Carrie Garrow, Former Tribal Court Judge
April 25, 2007
First of all…if you could just briefly give a background of how and when you got involved in the Tribal Courts. If you could be specific with years, don’t give me months or days.
I was elected in June of 1999, sworn in in July, it was end of September of the same year, it was in the fall when the first Kotelly decision came down. I just remember that because I was at a conference. And that kind of threw the question into the air of what the constitutional government should do and so I was involved in some of those conservations about how it affected the court. Throughout that year, I think that’s when they asked me to write the advisory opinion about what the Kotelly decision meant to their (the constitutional government’s) status as leaders, and I did that. Talking about federal recognition and how that’s not what granted them their authority and their authority as leaders was how the US interacted with them. It was around…it was during ‘99, 2000...early 2000 that the People’s Government was making their first push to shut down the court. I had several run-ins with a couple of their attorneys. Harry [Benedict] came down and try to throw us out. They sent several requests over to the police department trying to get them to stop us from holding court. After that we continue to function as much as we could as a court. I’m not really sure what you’re looking for. We still had hearings and stuff, we tried to do normal cases, you know, we always kept people coming in who wanted to talk kept apprised of the situation and things like that, you know. We handled some of the more political questions.
My interpretation of how things went down is that the group who wanted the constitution gone presumed that the tribal courts were a product of the constitution, therefore, if the constitution went then the courts had no authority. Is that your assessment or are they completely off base?
That was their argument but that was wrong because the chiefs had passed the Judiciary Act before the constitution was adopted. The first time the constitution came up for a vote—and I have to look up the year—it didn’t pass. And I believe they held the vote in the winter. It was a storm, nobody came out and voted. And so it didn’t pass. And so they use that year…so that probably would have been ’94 because the Judiciary Act was passed in ‘94, and so they passed the Judiciary Act and they passed a couple of other laws. And so we were a statutory court, initially, so even if—and I tried to get the People’s Government to understand this and the BIA—even if you did throw the constitution out the court would still exist because we still had the Judiciary Act. But they didn’t…they just ignored it.
When you were there and people came in…the opponents of the constitution, you were saying people like Harry Benedict, was there ever like any physical intimidation? Did they ever come in and like, you know, block doorways or physically try to stop things?
Definitely not, in the sense that, they didn’t put their hands on me, they didn’t try to touch any of our stuff, but I certainly felt intimidated by the things that they said. At one point—this is when we were in the other building—I don’t remember the dates but the People’s Government passed another resolution…you know, ordering us to stop acting as court officials and court staff, authorized the chief of police to escort us off the reservation. When this originally started, Wes [Benedict] was still in office as chief of police. And he didn’t…he didn’t really want to be a part of it, but he understood what was going on and worked really hard to protect us. This is when we were behind…when it first started, we were back there kind of behind the police force, the department, and we would call them and he would say, “Don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen, we’re not going to try anything, we’re not going to force you out of the building or anything like that,” but at this point, when we got that other letter, Andy [Thomas] was acting chief of police, and so…I think Barbara [Lazore] called over to find out, you know, because when we got this we were like, oh, this is just another letter from the People’s Government, and I think it was actually Barbara or it was either Barbara or our court clerk Rosebud [Cook] who called over to the police and said, “Are you really going to do anything? Are you really going to try to do anything?” Because the letter specifically said to escort us off the reservation.
Off the reservation?
Even though we live there! And the police said, yeah, that they would. It was at that point, which was nice, it was actually the council office issued a letter, and it was published in the paper. I don’t know who wrote it, whether Jake [Swamp] wrote it or somebody, but it said, “We’re not involved in this government dispute but you don’t treat our women like that,” because it was directed toward myself and Rosebud. So it was nice to see that community support, even though they weren’t taking sides, it was just, you don’t treat people like that, but yeah, that was probably the time that I was most afraid, when the police really had no choice but to be on the side of the People’s Government or you got fired.
People that I’ve spoken to, and some very informally, hinted that the whole thing of getting rid of the constitutional government was really about getting rid of the courts, that there were cases against businessmen that were going on, that had the court been allowed to continue, outside courts would have backed it up, so that they would have been bound by whatever was going on…that’s really what drove getting rid of the constitution was getting rid of the court. Would you say that’s accurate?
Oh yeah. It took me a while to understand it, and it’s not like I could point to some document but as you go back through the cases…the first cases the court heard involved…some of the people who were dealing in alcohol and things like that and I think were people were just afraid that all of a sudden there was going to be some body in the community that was going to hold them accountable, and the didn’t want the court to be taken seriously by our own government and the outside government and so I don’t think people cared about the constitution, what they cared about was the court. The constitution was just a vehicle to get there, they didn’t understand that it was…created by statute. That was…they just…they didn’t care about that.
What were—you don’t have to answer this—what were some of the cases against…involving businessmen that were so controversial? I need names, dates of birth…
(Laughs) I’d have to go back and look…what people told me, and mostly Phil [Tarbell] because he was there, in ’94 when the court was created, because I was still…you know I was still getting out of law school, I was still in California, and so, from what I understand, and I don’t know…I’d have to go back and just look at the court files to remember who they were, but it was from what I understood a lot of the people who were smuggling alcohol or not paying whatever they were supposed to pay, and kind of the alcohol cartel and…or I guess they maybe they weren’t paying the fees to the tribe or something. You know, I’m not even sure if I fully understood the details, but they were some of the more powerful people in the community and there was also the issue at the Bingo Palace. I’m trying to remember the details of that case. I just remembered the court ordered a certain room closed because it had evidence in it, and people broke into it and took it out, defied the court order. I think it was those cases that gave people the momentum to burn down the court.