The chief judge of the U.S. District Court for North Dakota offered tribal officials plain truth about public safety and the criminal justice system on reservations at the third annual Tribal Consultation Conference last week at the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. It was a message that people on and off the reservation -- city, county, tribal and state officials -- should take to heart.
“If we wait for a solution to come from Washington, we will lose another generation of our children,” said Judge Ralph Erickson.
Not only has Congress tied itself up in political knots, but the federal government finds itself cash strapped. Together it means even if Congress found a solution to social and crime problems on the reservation, a long shot at best, getting anything funded would be a stretch.
In the meantime, as Erickson pointed out, Indian country has too much to lose.
The plight of people on the reservation has been thoroughly documented. And, the dysfuction in Congress has a great deal in common with some, not all, tribal agencies and government. These problems in Indian country have gone on for a long time. It would be naive to believe solving these tough issues would be easy for local tribal communities. But the chance for workable solutions always looks better locally because the individuals involved have more at stake -- their people, families and homes.
The judge has some additional advice: don’t emulate the state or federal courts but develop a system that involves tribal customs and traditions. In other words, make it yours. He could have been speaking to any community in America (or around the world, for that matter). And, this advice could be applied to all manner of social and economic reform, not just criminal justice issues.
The situation on each reservation is different, even in a small state like North Dakota. But here the economy, one factor in the bigger puzzle, is better than it has been for a long time. Several of the state’s reservations are seeing significant oil development, and the other reservation communities are seeing indirect opportunities as a result of the oil boom.
We believe that having a functional economy on a reservation is a game changer. And, we think Judge Erickson is right about community self reliance.