about these concepts—not only among the leadership of the Navajo nation, but also the people I work with in the courts. We established a strategic plan to infuse the traditional Navajo system into our court system. That was five or six years ago. We’re still using that directive to help us refocus our attention on tribal values.

How important is it to you in your current role to balance tradition with innovation?
To me, I take the view that all human beings are very practical-minded. We develop the best tools to achieve harmony, peace, and unity. From the Navajo perspective, the elders will say, ‘Go out there and educate yourself, but you will come back because the whole purpose of educating yourself is to return to help the community.’ What I’ve learned is that it helps to know where the American legal system comes from because there are certain practices and concepts that are comparable and help in resolving disputes. The Navajo people aim to pick the best of all cultures. When we looked at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, for example, we saw how it was compatible with our values in a lot of ways. By looking out in the community for other projects like Red Hook, we are able to better understand and respond to the American system. It helps us to change our own system, or at least how it is viewed. That process will require experimentation. 

Who have been some of your best allies in the work you do?
We get a lot of support from the elders and local community leaders of the tribe. Peacemakers, who use a traditional way of resolving disputes, have been a particularly strong partner who we work with constantly. Right now, we’re developing a curriculum to administer to all Navajo judges and peacemakers, so they can better understand one another. Our goal is to make sure that all of our allies have a well-rounded, complete view of the system.

Are there experiences that have been particularly instrumental in shaping you as a leader?
When I think of myself, I’m no different than other people who are of my generation. I give great credence to the extended family that I come from who spoke the language and tried to instill their knowledge into me. I think that’s the basis of who I am—keeping myself firmly grounded in knowing the local people. Over the years, I think people have recognized and appreciated that in me. When you combine that with the formal educational process that I went through, the hope is that I have attained the right tools and enough experience to do this job. Probably the biggest asset, though, is the ability to speak with the community in their own language. That allows me to explain any situation to the community and get them to talk about their concerns and become part of the solution. 

What advice would you offer to an incoming chief justice?
It probably wouldn’t be any different than what I tell the staff of the judicial branch I work with. Being part of the Navajo community requires a commitment to help people to resolve disputes. If you don’t know the traditional side of law, it’s incumbent upon you to learn it. Also, if you are to gain the confidence of people and ensure that they are satisfied with the solution reached, you have to learn not only the traditional laws but also the language. I realize that it’s hard if you weren’t raised with it, but at least learn the essential vocabulary for conveying certain concepts in the traditional way. 

How have you defined success in your work as chief justice?
Ultimately, it is our objective that when our people think and speak about ‘law’ they will mean not only what contemporary human beings have developed as statutory laws, but also the traditional laws that the holy people placed with us to know and live by. The more effort we make toward this objective the sooner we may have a nation where the people will regard our justice system as their own, reflecting restorative justice. Success would be reducing aberrant behavior through respect for one’s self, for our relatives, for our ancestors, and for our common history.

What strategies have you employed to address the increasing need to do more with less?
In the long term, learning and living in accordance with traditional laws will lessen the need for bigger courts, bigger jails, and more lawyers. I’m hoping we will learn that resolving disputes is most appropriately done by peacemaking—confronting the dispute, discussing all matters with respect for one another, and reaching a consensus on how harmony can be restored. Without practicing restorative justice, especially with our young people, we will never have enough money or resources to address rising rates of crimes and the increasing severity of violent behavior. The American experience, as well as the world over, teaches us that in a justice system based on retribution and punishment, you will never have big enough resources. 

What advice would you give to a young person interested in pursuing a similar career path to yours?
The sooner you learn that being a legal professional means much more than merely being an advocate for one side of a dispute, the more satisfaction you will feel in your profession and your career.  Life is not a game or a contest to defeat others. A legal professional should also be a leader to improve the community.

February 2012

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