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Historical Ties to Legal System Help Crow Tribal Court Judges

The Crow Tribal Court recently elected its three judges to serve from 2014-18, and each of them brings a historical significance to their position.

For its 2014-18 term, the Crow Tribal Court in Crow Agency, Montana, has a roster of almost entirely new faces. Associate Judge Sheila Not Afraid is the only returning judge; she is joined by new Chief Justice Leroy Not Afraid and Associate Judge Kari Covers Up.

In this past fall’s election, held on November 2, 2013, Leroy Not Afraid defeated fellow candidate Jackie YellowTail, 1,831 votes to 944, and took the seat held by the Honorable Julie Yarlott, who served from 2009 to 2013. In the associate judges’ race, Kari Covers Up and Sheila Not Afraid received 1,786 and 1,766 votes, respectively, while then-Associate Judge Jonni Dreamer-Big Hair received 1,162. Like Yarlott, Dreamer-Big Hair served from 2009 to 2013.

Energy is high among the new trio. All three say that has a lot to do with their respective backgrounds, a deep sense of history and a strong commitment to the Crow, or Apsaalooke, Nation.

Life comes full circle

Born in Crow Agency and raised in the Valley of the Chiefs, also known as the Lodge Grass district, Chief Justice Leroy Not Afraid graduated in 1990 from St. Labre Catholic Indian High School and attended Montana State University until 1992. He said he quickly learned that college was not for him.

“It didn’t speak loudly to me,” he said. “So I went to work for tribal government, which is now called the executive branch under the 2001 Constitution. I also started a consulting business, which I still have now; I travel the United States to teach youth about leadership, and to train boards and councils on how to be better and more effective.”

Not Afraid said he’s taking roughly a yearlong sabbatical from the consulting business to get his feet on the ground at the Crow Tribal Court, where he said he’s committed to making the judicial branch function even more effectively in the Crow Nation’s three-branch tribal government.

“One of my passions is to promote the sovereignty and jurisdiction of the Crow Nation,” he explained. “That’s why I’m here.”

The road to becoming chief judge began when Not Afraid was a small boy, being raised by guardians who would later become his adoptive parents. At the age of 10, he was struck by a motorcycle in a Lodge Grass school parking lot, state-owned property.

“My adoptive mother, who was my guardian then, sued the school district on my behalf,” Not Afraid remembered. “That case eventually became National Farmers Union Insurance Company vs. the Crow Tribe.”

The case started in Montana U.S. District Court, was reviewed by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and eventually traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision on June 3, 1985, the Court unanimously upheld tribal courts’ jurisdiction in civil matters involving non-Indians. Not Afraid said it was a powerful acknowledgment of Indian nations’ history and sovereignty.

“I was the original plaintiff in that case,” he commented. “It really inspired me to pursue public service.”

Not Afraid first ran for public office in 1996, when he was just 24 years old; he was the first Native American to run for the office of lieutenant governor. Although he didn’t win, he quickly re-engaged, running for a house district seat in 1998. He also ran for a vice secretary position with the Crow Tribe. Then, in 2001, he had his first win — in a Lodge Grass School District race.

“Life really does go full circle,” he remarked. “That’s where I was hit by a motorcycle, and then here I was, as school board chair.”

Not Afraid also took judicial studies courses at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada, earning certifications in tribal courts and conflict resolution. He soon became justice of the peace for Montana’s Bighorn County, home to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne; he was the first Native American to be elected justice of the peace in state history.

“I actually just filed for my third term as justice of the peace,” Not Afraid said. “I’m hoping I don’t have an opponent this time! This is my 14th race since 1996.”

In the meantime, he has his hands full with the Crow Tribal Court. One of Chief Judge Not Afraid’s first orders of business was to restructure how cases would be handled. He put Associate Judge Kari Covers Up in charge of the criminal court, and Associate Judge Sheila Not Afraid will be responsible for civil cases that deal with tort claims and issues such as custody issues and divorce.

He will handle cases involving juvenile delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, guardianship and adoption. He said he’s very passionate about all these issues.

“In the case of the juveniles, maybe we can help them get sober, be better students and work with their families,” he said. “And regarding adoptions: There are non-Indian families who want to adopt Crow children. This is an opportunity to be a gatekeeper for all that, to follow protocols and make sure Crow families are notified. Our priority has to be making sure that Crow children stay with Crow families.”

Fulfilling a passion

The only returning judge on the Crow Tribal Court, Associate Judge Sheila Not Afraid was born and raised in Crow Agency. She graduated from St. Labre Catholic Indian High School in 1992, and she earned an associate’s degree in business management from United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota. Then she returned to the Crow Nation, where her mother was a longtime tribal court judge and worked as secretary for the tribe’s law and order commission.

“She worked with the law and order commission for 10 years, prior to the passing of the 2001 Constitution,” Not Afraid said. “The commission would review amendments to the law and order code. I attended meetings when I was 19 or so; my mother would have me take notes. That really sparked my interest.”

Not Afraid had worked as a tribal court clerk for a short time in 1999. Two years later, she was rehired and resumed that position.

“Before 2001, there was a lot of control from the chairman and tribal council, what we now call the executive branch,” she reflected. “And back then, the prosecutor was in the administrative building with the court. We shared space.

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“The separation of branches was a big difference,” she continued. “In my four years as a clerk, I saw the transition after the Constitution, the growing pains. But this is better for the judges, because we can be confident in how we make our decisions. There’s no pressure to rule one way or another, and that’s really good. It wasn’t always like that.”

Not Afraid’s next move was to the juvenile drug court, where she played a role in developing what is now known as the Tribal Healing to Wellness Court. This court began with a grant, but when she arrived, very little had been established.

“I developed the policies and procedures,” she said. “When I left, they had a good idea of how it would go, and today it’s one of the few Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts that is self-sustaining.”

For several years after that, Not Afraid worked for the executive branch’s human resources department. She also took the Crow Tribal Court’s bar exam and earned her license to practice. She handled a variety of cases, including custody, child support and divorce.

Her case load wasn’t too burdensome, however, so she applied for a job as a legal assistant with the legislative branch. In that role, she learned the processes for writing bills and developing laws. It was, she said, an excellent experience for a future judge.

“It gave me a great perspective,” she explained. “Knowing the rationale they use in making the laws helps me when I have to interpret them. It was a really neat experience, too.”

Those prior experiences as a clerk and advocate, Not Afraid said, led her to the associate judge position for the Crow Tribe. Her first term began in 2009.

“It was just in my heart, knowing that my mom had the same passion,” she said. “Plus, my older sister served as chief judge during my first term! She decided she wouldn’t run for re-election, but for me, it was a no-brainer to file again. And now, in my second term, I’m serving with my husband (Chief Justice Leroy Not Afraid).”

In her new term, Not Afraid will oversee every matter that comes through the civil court: tort claims, small claims, orders of protection, restraining orders, guardianship, paternity, probate issues, custody issues, marriages, annulments and divorce. The majority of cases, she said, tend to involve land issues.

“We see a lot of disputes on homes and where they’re situated, cattle on another person’s property, that sort of thing,” she explained. “I like how Chief Judge Not Afraid has set us up, because the civil court is where I’m comfortable.”

Not Afraid observed that she does see one very specific challenge in the new term: letting go of the many “courtesies” the court picked up over the years.

“Throughout the years, the court picked up a lot of responsibilities that should’ve been on the litigants,” she said. “But civil proceedings are party-driven; the code tells us that we need to take the burden off the clerks. The parties need to serve their own motions and petitions. The public will have a hard time at first, but it’ll get going smoothly.”

Not Afraid said she is definitely looking forward to working with her husband, the chief judge, and with Associate Judge Kari Covers Up.

“It was pretty cool when my husband came into my office during the first week or two,” she recalled. “He and the other associate judge were a little nervous. But for me, from the very first time on the bench, I felt like I was at home.”

Following in her grandfathers footsteps

Born in Billings and raised in Lodge Grass, Associate Judge Kari Covers Up graduated from Lodge Grass High School in 1994, earned her associate’s degree from Little Big Horn College in 1998, earned a Bachelor of Science degree at Montana State University in Billings in 2001, and completed a master’s degree in social work at Billings’ Walla Walla College in 2007.

Over the years, Covers Up has been a social worker for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a supervisory social worker for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a program manager and social worker for the Crow Tribe’s Department of Justice/Tribal Youth Program. In August 2013, she took the Crow bar exam and decided to make the leap into the justice system.

“I’m looking forward to interpreting the law to protect the people, to overseeing the criminal court, and to holding people accountable for their actions,” Covers Up said. “I also want to incorporate traditional values when I’m overseeing cases.”

Like Associate Judge Sheila Not Afraid, Covers Up is a legacy on the Crow Tribal Court. Her late grandfather, Ira Left Hand, was chief judge of the Crow Tribal Court when the National Farmers Union Insurance Company case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also was the first Native American judge to serve in the State of Montana, and he was the first judge to be elected under the Law & Order Code of 1980.

“He was the first city court judge in Montana history, serving the Lodge Grass community,” interjected Chief Judge Not Afraid. “As a justice of the peace, I work with that same organization!”

Covers Up said there’s yet another special twist to the story.

“I wasn’t aware that I’m in the same office my grandfather had,” she said. “That was just shared with me! A lot of people respected him, and I feel like I was destined to be here.”

Two next-generation judges, and a chief judge who was the main plaintiff in a landmark case affecting Indian country — Chief Justice Not Afraid pointed out there is a lot of historical significance in having this particular trio on the Crow Tribal Court. And, he said, that likely affected how the Crow people made their choices.

“We’ve gotten the green light to invest in our people, in our future,” he said.

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