Indian Country: A Glimpse into Tribal and Federal Indian Criminal (In)Justice


The criminal justice system is a tool of social control.  And no where is that more evident than on our nation’s Indian reservations.  American Indians have been the targets of the wrath of the criminal process since the day a renegade Sioux warrior Crow Dog shot Chief Spotted Tail dead in the late 1800’s. 

We can watch wonderful films like Dances With Wolves & Killers of the Flower Moon to learn about the atrocities committed against American Indians way back when.  

But many of us believe those terrible days are behind us and the American Indian now enjoys full and unfettered rights.  Of course, that’s a myth, and no where does that myth come into living color than in tribal and federal court.

Therefore, helping us get Set for Sentencing this week is Arizona attorney, member of the Navajo Nation, and fierce public defender working for the Salt River Pima Indian community in the greater Phoenix Area, Melanie Yazza. 

Melanie and I met years ago when we had a mutual American Indian client who was wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting his teenaged step-daughter.  It was a hard fought case, and thankfully justice was done.


  • How a person ends up being charged BOTH tribally and federally for the same offense;
  • Different possible punishments in tribal and federal court;
  • Why the concept of “double jeopardy” does not apply;
  • Whether tribal judges must actually be lawyers;
  • Whether you are entitled to a jury trial in tribal court;
  • Who makes the sentencing decisions in tribal court;
  • The story of Crow Dog & Spotted Tail and how the feds stole jurisdiction away from the tribes for “major crimes”;
  • The story of how we successfully defended a wrongfully accused client;
  • Cultural differences that make a difference in defending an American Indian client and some practical advice to bridge the cultural gap;
  • Drugs on the reservation and mandatory minimum sentences for simple possession.

LINKS:  If you want some more scoop on the feud between Crow Dog and Spotted Tail and the ensuing Major Crimes Act, here’s the wiki:

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