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January 01, 2017

Strengthening Indian Children and Families: Lessons from Tribal Court

the Honorable Richard Blake

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A young girl’s case came before me. She had experienced more tragedy and heartache than any person deserves at a young age. As the tribal judge hearing her case, I was charged with placing her in a home with individuals and a family who would be responsible for caring for her and healing her heart. Because there was not available kin or a home with a tribal member, we placed the child with a Native American foster family who lived in our community. 

I am a tribal court judge and often hear cases involving our children. My experience working with state court judges and my fellow tribal court judges leads me to believe that tribes and states share core values. We believe children are sacred and families are sacred. This has been and will always be true. As a tribal court judge, I experience these universal truths daily. I’m charged with a very important job of ensuring justice is served and protecting those children who come before my court. 

Preserving Communities and Families

The young girl is doing very well in her current placement. She’s important —to our community and to the survival of our people and our culture. The media sometimes makes light of the importance of tribes’ collective rights and concerns for our cultural survival through proper placement of our children. Why is it important? Historically, the impact of policies affecting children from private and government actors has been grave. They have caused pain and suffering for generations.  

When you cannot eliminate or control a population of people or their culture through removal, or placing them on reservations, or through war, you just have to assimilate them. Efforts to “Kill the Indian and Save the Man”1 began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those efforts most obviously affected the children. In spite of some of the most difficult and painful circumstances imaginable—some unimaginable—tribal nations and communities are growing stronger and stronger across the country. Our children and families are so important because they are survivors of this horrific history. Our people inherit that trauma, yet they survive and thrive and become leaders in our tribal and local communities. I see it every day.

In my work as a judge and president of the Board of the National American Indian Court Judges Association I see signs of hope at the local level and across Indian Country. I also see strong communities. Our communities face real challenges.  The co-occurring factors of substance abuse, mental health, and domestic violence are not confined to states alone. We too struggle to help parents and families facing these challenges. Given many very rural locations it is even more difficult. However, we know change and healing are possible, because we see it, because I see it.

Promoting Justice: Three Strategies

The following three strategies can continue to build hope and bring justice in Indian country:  

Work with partners to develop and implement services for Indian children and families grounded in traditional values.

There is growing evidence that designing interventions and treatments that draw upon traditional practices and community values increase success rates. Family healing and healing-to-wellness courts are a fine examples of this.2 Healing-to-wellness courts support traditional values and emphasize healing through community relationships. There is community support and often the participation of tribal elders. These approaches are less adversarial and recovery focused, similar to drug courts. They treat people and families with respect, and look for strengths. People are not seen as problems or known only by their problems—they are vital members of our community and our tribes. 

Build or enhance state and tribal consortiums—government-to-government working groups. 

We have done this to great success between state and tribal courts. There are too few of them, but the ones that exist are strong and we are pleased to see new consortiums taking root in Montana and other states. It begins with relationship building as the bedrock foundations. Judges from states and tribes meet each other in person, observe one another’s courts, and share challenges, experiences, and successes. This leads to stronger working relationships and stronger policies and practices because efforts are better 

informed and supported and are increasingly jointly created. It will help in all domains, but especially with Indian child welfare practice and ICWA. Governments, judges, social workers, and communities work together in a spirit of trust toward good, common sense solutions.

Collaborate and communicate between communities, organizations, and agencies.

A collaborative approach leveraging resources and knowledge will lead to more meaningful training of those individuals on the frontlines protecting our children. It will eventually lead to better outcomes for our children and families. A few examples rooted in our work are: 

  • At the National American Indian Court Judges Association, we organize tribal and state court judicial consortia events with Casey Family Programs and state Court Improvement Programs. Judges get to talk to each other and exchange ideas about issues and best practices concerning court-involved Indian children appearing in the courts. 
  • We partnered with the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges to support and encourage education, information sharing, and advocacy as essential to improving state and tribal juvenile and family court systems. We offer a joint membership to both our organizations to help state and tribal court professionals attain best practice and create systems that provide the best possible outcomes for children and families.
  • We are working with the Administration on Children Youth and Families to identify opportunities to promote data sharing and collaboration between state and tribal courts and child welfare agencies. Reaching out to other agencies and organizations enhances existing work, helps problem-solve, and provides a collaborative approach to this work.

Providing Hope for all Children and Families

One day, the local Head Start program invited me to a graduation ceremony. I was aware the young girl was attending the school, so I made an effort to go to support the graduates and this child. At the event, there was an area where all the children’s artwork was displayed. The Head Start teacher pointed out a painting to me in the corner. My first reaction was that it was a very lovely crow, because there was a splotch of black paint in the center. Upon further review, I realized it was me. The black paint represented my robe, and the surrounding paint was my courtroom. To say I was affected by this gesture is an understatement. She gave me that painting that day, and I later had it framed and placed in my chambers. It reminds me of the great role tribal judges play in the lives of our children. At the end of the day, we all want our children to survive, thrive, and be safe and loved. Period. 

My good friend and colleague, the Honorable Cheryl Fairbanks, teaches sessions on traditional peacemaking and peacemaking in tribal and state courts. She uses an example of the traditional basket to illustrate many points, primarily that the basket in the context of peacemaking represents the tradition of the tribe. Most poignantly, she talks about how each part of the weave is important to the entire basket that each individual is represented in the weave. If you think about our work in the child welfare arena as the basket, each of us are part of the weave, and each of us are part of the design of this basket. Your input and work is necessary to the weave. Without your part, the entire basket is incomplete and flawed. We understand that working for better outcomes for our children and families are not confined to our tribal lands, but it also extends to our local communities as well. I hope my words help guide you in your work to help strengthen Indian children and families. 

The Honorable Richard Blake (Hoopa Valley) is president of the Board of the National American Indian Court Judges Association, Boulder, Colorado.


1. Stated by Richard H. Pratt in Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892.

2. See Romney, Lee. “Yurok Tribe’s Wellness Court Heals with Tradition.” Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2015; Liedke, Matthew. “Judicial Officials Celebrate 10th Anniversary of Wellness Courts in Cass Lake.InForum, December 8, 2016.

One Nation, One Voice Healing Ride: A Unique Tribal Service

The Dakota 38 Plus 2, an association of tribal nonprofits, have been organizing Healing Rides for over 10 years. The riders travel historic routes on horseback to learn about their culture and history. The rides provide a healing environment for foster and at-risk children, those suffering from substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

According to Tracy ‘Ching’ King, a former Tribal president and a founder of the Indian Child & Family Resource Center, the healing effect on people in caring for and riding horses has roots in his peoples’ religious beliefs. The routes they ride on the healing rides commemorate past tragedies and focus participants on surviving and thriving beyond their difficulties.