Judge Betty: pioneer in tribal court reform


Judge Judy watch out! The Honorable Betty Laverdure, is every bit as outspoken as her television counterpart and for most of her judicial career has not only kept tribal court systems on their toes, but has been one of the builders of the modern tribal court system.

Laverdure, a Turtle Mountain Chippewa, began her career in 1962 as a tribal secretary and worked her way into the tribal court system after being appointed as a tribal judge.

"Back then, there weren't very many tribal courts and those that were there, were under federal or state laws and policies," Laverdure said. "So, I began thinking about that and started working on the codes." Those codes have since become the backbone of the current tribal court systems in much of Indian country.

Laverdure and other tribal judges pioneered the tribal court system. They saw the need for new tribal legislation as the Indian Civil Rights bill was on the horizon in the late 1960s and formed a Tribal Judges Association.

"We started meeting in about 1965 (the tribal judges)," she said, "and we were operating under some really strange laws. The bureau resisted us. The tribes did too, but that was because of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "

Laverdure said it was an uphill battle, but one she loved. "A lot of people thought we were wasting our time, but we saw the 1965 Civil Rights Act coming up and knew we had to do something. The tribal courts didn't allow lawyers in the tribal courtrooms back then. I could see that we needed our own court system and I decided to start writing some laws for our courts.

"There were a lot of codes floating around back then, the bureau had some, the state had some and we started combining them for our own court system."

While meetings were going on for Indian Civil Rights, Laverdure and the other members saw the need to train tribal judges and attorneys for tribal courts.

"We were well aware that the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act was going to affect our courts and we knew that we need to train our attorneys and we would need to train our judges," Laverdure remembers. "We were prepared. That was when seven of us became the charter members of the National American Indian Court Judges Association. We only had about 10 Indian attorneys back then.

"The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968 and we began a really intensive training program for judges in civil rights. We had to get safeguards in for the tribal court systems too, so that every time a judge made a controversial decision, they couldn't be removed from the bench. That used to happen all the time. You would make a decision and in the next tribal council meeting you were removed from the bench."

With training underway for judges, the training of tribal attorneys began. John Echohawk was one of the first Indian attorneys trained through the program set up by the association.

As the program for judges and attorneys grew, the impact was felt throughout Indian country in its tribal courts.

Changing the face of justice in Indian country isn't enough for The Honorable Betty Laverdure, she is now working as judicial consultant to White Earth Tribal and Community College in Mahnomen, Minn., and is helping tribes in South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana put together a floating police academy.

She remembers watching court cases thrown out because procedure wasn't followed, allowing guilty people to get away with crimes like child abuse and domestic violence.

"I remember one case in which we should have had the man, but the reports weren't filled out properly and the case was thrown out of court. If we can train our officers in Indian country properly, that won't happen."

Thanks to her hard work, criminal cases thrown out of federal court can be tried in tribal courts. "Everywhere I have gone I have worked to have the courts work concurrently. That means that if a case is thrown out of federal court, it can be tried in tribal court. Often people who wouldn't testify in a federal court will testify in tribal court."

In an era that found most women staying at home and raising families, Betty Laverdure was able to break through boundaries and set up the foundation for modern tribal court systems.

"Back then you were often hired as a token," Laverdure said. "I had black hair back then and it was long, they didn't want to take you seriously. You had to work hard to get people to take you seriously, but I did. It was pretty miserable at times."

Laverdure always remembered the advice of her grandmother when things got tough. "She always said to be the best at whatever it was you did, if you were going to be a manure shoveler, be the best manure shoveler there ever was! That is what I would like to teach my kids."

She now sees a need for tribal elders to be a part of the modern system. By using elders to hold tribal governmental officers accountable for their actions, Laverdure envisions a more ethical and moral tribal governmental system coming into view. She also sees a need for Native American students to learn from their elders as well as college studies and believes that they need to return to Indian country to continue the fight to build sovereign tribal governments.

"You can't be truly sovereign if you are taking money with restrictions," Laverdure said. "These acts of congress have money attached to them. Whoever is giving the money out has to write the policies and we have to use the money within those parameters. Everything is tied to the money.

"We actually belong in the State Department because of our treaty status. Then we could take the U.S. to the World Court for treaty violations like the Black Hills and so forth. We're not truly sovereign because we depend on the United States government for our survival."

The very act of having her ancestors placed on reservations angers Laverdure. "We're so inbred because we were locked on these reservations. We used to have these big gatherings where marriages would be arranged and when they locked us in there, they took so much away from us. It is so wrong, but until we are economically free, we will never be sovereign. The rights they have 'given' us are inherent."

"I really love the colleges (tribal colleges), this is the first time we are working toward 'decolonization.'"

Laverdure believes the challenges remain. "I have seven children and 25 grandchildren and I tell them, 'You can be anything you want to be." That is true for everyone in Indian country."

With children who are doctors, architects, etc., Laverdure has reason to be optimistic.

Through it all Betty Laverdure has kept her sense of humor and now has tales of her children and grandchildren to tell as well as the stories from what she calls the "wild days of early tribal courts."

Smiling, Laverdure related the antics of one grandchild. "This little guy here talks and talks, but it isn't really talk, more like intonations. He has been really into the new movie, 'The Prince of Egypt.' He goes around and has his mother put this headdress on him and dresses like Moses. The other day he came in front of us and crossed his arms and in a very serious and clear voice said, 'LET MY PEE PEE GO.' We all laughed the first words we could really understand!"

When her grandson gets his vocabulary a little more intact, Betty Laverdure expects him to find his own cause in Indian country. Until then, she believes he has the right idea, he is after all following in his grandmother's footsteps, he just isn't quite as eloquent.