Yup’ik (Cup’ik) Judicial Practices

by Charles Moses

Yup’k and Cup’ik (Y/Cup’ik) Tribes make up the largest Indigenous or Native Group in Alaska. Their territory covers most of Southwestern Alaska from Bristol Bay along the Bering Sea Coast to Norton Sound. Traditionally, Yupiit and Cupiit (Y/Cupiit), had the same Customs, Practices and Values despite having differences in dialect. Although they had been “clumped” into the “primitive culture” category by their “civilized discoverers”, they lived in a complex society which was governed by Elders, or to be more specific, Elder Councils.

This was dictated by the fact that they did not have a written system and every aspect of their lives had to be learned and passed down orally. In this type of society, the older people carried the most “lessons” (wisdom) so common sense dictated that the eldest “taught” (governed).

After centuries of trial and error they developed a Society whose “values and practices” (rules and laws) enabled them to survive the test of time by developing a way of life with which to succeed despite the harsh conditions of their environment and despite continuous conflicts between their different intra-regional groups.

An amazing development of the Y/Cupiit Society or Culture was their “Governing System”. They had no court rooms nor jails, yet their society was “ordered” and for the most part people lived in harmony with each other in communities throughout the region. This is astounding when you consider the fact that their “Government” was not one of those recognized or acknowledged by the “dominant” western civilization.

The Y/Cupiit “Government” was not a “Monarchy” nor a “Democracy” with separate Legislative, Executive, or Judicial Branches. Most of the necessary and important aspects of these branches were incorporated into their society and lives. So it wasn’t that they did not need these branches or purposes of such, they had them incorporated in a different and effective system of their own.

Our 50+ villages have been recognized by the United States of America as being “sovereign” because they acknowledged the fact that our people have existed for centuries. This fact implies that our people were and are capable of “governing” themselves in their own traditions and culture.

Many of our Elders have passed away, taking with them a way of life which was truly pure and sovereign. But there are still many of us left behind who were “taught” by those Elders and who are capable of bringing back some of the “court procedures” of the old traditional system to deal with criminal behavior.

Many of the villages within our region have established “Tribal Courts” mainly to try and deal with problems created by abuse of alcohol and drugs. They are not very effective because they are “copies” of State and Federal Courts of which we grew up not knowing anything about. State and Federal Courts “punish” bad behavior (crime) when they can “prove” wrong doing. Under these systems you can’t “arrest” anyone even though you know they are breaking the law because you don’t have “legal evidence”. In the mean time, our villages continue to suffer.

On the other hand, Traditional Y/Cup’ik “Judicial System” sought to “correct and restore”. Our Ancestors’ settlements have always been small villages just as they are today. And just as today, people could not “hide” what they were doing from someone else in these villages. If something happened that was potentially harmful to their community, the Elders did not wait. They addressed that situation to correct whatever it was right away and restored harmony.

Can these “Tribal Courts” still work? Yes! But we need to resurrect our ancestors’ custom of dealing with “rule or law” breaking and adapt them. Our Elders had different methods or procedures for dealing with those circumstances of “crime”. The judicial procedure used depended on the nature of the crime that was committed and the age or type of person it was committed by.

One of the truths of our culture we learned when we were young was this, “Allanun nunanun ayangerpet, allanun tekisngaituten, ilavnun taugaam. Piciryarait ayuqut.” Roughly translated: Although you go to another village, you will not arrive in a different community. They have the same culture and beliefs.

If Tribal Courts throughout the Y/Cup’ik region put their minds together as our elders of the past did, we can once again become “One Village”.

We are all struggling against the same problems in our villages. We need to re-establish those traditional “methods” of dealing with “crimes” in our communities. Some of what our Elders practiced in carrying out their responsibilities of protecting their charges was not considered legal by outsiders because it “infringed” upon “individual rights”, but it was their sovereign right to protect the whole community. We can adapt these practices into procedures that the State and Federal Judicial Systems might be able to accept and honor. We don’t have to go to “gatherings” to begin. We don’t have funds for travel, but we have phones, faxes, and emails. If we work together, I know that we can eventually establish a region-wide Judicial System based on our Sovereign Customs.

Charles Moses is the Tribal Court Administrator for the Nunakauyarmiut Tribal Court.

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