Justin Richland, associate professor of criminology, law & society, anthropology and law, knew early on that he didn't want a typical career. Today he works with the Hopi tribe in Northern Arizona to settle disputes out of court in a manner mindful of their heritage. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Professor finds niche in Native American legal system

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.

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.”

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