Courts, Tribal

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  • Before the advent of federally supported, American-style tribal governments, tribal courts were the formal means of adjudicating major crimes within Native American tribes.

    Tribal courts usually consisted of a gathering of tribal chiefs or other leaders who were currently available when action needed to be taken. The emphasis was on dispensing justice, rather than on following a set procedure. As tribal courts almost always met in secret, it is not known whether evidence was presented or challenged, or how (or if) the accused was defended. The most severe punishment handed down by such courts, even for murder, was usually banishment. This was effectively a sentence of death in a tribal society, although an offender could sometimes seek refuge with a related or friendly tribe.

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