Justin Richland
Justin Richland, associate professor of criminology, law & society, anthropology and law, knew early on that he didn't want a typical career. He found his niche in the Native American legal system. Steve Zylius / UCI

Indigenous cultural artifacts share space with family photos on the walls and shelves of Justin Richland’s UC Irvine office: kachina dolls, Hopi ceremonial rattles and a skate deck made by Lakota-owned Wounded Knee Skateboards.

The items reflect ancient traditions as well as ways in which Native Americans are adapting their culture to the modern era. It’s fitting that Richland, associate professor of criminology, law & society, anthropology and law, straddles both worlds.

As co-founder and board member of The Nakwatsvewat Institute, he works with the Hopi tribe in Northern Arizona to settle disputes out of court in a manner mindful of their heritage. The nonprofit’s name comes from a Hopi term meaning “moving forward together in a friendly way.”

“The process can resolve family and property conflicts if people are willing to talk and work it out,” says Richland, who served as an appellate judge in the Hopi courts for four years. “Taking these cases to the tribal courts can be costly and time-consuming for all parties.”

Outsiders are often confounded by certain Hopi legal traditions, he says. Land, property and children belong to women in the matrilineal society. Tribe members are entitled to land only if they participate in yearly ceremonial rituals. Hopi courts recognize these practices and usually grant women land, property and child custody, Richland says.

Disputes can occur when men challenge their sisters or mothers for property rights or when tribe members living off Hopi land return and seek property ownership without participating in the proper rituals.

There are 12,000 Hopi tribe members, and about 6,950 live on the Northern Arizona reservation, which comprises 12 villages, each with 20 to 30 tribal clans. The Hopi are unique in that they still live in their aboriginal territory, Richland says, unlike other tribes relocated by the U.S. government.

“It’s hard for those of us who live in large, metropolitan areas to appreciate what life is like on a reservation,” he says. “Under the Hopi constitution, villages retain their sovereign authority to settle family and property disputes.”

Richland is the author of Arguing with Tradition: The Language of Law in Hopi Tribal Court, based on his extensive field research. In the book, he shows how Hopi courts — originally patterned after the Anglo-American system — have developed to reflect Hopi heritage.

“A Jewish kid from West L.A.,” Richland — who travels to Northern Arizona on seasonal breaks and sabbaticals — doesn’t have Native American ancestry and didn’t grow up near tribal land. But he was exposed to ethnic diversity.

“I remember sitting on my front lawn in the Fairfax District and seeing all kinds of people walk by and hanging out with Latino and African American kids on the playground,” Richland says. “And I became curious about how different cultures navigate social terrain.”

This interest led him to study linguistic anthropology at Ohio’s Kenyon College, from which he graduated in 1992. Richland enrolled at UC Berkeley’s School of Law knowing he didn’t want a typical law career. That’s where he met Hopi law student Pat Sekaquaptewa.

At her suggestion, Richland took an internship clerking for the Hopi tribal appellate court, and the experience proved life-changing.

Sekaquaptewa says Richland’s dedication to understanding Hopi culture and traditions, and his ability to raise awareness of Hopi issues in the academic and legal worlds, has helped him gain the community’s trust and respect.

“Justin has really thrown himself into serving the Hopi tribal community. People consider him a member of the family,” she says. “He’s far more committed than a lot of folks who pop in and out of Hopi country.”

In 2000, he and Sekaquaptewa started the work that would later become Hopi Dispute Resolution Services, which offers mediation and arbitration training. They have since taught dozens of Hopi leaders and members of other Native American tribes to act as mediators. The success of that endeavor led Richland and Sekaquaptewa to found The Nakwatsvewat Institute in 2006 and — with funding from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services — expand legal assistance to the Hopi community.

Tribal law, however, isn’t just about time-honored traditions and clan conflicts. Richland likes to point out the everyday relevance of his research to students in his contemporary Native American law and anthropology of law courses.

“If one of them were to slip and fall on the floor of the Morongo Casino or get food poisoning from the buffet and wanted to seek damages, he or she would have to go through the tribal arbitration system,” he says. “It would be a tribal court, not a federal or state court that would have jurisdiction over those cases. That usually grabs their interest.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 3