Public Service Innovators -- Merging Indian Culture with the Courts: Joseph Thomas Flies-Away (MPA 1999)

December 21, 2001
Mary Tamer

As a citizen of the Hualapai Nation, an American Indian tribe located on the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Joseph Thomas Flies-Away isn't attending law school just to educate himself. He is doing it for his entire nation. Come spring, he will hold the distinction not only of being a young tribal judge, but that of the first Hualapai to hold a juris doctor.

For Flies-Away, a 1999 graduate of the Kennedy School's MPA program, combining public policy skills with legal training will aid his efforts to advance Indian nations' sovereignty - the inherent right to govern themselves. This sovereign status empowers tribes to operate their own schools, supervise activities on their own land, and interact with the federal government on a government-to-government basis.

Building effective tribal courts to address the issues over which tribes have jurisdiction is one of the biggest challenges faced by Flies-Away and others. "I've been from Alaska to Florida in tribal courts to try to help tribes develop respectful institutions which contribute to the tribal nation," he said.

Smooth running of the courts, according to Flies-Away, is one important step toward economic success. "When outside people know we have a successful conflict resolution system...they're going to feel comfortable with that system," he notes. "Going to law school and getting a J.D. degree gives the court and the tribe credence to the outside world," he said.

The 36 year-old, who was raised on the nearly million-acre Hualapai reservation, keenly understands the workings of both the Indian and non-Indian worlds - as well as their distinctive differences - particularly in the courts. One of the biggest factors that sets the two systems apart, said Flies-Away, are the personal relationships found in his courtroom. "In tribal court...I know the people who come before me."

And, oftentimes, he's related to them. With a 2,500-member tribe, Flies-Away said almost everyone is related in one way or another. As a current appellate judge for a number of tribes in the Southwest, he is often called by his first name by a friend or relative appearing before him, though he is quick to correct them on this error in protocol.

More importantly, he pays particular attention to the distinctive differences among the tribal court systems. "It's like I'm going from France to Russia to China in a day...I'm dealing with different languages, different tribes, and some are similar, some are a world apart," he said. "When I work with different tribes...you have to apply their tribal custom and law. State law is always last. Tribal law was here before the states."

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