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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Customary Law
Making Room

The Goal of "Justice"

The United States
 Experience

Ensuring Space Is
Left Open In Canada

An Apache
 Paradigm

The Informal
System of Justice

Customary Law

Canada, Too, Has
 Deep Differences

The Indigenous
 Justice Process

The Navajo
 Approach to
 Reconciliation

Visual representation of nature's laws


Customary law is generally derived from custom, meaning long-established practices that have acquired the force of law by common adoption or acquiescence. It does not vary.

Tribal common law is based on the values, mores and norms of a tribe and expressed in its customs, traditions and practices. In some tribes, the tribal common law has been set out in different court decisions and written opinions over time and has become case law.

Among several Pueblo communities, the matrilineal system holds that property belongs to the female. In a divorce or separation, property is divided according to the matrilineal definitions of property ownership and is written into the decisions of the traditional or tribal court. Similarly, Navajo courts incorporate Navajo common law in decisions in probate, criminal, and child custody cases, and marital conflicts.

For many tribes along the Northwest coast, such as the Yurok, customary laws dictate the areas where families can conduct their fishing, hunting, and gathering. These areas are passed down from one generation to the next. When someone fishes in another family's area, it is considered an affront to the entire family. By custom, the wronged family convenes a family forum as the proper way to handle the matter and to request compensation. Compensation may be with fish, fishing gear, feathers, hides, beadwork, traditional clothing, or other forms of payment.

Among several Pueblo communities, it is customary for discipline to be administered by the fiscale, who is responsible for maintaining the peace and overseeing the welfare of children and youth. It is a general practice for parents to summon the fiscale when their children are unruly or misbehaving. The fiscale advises the children about the consequences of their misconduct and may reprimand them or refer them and their parents to services such as counseling.

In many tribes, information, beliefs, and customs are handed down orally or by example from one generation to another. For example, in the Minto Tribal Court of Alaska the resolution process involves a segment dedicated to ''traditional counseling'' by the facilitator or presiding judge. There is a general practice of ''advising giving'' in the traditional courts of the Pueblos and the ''talking to'' in the Navajo peace making system. This segment is traditionally set aside for the spokespersons or tribal officials to speak of community values, mores, and the consequences of misbehavior or misconduct. Often, these are conveyed in parables or creation narratives and beliefs. Advice is given about harboring vengeful feelings, and everyone is encouraged to renew relationships.

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