Spokesperson Jonnie Bray Runs for Business Council

The last time we talked with Jonnie Bray was in May of 2010, and she had her car packed up and was heading down to the Hopi Nation to work as a prosecutor.  She is back, and her year away from home gave her a new perspective on things back in Nespelem.  Jonnie Bray recently announced her candidacy to run for the Colville Business Council.  Unlike in State government where lawyers often run for elected office, a Spokesperson running for Tribal Business Council is rare.  Jonnie Bray indicate that her work as a trial attorney gave her some valuable public speaking skills out on the campaign trail.  I caught up with her online last week, and fired a couple questions at her.  Here is what she had to say:

Q: Do you think the Tribes domestic violence criminal code has been a success? Do you think that it has helped reduce domestic violence or helped teach that such violence is unacceptable? Would you suggest any changes to the DV criminal code if you were elected?

A: I don’t think the DV Code has been a success. We implemented a code that requires defendants to do DV treatment, but have not funded DV Perpetrator treatment. We require traditional dispositions, but do not identify sources where people can receive this, what it should entail, or how involved this should be. This is exacerbated by the fact that more than half of the prosecutors are non-Indian. What do they know about appropriate traditional cultural dispositions unless our CBC provides guidance/policy to assist in the implementation of requirements? I don’t think it would be fruitful for me to try to change the code. Even though I think there are serious issues. I am still waiting to hear from the Court of Appeals on a few big issues.Jonnie Bray My answer could be different depending on what the Court of Appeals decides.

Q: Do you see any room for improvement in the Tribe’s judicial system? If so, what improvements would you support? Do you see any opportunities for cost savings within the court system?

A: There is plenty of room for improvement. However, with the separation of powers, I don’t think I would be in a position to make those improvements. The CBC has the authority to recruit and hire quality people to act as judges in our court. Lately, I see a lot of “knee jerk” legislation. I would encourage the council to stop doing this. We shouldn’t make a law or change a law because of one bad experience. It’s hard for me to imagine a time when a law change must be done on an “emergency basis.”
That’s for national disasters not a guy who gets out and commits another crime. There are some legislative changes that I think would be very beneficial, as well-like changing the order of outside legal authority: state common law, federal law, etc. I would like to see other Tribe’s laws somewhere in this mix. There is such a large body of Tribal Indian Law now, but we can’t even rely on them for persuasive authority. We could save money by contracting for defense services. Also, instead of hiring special prosecutors, I would like to see us start an association of Tribal Prosecutors. I think this pool could be used a resource to share prosecutors among tribes, to provide training, and research materials that have a more Native American Feel.

Q: Do you think that the Law & Justice committee has typically had a good understanding of the Tribal Court System? Would you be interested in serving on the L&J committee?

A: I have a very keen interest in being a part of L&J. In my opinion, it does not seem like the committee as a whole has a good understanding of issues relating to the Tribal Court or to Law & Order. A good example of this is that the CBC gets a report from the police chief every week on what is going on. Often questions relate to why certain charges were (were not) filed or why someone was released from jail. Things the police have no control over. None of the other programs give reports on a consistent basis.

Q: In 2009, in an interview with the Wenatchee World, you expressed frustration with the federal prosecutors that they were not assisting enough in prosecutions on the reservations? Has this improved?

A: It has, but not in cooperation with the Tribes. They come and take people. They don’t do it with respect for this sovereign nation. What happened to the extradition process? In addition, when they take cases, the Tribes don’t just dismiss. I feel more frustrated now, in some respects.

Q: You spoke publicly about the subject of “nation building” with respect to the Colville Tribes. What nation building is there left to do?

A: We don’t even have a Preamble from the people. You do! We adopted a generic constitution and code that were meaningless to us and now we just do poor patch jobs when something occurs to us. I don’t think we’ve even begun to build our Nation. First we need to quit warring among ourselves. We need to abandon our divisions—4 districts, 12 Tribes, 3 languages, and multiple spiritual/religious groups. We have not made the conscious decision as a Tribe to unite, dispel the divisions between and be one Nation. (I don’t mean forget about the Tribes. I am proud to descend from the San Poil, Nespelem, Lakes, Entiat, and Colville Tribes—but I don’t think we should be “confederated” we should just be the Colville Tribe—because that is a true union, even if I don’t like the name.)

After we have done this, then it is time for us to focus on what ails us. We look at our dysfunction and our in-fighting and determine our focus:


Poverty=Economic Development, Education

Alcoholism=Quality Mental Health Services and Secondarily Chemical Dependency Treatment

What we also need is to educate our people about our defeat. Most nations don’t require this because they begin Nation Building as soon as the war is over. The younger generation doesn’t even realize that being Native American has little to do with our race. They need to know what happened historically and to have instilled in them some pride for our resiliency. That is not a universal concept taught here, but it should be.

Q: Didn’t the CBC enact a juvenile code some years back? Whatever happened with that? Has that ever been implemented? Why are native kids still going to Okanogan and Republic for court?

A: When I left for Arizona they were still working on the code, I don’t know why they quit. The Code has not been implemented. We received a grant that was going to largely be used to spearhead the drafting of the Juvenile Code. There is a grant administrator. Recently, they put out an announcement for RFPs to hire an attorney to do the code drafting. It is my understanding that the Tribes do not want to handle Juveniles until the new code is in place along with all the services the kids will need.

Q: People often say that stepping back from something for a while gives you a new perspective. Did leaving for the southwest for a while give you a new perspective on life in Nespelem? Did it give you a new perspective on the court system of the Colville Confederated Tribes?

A: Yes. I left here, in part, because I thought things were pretty bad here. Like the economic situation here. Poverty. Drugs. Alcohol. In particular, I felt like our court system needed a serious overhaul. I was dissatisfied with the interference with our “separation of powers”, the legal defense provided most people, the lack of quality rehabilitation services, the lack of cooperation among the “professionals”, and the back biting that I could see on a day to day basis.

There were certain things about being at Hopi that didn’t strike me right away. Like the poverty. Hopis still live in their traditional homes, made from the earth for the most part. Some villages had no electricity, no water in the homes. The people in court there were a lot like the ones here…high school diploma or GED, some chemical dependency problems, broken homes, crowded homes, poor transportation, no license. However, a lot of these ran roadside food sales to earn a little cash. Like here, there weren’t many jobs. The good ones often when to the outsiders like me. If someone owed a fine, he would ask the Court for additional time and he would tell you when the next big influx of tourists would be around and assure us that they would carve extra Kachinas so they could make more money to pay the fees. You could tell that people who were making $200-400 a month were proud of that. I never heard anyone complain about being broke. This was a stark contrast to home. No one here sells food, artwork, etc. like they did down there to support their family. No one here would be happy with the amount of money the Hopis earned.

The difference? There are many. The Hopis don’t get per capita payments. They never have. They don’t expect handouts from the Tribe. It’s instilled a different work ethic or responsibility for self. I’m sure it’s much more complicated than that, but that’s what I thought.

The sad thing is with the level of poverty and social issues there, the drug problem was worse. It was a dry reservation with too many bootleggers. The police cracked down on the alcohol use. However, there was also a meth problem out there. It amazed me. The nearest city was more than an hour away and there was nothing in between but barren road. The worst case I ever dealt with was at Hopi. It involved two young men (one guy had been out of prison for just a few months and the other one was just 19). They were cousins. While high on meth, they stomped a third guy to death for not letting them smoke from his new pipe. They were found sitting in a shed marveling at the brain matter in the tread of their boots and who had blood higher up their legs.

There was no meaningful public defense at Hopi. There was a guy with a law degree (who was not admitted to any bar) and his one lay advocate. I only did one trial down there and won. However, it didn’t feel very good about winning because it didn’t seem like the defendant’s representation had a clue about voir dire and the trial process just went downhill from there. Worst yet, this guy couldn’t represent about 90% of the people coming through court. So everyone else would have to pay money to be represented. There was one guy who was rumored to represent people in lieu of personal favors. There was one lady, who was a member of the Tribe who struck me as a good advocate. She was a judge for another tribe and so she only had 2-3 cases out at Hopi and she wasn’t cheap to hire.

So I spent 2-3 days a week talking directly to defendants. I always started out telling them “please don’t lay out everything you have to me, because I will use it against you at trial, if we have to go there. “ Just give me a summary. I also spent more time thinking about what to charge and what motions I would file if I represented them and what the result of those motions would be because I had such an unfair advantage over these defendants.

So, I came home and I felt very grateful for my reservation. We are pretty fortunate, I think.

Q: Have you ever thought about trying to become a lawyer in the State courts?

A: Yes. I have finally decided that it’s in my future. When I was younger, I still wanted to go back to school to become a doctor. However, I want to specialize in something. I haven’t decided on whether to become a nurse practitioner first or just do international law.

My goal is, if elected, to serve one or two terms (God forbid three terms!), accomplish the things I’ve already described to you and then move onto my next big project.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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