The first thing that Judge Eugene Landlord does is listen. He watches his clients’ body language. There’s a certain look in their eyes that he tries to keep track of. If they seem depressed or at risk of harming themselves, he gives them his phone number.
"Twenty-four hours a day, it doesn't matter. Day or night, you call me when you really need help," said Landlord. "There's been two or three incidents where this occurred, and they do call. And those people are still here."
Eugene Landlord is an elder judge in the tribal court system of Mountain Village, and his job is different from that of his western counterparts. Landlord focuses on his community’s health as well as its public safety. He arbitrates domestic violence and child protection cases, but he counsels community members with substance abuse issues too.
Over the past year, the Walker administration has worked out the details of its pledge to recognize Alaska Natives' right to govern themselves; tribes are assuming authority over child welfare cases, certain education programs, and law enforcement. And in communities like Mountain Village, tribal court systems are drawing on traditional views of justice to help residents rebuild their lives, rather than just punishing them.
Mountain Village’s tribal court practices restorative justice, says Landlord. "I always say all people are good," he said. "They just make bad choices. And we always give you an opportunity to change your life."
Landlord’s a little young to be an elder, he’s in his late 50s, but Mountain Village tribal officials kept asking him to join the court. He finally did four years ago. He has struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse himself, and while he’s been sober for years, that experience informs his work.
When community members petition for substance abuse counseling, Landlord and two other judges review the case and figure out a treatment plan. The court’s tribal administrator usually schedules weekly or bi-weekly meetings between Landlord and the client. Landlord draws on a range of tools in these sessions. Some of them come from Alcoholics Anonymous; he’s also read a lot of self-help books. He says that he tries to steer away from many Western styles of treatment. Thirty-day or 90-day rehabs set time limits on recovery, and Landlord says that just isn’t helpful.
"Sometimes they're really reluctant to open up," said Landlord. "We have to find ways to let them open up. And one of the ways we do it is to share our stories of how we overcame some of the substance abuse problems. That sort of breaks the ice because they'll hear something that they can relate to and we build on that, and that's really, really rewarding."
Cases that involve domestic violence are harder. Mountain Village’s tribal court system handles a lot of elder and child protection cases. "They're the ones that are caught in the middle," explained Landlord. "It's not easy sometimes, finding solutions, but we do find solutions."
Court starts with a prayer. Then the elder judges, the respondents, and the petitioners sign an oath. They promise to be as fair and impartial as possible and keep the proceedings confidential. Landlord says that they follow a specific process: the petitioners present their case and the judges ask them questions, then it’s the respondents’ turn.
"The trick is not to draw ourselves in emotionally," said Landlord, "because we won't make any kind of rational decisions. We just listen, sometimes really hard, but we’re listening to both sides."
If that arbitration doesn’t lead to any improvements, Landlord says that the respondent could face consequences. Hypothetically, those consequences could include banishment. Landlord says that it’s listed as a sort of last resort punishment in Mountain Village’s new alcohol code, though the community hasn’t had to banish anyone in years. It’s more of a deterrent than anything else, he says, and banishment can also be a pretty misunderstood practice. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the banished person is shunned by their community forever. Landlord remembered hearing about one case that involved several people who were addicted to homebrew.
"The elders got tired of these people because they would always create problems in the village, so they kicked them out of the community," he said. "But the community would always go to them on a weekly basis to buy them supplies and make sure they were okay."
Mountain Village launched its tribal court system in 2007, and Landlord anticipates that the State of Alaska will be relying on systems like it more and more. He says that the state is already starting to turn domestic violence cases over to tribal court systems. While the court’s been doing well, Landlord says that he’d appreciate further education or training if the state begins to refer particularly serious cases to him, like sexual assault cases or those involving the mentally ill.
In the meantime, Mountain Village’s tribal justice system is expanding. The tribe organized its own Department of Justice in February, and it includes a series of wellness programs to help sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors heal through traditional practices. The Department’s focus is not punishment, but healing and finding solutions instead.