On "Who decides?": Lessons from Professor Rebecca Tsosie

"If we don't change our direction, we're going to wind up where we're heading." So concluded law professor Rebecca Tsosie, borrowing from The Wisdom of Reuben Snake, in her talk, "The Challenge of Pluralism: Native Nations and U.S. Justice." This exceedingly thoughtful and spunky woman asserted that anger is the driving force for her work. I immediately liked her.

Tsosie repeatedly asked provocative questions, like, "Do we have a right to culture in the United States?" She subsequently offered historical evidence of such unconscionable laws as the Code of Indian Offenses. In the process, she roundly ruled out a positive answer to this question. I learned, for example, that offenders of the Code, which banned native religions and healing ceremonies among several other things, were imprisoned, without due process, until 1934.

Unfortunately, our provost had already left the scene (she spoke as part of the Provost's Conversations on Diversity, Democracy, and Higher Education) when I asked my question from the audience: "You have presented legal contestations of and remedies to hegemonic democratic and neoliberal economic principles in the present-day U.S. I am curious what you think of a multi-pronged approach to social justice that includes grassroots activism and coalition-building?" I added, "You might have heard about the student organizing on this campus during the past week."

Tsosie first responded by stating how proud she is of our students. She then explained how the adjudication process of many tribal councils transcends narrow legalistic notions of righting wrongs. More specifically, Tsosie highlighted the councils' commitment to inclusion and harmonious relationships. These councils do not demand that participants meet particular criteria before they can come to the table and weigh in. Rather, a desire to create a collective solution to a problem signifies the sole "requirement." She concluded that such a framework represents a way to heal the injustices of the past and linked it to the Dalai Lama's universal moral principles.

To quote His Holiness,

I believe that one of the principal factors that hinder us from fully appreciating our interdependence is our undue emphasis on material development. We have become so engrossed in its pursuit that, unknowingly, we have neglected the most basic qualities of compassion, caring and cooperation. When we do not know someone or do not feel connected to an individual or group, we tend to overlook their needs. Yet, the development of human society requires that people help each other. (See complete statement to the 1993 UN World Conference here.)

If more of us tapped into the courage and strength shown by Rebecca Tsosie and the Dalai Lama, I have to believe that the question, "Who decides?" would have a decidedly different answer than the currently restrictive one so many of us accept. Moreover, we could move onto the important work of deciding to better the world we leave to future generations.