February 2006 Vol. 104 No. 4 THE REVIEW

American Indians, Crime, and the Law

Kevin K. Washburn

When a Navajo tribal member commits a serious felony against another Navajo on the remote Navajo Indian Reservation, the crime sets in motion not a tribal criminal investigation and tribal court proceeding, but a federal investigation and federal court proceeding under the federal Major Crimes Act. For trial, the Navajo defendant, the Navajo victim, and the witnesses (all of whom are also likely to be Navajo) will be summoned to a federal district court far away from the reservation and the specific community where the crime occurred. Unlike a felony involving only non-Indians, which would be routinely adjudicated at the local county or district courthouse, the Navajo felony will be tried in a distant federal court in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, or Albuquerque.

The federal court operates in a language that is foreign to many Navajos; thus the Navajo defendants, victims, and witnesses may require interpreters to translate the proceedings. Neither the judge, the court reporter, the prosecutor, the court security officers, the deputy marshals, nor the defense attorney or investigator are likely to be Navajo or even understand or speak the Navajo language. Perhaps even more importantly, the federal jury that hears the evidence is unlikely to include a Navajo, or even an Indian, or any other member of the community where the crime occurred.

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