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'The future is self-determination': Indigenous lawyers work to restore sense of self within community

matthew fletcher
Matthew Fletcher
/
Courtesy
Matthew Fletcher is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University and is featured in the documentary Warrior Lawyers: Defenders of Sacred Justice

Less than one-half of one percent of all lawyers in the U.S. are Native American, according to the American Bar Association.

Yet, these lawyers play a critical part in advocating for restorative justice and Indigenous peoples' rights.

A documentary released by filmmaker Audrey Geyer last year called Warrior Lawyers: Defenders of Sacred Justice (2021) highlights Native American lawyers and judges in Michigan, plus the efforts of the state’s Indigenous community rising above years of discrimination, trauma and cultural destruction.

Matthew Fletcher is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University and is featured in the documentary.

WKAR's Megan Schellong spoke with Fletcher about the documentary and his work.

Interview Highlights

On what sacred justice means to him

Indigenous people believe that justice is rooted in our culture and in our traditions, that it's linked to everything around us that we are all connected. There's a phrase called Mino-Bimaadiziwin, which means the act of living a life in a good way. And there's another phrase called Inaawendewin, which is the relational accountability that we all have toward each other. And these are sacred concepts that when we step in the world, we must step lightly because we know that there are impacts to everything we do. Sometimes we can predict those impacts, and sometimes we cannot, and justice requires us to think carefully before we act, and that's, I think, a good description of what sacred justice is.

On whether he feels his work in law can serve as a remedy for past years of cultural erasure

The work that I do is hopefully a salve towards some of the worst of the worst horrors that indigenous and Anishinaabe people here in Michigan have suffered over the past few centuries. The work that I do, I hope, the work that tribal judges do, the work that modern tribal governments are doing is designed to restore our sense of self and security in a way that, you know, we can never really assume others will do for us. So the future is self-determination. But there's no cure for the loss of the land and the culture, the resources, and the children.

On what he hopes people will gain after watching the documentary

Well, if nothing else, the one thing I hope that people take away from the documentary is that tribal governments are real things. Tribal courts are real things and taken seriously. Tribal judges are incredibly highly trained in an area of law that is incredibly complex and difficult. We've come a long way, even since when I became a lawyer in the 1990s you know, where it was commonplace and accepted for people to just laugh off tribal governments and tribal courts, tribal justice systems as a joke as not being real things and we're moving away from that pretty quickly. And that's what I want people to take away from this is that this is about real people, and it's not exotic and it's not strange and unusual. It's the future.

Interview Transcript

Megan Schellong: Less than one-half of one percent of all lawyers in the U.S. (0.4%) are Native American.

Yet, these lawyers play a critical part in advocating for restorative justice and Indigenous peoples' rights.

A documentary released last year called Warrior Lawyers: Defenders of Sacred Justice highlights Native American lawyers and judges in Michigan, plus the efforts of the state’s Indigenous community rising above years of discrimination, trauma and cultural destruction.

Matthew Fletcher is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University and is featured in the documentary.

Matthew, thanks for being here.

Matthew Fletcher: Thanks for having me.

Schellong: The documentary introduces us to leaders in the Native American legal sectors who are fighting for what they call Sacred Justice. What does that mean to you?

When we step in the world, we must step lightly because we know that there are impacts to everything we do. Sometimes we can predict those impacts, and sometimes we cannot, and justice requires us to think carefully before we act, and that's, I think, a good description of what sacred justice is.

Fletcher: Indigenous people believe that justice is rooted in our culture and in our traditions, that it's linked to everything around us, that we are all connected.

There's a phrase called Mino-Bimaadiziwin, which means that the act of living a life in a good way. And there's another phrase called Inaawendewin, which is the relational accountability that we all have toward each other.

And these are sacred concepts that when we step in the world, we must step lightly because we know that there are impacts to everything we do.

Sometimes we can predict those impacts, and sometimes we cannot, and justice requires us to think carefully before we act, and that's, I think, a good description of what sacred justice is.

Schellong: What would you say is the most pressing issue facing Native nations right now?

Fletcher: Public safety is the one thing that every tribal community raises as being a critical issue, and I think it's fair to say that there have been, there has been a rise in crime rates, over the past 50 years, that's since the Department of Justice has been tracking data on crime rates.

That has not been the case in places outside of Indian country. And people just want to be able to live in their homes and their communities without fear. And that is probably the number one issue facing Indian country to this day.

Schellong: One of the things that you share in the documentary is that past generations of your family would try to assimilate into white American culture by changing their names and denying their Indigenous identities. Do you feel like your work in law has served as a remedy for the past?

So the future is self-determination. But there's no cure for the loss of the land and the culture, the resources, and the children.

Fletcher: The work that I do is hopefully a salve towards some of the worst of the worst horrors that Indigenous and Anishinaabe people here in Michigan have suffered over the past few centuries.

The work that I do, I hope, the work that tribal judges do, the work that modern tribal governments are doing is designed to restore our sense of self and security in a way that, you know, we can never really assume others will do for us.

So the future is self-determination. But there's no cure for the loss of the land and the culture, the resources, and the children.

Schellong: Part of the documentary showcases how Native American traditions and those values can benefit mainstream society. Can you tell us a little bit about these traditions?

So there's, there's an opportunity for what a lot of people call restorative justice. But really what that is, is healing.

Fletcher: We've shown in Indian country around the United States that diversionary programs for juvenile and nonviolent offenders can be very effective in keeping people out of the criminal justice system, that not every crime has to be punished with incarceration. So there's an opportunity for what a lot of people call restorative justice. But really what that is, is healing.

It's about when a crime or when a violation occurs, a community is injured. And it's not just a victim. And it's not just an offender, it's an entire community.

The ultimate goal is to prevent crime, to prevent violations, to make it, to make people accountable to their entire community so that they don't commit those crimes. There's so much work to be done, again, it'll take generations. But that's the ultimate goal. And I think that's true for all of American society.

Schellong: What is the one thing that you're hoping people who watch the documentary take away from it?

This is about real people, and it's not exotic and it's not strange and unusual. It's the future.

Fletcher: Well, if nothing else, the one thing I hope that people take away from the documentary is that tribal governments are real things. Tribal courts are real things and taken seriously. Tribal judges are incredibly highly trained in an area of law that is incredibly complex and difficult. We've come a long way, even since when I became a lawyer in the 1990s, you know, where it was commonplace and accepted for people to just laugh off tribal governments and tribal courts, tribal justice systems as a joke as not being real things and we're moving away from that pretty quickly. And that's what I want people to take away from this is that this is about real people, and it's not exotic and it's not strange and unusual. It's the future.

Schellong: Matthew Fletcher is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University.

Matthew, thanks for joining me.

Fletcher: It was my pleasure, thank you so much.

Schellong: A screening followed of the documentary followed by a Q&A will be held at the MSU Broad Art Museum [Tuesday] at 7:00 p.m.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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