Honoring Nations: Rae Nell Vaughn, Dan Mittan, Henderson Williams, Andrew Jones, and Hilda Faye Nickey: The Choctaw Tribal Court System

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Representatives from the Choctaw Tribal Court System present an overview of the court system's development to the Honoring Nations Board of Governors in conjunction with the 2005 Honoring Nations Awards.

Resource Type

Jones, Andrew, Dan Mittan, Hilda Faye Nickey, Rae Nell Vaughn, and Henderson Williams. "The Choctaw Tribal Court System." Honoring Nations Awards event. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Tulsa, Oklahoma. November 1, 2005. Presentation.

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"[Choctaw language] Good afternoon, everyone. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Harvard Project for giving us this opportunity to participate in this exercise. It's really been an education for all of us. Before we begin our presentation, if I could have the group step here into the light. They're off to the wing there. I'd like to introduce members of the Choctaw delegation who are here and also in the audience. We have with us Senior Peacemaker, Mr. Henderson Williams; Andrew Jones, who serves as Diversion Coordinator under the Court Services Department. We also have Senior Judge Hilda Nickey, who serves as the Youth Court Judge. And we also have somewhere, there on the opposite end of the stage, Mr. Dan Mittan, who serves as Director of Court Services.

I'd also like to take a moment and recognize and introduce to the audience and to the board of governors here our tribal council members from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and if they would stand to be recognized please. The light is pretty bright and I'm having a hard time in seeing them. We have Councilman Mr. Charlie Nickey from the Conehatta Community; Mr. Tony Martin, representative of the Tucker Community; Mr. Ronnie Henry, representative of the Boque Chitto Community; Ms. Phyliss Anderson, representative of the Red Water Community, also serving as Secretary and Treasurer for the tribal council, Mr. Kevin "Jody" Edwards, who also serves as our chairperson for judicial affairs and representative of the Standing Pine Community; and last but not least, Representative Troy Chickaway of the Conehatta Community. Could we give them a round of applause? They have been quite supportive of the Choctaw Tribal Court System. At this time Chief Lyons it's my honor and privilege to present to you the Choctaw Tribal Court system."

[Video: "...Band of Choctaw Indians is purposefully weaving innovation with the traditions, customs and values that are Choctaw. In this significant way they are 'Keeping it Choctaw'. The Choctaw Tribal Court is a court of general jurisdiction that handles cases involving crime, delinquency and child welfare including violence and victimization issues. The court also handles civil matters involving personal and commercial conflicts or disputes. Some of the contributing factors that exacerbate the above case types include substance abuse, poor economic conditions, social justice problems and stressful family and parent/child relations. To address the above cases and contributing factors the Tribal Court established a Teen Court and a Peacemaking Court. Through these specialized efforts the court has unique opportunities to apply culturally relevant and appropriate philosophy, methods and approaches drawn from the Choctaw culture to more effectively handle the needs of children, youth and families affected by crime and delinquency or involved in civil conflict or disputes. Additionally, the court employs two strategies to further support and culturally enhance the day-to-day operations, the internship program and an Indigenous law library. Let's take a quick look at these four outstanding efforts from the Tribal Court of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians that not only helped us sustain it but by focusing on the guiding principles that are Choctaw ways are truly, 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Hilda Faye Nickey: "Several years ago we decided it was time to not only preserve the wisdom of our elders but to better educate our younger generations of our tribal and founding values by the use of technology available today. We are more than we had anticipated. Probate law is just one important example of our traditional ways of caring for one another in the time of a relative passing have a powerful impact on Choctaw families. We are excited about the potential influence this Indigenous law library project will have on the Choctaw Tribal Court System and our people." / "The Choctaw Indigenous law library perpetuates the foundational Choctaw principles of tribal life by compiling and archiving videotaped interviews with the elders of the tribal community. The elders are speaking in the Choctaw language and there is translation in English for the non-speaker's benefit. Present day situations are the topics for discussion such as the disciplining of children, the qualities that establish a good home within the community, how family and community disputes should be resolved and even how the planting and harvesting of crops are closely linked to times of forgiveness, reparation, restoration and renewal. This oral survey method of validation and discovery is renewing and further establishing tribal ways that are critical to the tribal court for ensuring cultural relevance, appropriateness and competence in judicial practice. It has the potential to reimage the entire tribal court to be more reflective of the Choctaw as Indian people when referenced by the legal community and the public. Every case type, criminal, juvenile, civil and especially peacemaker is benefiting from the outcomes of this project. The practice can be readily duplicated by other tribes for the development of further oral surveys, compiling databases and even developing guidebooks for other cultural documentation. This invaluable resource demonstrates how advanced technology can be effectively used to preserve elder wisdom while promoting Choctaw culture on all paths of life 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Rae Nell Vaughn: "We know that the children and youth of the tribe are our future. We know that we must provide opportunities for them to obtain skills and knowledge that will take us to an even better way of life while still preserving our culture, who we are. Mentoring is probably the oldest form of education known and it is still very effective. Our summer internship program is a continuing effort by our Tribal Court System that provides invaluable, hands-on experience for committed youth as they shadow our court staff." / "Designed primarily for Choctaw college and high school students the summer internship with the Choctaw Tribal Court System is assisting in the advancement of a qualified tribal workforce. With exposure to historical and significant court and government proceedings at all levels, these young people have a unique opportunity to see government in action. The ultimate goal is to hire these students in any tribal government position guaranteeing true Choctaw self-determination and ensuring the use of traditional and customary law to be the guiding tenets of how tribal government operates. The interns shadow staff in all offices and positions of the court, appreciating that the traditional roles for staff of being a family and community member do not end because one wears a tie or a robe. Submitting a research paper with an oral presentation encourages necessary communication skills for later employment. Visits to other courts and governments also provide a cross-cultural exchange with interns witnessing for themselves how the other systems interact and interface with the Tribal Court System. These meetings in turn demonstrate to government agencies the importance of practicing good intergovernmental relations as we all influence one another and should hold community as a value of highest esteem. Interns understand that the interweaving of tribal knowledge with academically acquired knowledge strengthens Choctaw law systems and advances good government practice while 'Keeping it Choctaw'." / Henderson Williams: "Peacemaker court is based on Choctaw ways we have researched through historical accounts of tribal life, learning the way things were done in Choctaw villages. Cases are sent to Peacemaking from child courts when opposing parties agree to discuss the conflict between them. They arrive at their own common agreement to permanently solve it. This is truly win-win situation. All can be resolved without the lengthy trial court process through Peacemaking." / "Ittikana Ikbi, Peacemaker Court, is an alternative venue within the Tribal Court System to the common adversarial court setting. Confidentially conducted by one of the two Peacemaker judges, each proceeding zeroes in on applying foundational Choctaw values with uncommon methods for application. In fact, the room being built in the new justice center designated for Peacemaking sessions will have no corners. Circular in design it supports and promotes holistic and collective Indigenous approaches to problem solving. Conflicts usually affect more lives than just the obvious ones so Peacemaking is a comprehensive method of dealing efficiently with even the contributing factors that aggravate these surface concerns. Once exposed, the remedies can be found and plans made for healing, damages repaired, relationships restored and all parties possessing a better understanding of the part of the solution that they own. Besides reducing costs by eliminating attorney fees and all the paper involved in the adversarial system, peacemaking methods have been effectively applied in human resource matters and in political settings where disagreements can divide a community. The wise use of customary laws and traditions are being applied to current realities. The legal professionals, including law enforcement, rely on Ittikana Ikbi with frequent referral restoring it as the primary source for solving conflicts occurring in the tribal community. The senior Peacemaker Henderson Williams points out, 'This becomes a major accomplishment when the end result sustains families, brings relief to stressful situations and preserves friendships. This is 'Keeping it Choctaw.'" / Choctaw teenager: "I have been working with Teen Court for two years now. I was scared at first not knowing what to expect but I knew some of the others that were participating so I joined. It has been a challenge so far but I really enjoy it. We learn about how real court works by doing the jobs ourselves and we know that it is a real case so we know it is very important to do the jobs well." / "Choctaw Tribal Teen Court is designed as a diversion for juvenile offenders that would otherwise enter the formal youth court and be placed on probation. A juvenile offender stands before his peers for an age appropriate disposition that many times includes an immediate verbal apology to the parents. Often a lengthy embrace comes next with tears. This kind of restorative justice just doesn't happen in the adversarial setting and is a clear application of the foundational Choctaw principles of tribal life. Though this jury and all other positions except for the judge is made up of young but well trained Choctaw teens, their demonstrated wisdom is proven well beyond their apparent youth and supposed innocence. One of the unique aspects of the structure of Teen Court is that an offender is required to serve on a jury at least twice. When they listen to others with the same problems, compose age-appropriate dispositions side-by-side with other teen volunteers that are already living responsibly, as well as perform community service work and attend additional training on social problems together, they become a valued part of a worthwhile endeavor making significant changes in their own way of life, an outcome of Choctaw teens mentoring Choctaw teens. Several programs are involved with the training and several of our participants are entering the Tribal Court Summer Internship Program. Finally, recognition for service performed is a critical part of the positive environment established through Teen Court as recognition banquets are held twice a year. Teen Court provides juvenile offenders the safe pathways needed to achieve restoration through Choctaw methods of apology and forgiveness and familiarity with other Choctaw principles. That's 'Keeping it Choctaw'. Through these four works the determined weaving of innovation with the traditions, customs and values that are Choctaw is resulting in a path to Indigenous justice that secures the peace and dignity of all within the tribal community. The Tribal Court System of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians is unwavering in its commitment to serve the Choctaw people yesterday, today and in the future. [Cherokee language]. Thank you.]

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"I'll begin with the questions. I can tell you we were all very, very impressed with your program and especially the Teen Court Program. It's marvelous that not only have you brought that level down to children to get them to take responsibility for their lives but you've given them the tools to be able to do so. And I, as I was watching this I was wondering in my head whether or not the program actually included a way for children who were defendants to be integrated into the judging process and your video explained that nicely. So thank you for that. I do have a question and that is related to the support that the court gets form the tribe in general, obviously you've got quite a turnout from your tribal council and that speaks volumes and that's really wonderful but you've been struggling to get into your building for a number of years. What's up with that?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Who should I defer that question to? It has been one that has been a challenge for us and that's more of an issue for the executive and legislative branches to answer. I don't know how else we can define that, but we have been progressing as well as we can with the tools that we have and it's quite evident with the work that we're doing and yes they are very supportive. I think like any other tribe we have pressing priorities. Everyone is a priority. The court is not any higher than our health needs, our education needs, we're all a priority to the council, and I have great confidence and faith that we will get that building completed and we will be in there and we will be able to provide more services and forums for our membership and for the members of our communities."

Heather Kendall-Miller:

"If I may just ask a quick...another question. One of the things that I was intrigued about as well in the success of your court system is the relationship that your tribal court has with the state court system. I assume it's one of mutual respect. Has there been a rocky road in the past in that regard or is there a relationship now in which both courts give full faith and credit to each others' decrees?"

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Well, I think that there has been somewhat of a challenge with our relationship with the state. However, we were able to have a very historical meeting this past summer at our Justice Symposium, the first opportunity for the Supreme Court of the State of Mississippi and for the tribal Choctaw Court System to meet, which again speaks volumes of this relationship, knowing of the history of the State of Mississippi, knowing the history of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, to have had this opportunity and to have that mutual respect for one another I think speaks volumes. We've had other occasions and opportunities however for this formal opportunity was one that we...I would never have expected to see it and it has happened. I'd also like to have Henderson Williams, our Peacemaker, who would like to also join in and answer."

Henderson Williams:

"In response to that question, it brings to mind just recently the very first time this has ever happened, county court referred a case to Ittikana Ikbi, the Peacemaker Court. There was a case where part is involved in the county court, the state court, had conflicts and the judge referred that case to our peacemaking court. This is something that has never taken place and I believe we have started a good association with the county and the state in that we are working on this case. If we can resolve it and maybe other cases will come along and I'm looking forward to a continued relationship with the county, with the state, particularly in my field that is in peacemaking. Thank you for that question."

JoAnn Chase:

"I join Heather in congratulating you on an outstanding court system. I was particularly struck also by the teen court and the innovative nature of the teen court, and was wondering if maybe you might expand a little bit on some of the information that was provided in your video. I'm particularly curious about the opt-in process and thought that that was quite unique and innovative and would like to hear just a little bit more about that. And then, and similarly perhaps some of the impacts, if you might expand a little bit if you have any kind of...the impacts of the teen court, for example lower recidivism rates, any possible statistics you might be able to share with us as well regarding that impact in the youth community."

Rae Nell Vaughn:

"Okay. What I'd like to do at this time is defer that question to Andrew Jones, who is our diversion coordinator and who runs our teen court."

Andrew Jones:

"As for the recidivism rate, I can honestly say that with the teen program we've only had one child to actually come back to be sent back to the former youth court. And as for the expanding it, just recently we started, we actually placed teen court in the schools because the schools [were] having, they're having problems with their own issues and instead of bogging the former youth court down we decided to use teen court with it instead of just actually using the former youth court."

Dan Mittan:

"If I could...I'm not sure that we understood the first part of your question. Was it about the opting in? What was that?"

JoAnn Chase:

"Yes, it was. It was about the opt-in process. I was referring to some notes and I just was wondering if you might expand a little bit on that process and if it was exercised regularly and so on, and if you wouldn't mind doing that that would be really helpful. Thank you."

Dan Mittan:

"I'm still not sure I understand but...except that the juvenile offenders, this is a diversion, so instead of going into the formal youth court program they're diverted out into this and then as a part of that they have to serve at least two times on the jury. Well, in the middle of all this training just to partake in the process of being...serving on the jury the training sessions are so interactive so that they find themselves in a different peer group and we think that because of that relationship building within that peer setting they find new friends, things maybe that they thought they were like before and then they realized when they actually rub shoulders with them and work on projects together they're not like that and so we're seeing bridges crossed even between the little groups amongst the teens. And I would just further add that we end up then, those kids, once their time with teen court is over with, they actually come back to say, 'Hey, I want to be a prosecutor this time or I want to be the defense attorney.' So it really is a perpetuating thing."

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