Yesterday, Robert Yazzie spoke about “The Quality of Justice From the Navajo Experience.” The former Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation walked attendees through an explanation of what comprises that quality.

This was another in a run of blockbuster programs hosted by the ASU Law School’s Indian Legal Program. (A few weeks ago, we reported about a talk by Walter Echo-Hawk on reforming federal Indian law. That story is here.)

In a talk peppered with bits—sometimes long bits—of the Navajo language—Justice Yazzie explained some of the conclusions he’s come to after law practice and judging on a trial court and the Supreme Court.

He spoke about some of the innovations the Navajo courts have developed, but said there was still a significant amount of “bad stuff,” including open disrespect from non-native lawyers “who play games with the law.”

He then tried to illustrate for the audience how Navajo law works, using a few common-to-life experiences, such as a vehicle purchase and a land dispute.

His message was that indigenous judges seek to base their decisions on consensus and respect. The alternative view—as seen in Western legal systems—imposes a hierarchy of power judgment, in which matters are placed in the hands of strangers. In that respect, the notion of judicial neutrality is suspect.

Navajo judges, he explained, encourage talking things out. But the notion is not some flighty one dreamed up by “those colorful Indians.” Instead, it arises when we “change what we mean by law.”

“You can have a law without rules,” he explained, “when you have relationships.”

In that dynamic, he said, no one will use a “nuclear option”—such as repossessing a vehicle that’s needed—without first exploring all other possibilities.

“Think of the law as relationships,” he urged the listeners. “Start with the self—who am I and what does my identity mean in relation to others?”

Because of the dual focus, Yazzie said, the Navajo way is completely free, but limited because of obligations to others—freedom of action, but a freedom with consequences.

Audience members enjoyed his description of Navajo law as “a delightful compromise between an attempt to codify and no legislative guidance at all.” Thus, a millennium of custom is still “malleable, plastic, adaptable.”

Navajo society, Yazzie concluded, is both individualistic and egalitarian.

Not a bad goal at all, I’d say.