A Baedeker to the Tribal Court

By William P. Zuger

Republished here with the kind permission of the North Dakota Law Review, which is one of the prime law reviews publishing articles on Native American legal issues.

When I started work as a temporary judge at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, I had set foot on the reservation perhaps a half dozen times, only one of which, my employment interview with Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder four days earlier, was other than a visit to the Prairie Knights Casino. Since law school, I had firmly believed that one could never comprehend either the rule against perpetuities or Indian law. I had never handled a matter in tribal court and assumed it to be inherently unapproachable.

As I stepped onto the Tribe’s employment shuttle bus in Mandan, North Dakota, in the early morning of March 27, 2006, I had the feeling that I might just as well be heading off to be a judge in France. I felt as though I might need a Baedeker guide to the place.

I remain firmly convinced as to the rule against perpetuities. As to practice on the reservation, however, unlike the French, the Sioux people speak very good English, and they are a consummately gracious people. As to the tribal court, I have found it to be a user-friendly amalgam of Sioux and white culture and practices.

I suspect that the vast majority of North Dakota attorneys also shy away from taking any matter which might bring them near a tribal court, for similar unfamiliarity. Thus, in addition to sharing some of my reflections on my experience with the Tribe, I am going to try to provide a guide to the uninitiated — a Baedeker to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Court.

Read the rest of Judge Zuger’s guide to understand how to handle litigation in one tribe’s court system. From experience on various tribal reservations, this editor can state that Zuger’s article gives helpful insights into litigation in some of the Native American courts.