White man’s justice

Elton Wong

It is not uncommon for capital-punishment murder trials to be controversial. In most cases, though, the controversy is contained within the trial; the possibility of finding an impartial jury, the fairness of the proceedings. It is a rare case when the existence of the trial itself is called into question, where the authority of the court itself is brought into doubt.Such a court case opened this Tuesday in Miami, Florida. The accused is a Native American man who allegedly killed his two young children. In July of 1997, according to Florida prosecutors, Kirk Billie took a Chevrolet Tahoe belonging to his ex-girlfriend (also the mother of the two boys) and pushed it into a canal just outside the Miccosukee reservation. The two front windows were left open, and the two boys inside drowned. After the boys’ death, tribal elders met and determined that the deaths were “unfortunate” accidents. The elders forgave Billie.State prosecutors see the case differently. Billie, they contend, killed his sons intentionally, as an act of revenge against his ex-girlfriend and the mother of the boys. On Tuesday, prosecutors painted a picture of Billie as a violent man with a history of dominating the women in his life. As part of their trial, the prosecutors entered the Miccosukee reservation and served subpoenas on witnesses, including Billie’s ex-girlfriend Shelia Tiger. Tribal leaders saw this intrusion as a violation of tribal sovereignty and view the murder trial with a long-standing distrust of “white man’s justice.”This case is a crystallization of the problems concerning the sovereignty of Indian reservations, and more generally, the influence of past injustices on current justice. These are deep-seated legal and moral problems with no easy resolutions. When the Miccosukee elders speak of “white man’s justice,” they are not over-reacting. This term has a bloody history. Even the most cursory examination of American history reveals the systematic dishonesty and injustice with which the U.S. government treated the Native Americans.The word genocide is not to be used lightly, but this word is certainly a fitting description of early American policy towards the Indians. It is not exaggeration to say that the institution of the United States is built on the betrayal, deceit and outright slaughter of the original inhabitants of the continent.In high school, a friend of mine named Dimitrije wrote a western civ paper that contained this quote: “You cannot build justice upon injustice.”I don’t know if he wrote the line or read it somewhere, but it stuck with me. It seems that we had better hope my friend was wrong, otherwise there could be no justice anywhere in the world.Historical wrongs aside, and barring some sort of revolution, the U.S. government is here to stay. How should we to deal with this institution, as it is based on injustice? How can it be possible for this institution to be legitimate? Some legal thinkers talk about a statute of limitations, where the slate of the past is wiped clean. Since we cannot atone for what our ancestors did wrong, goes this line of thinking, we must forget all former injustices and look to the future. Justice is a matter of the present, not of the past.From observation, we can see that things have been acted out according to this idea. No activists have demanded that the entire North American continent be given back to the Native Americans. Sherman Alexie, a writer and Native American activist has stated his politics simply in more limited terms: realize that reservations are sovereign nations.If we apply this notion of sovereignty to the current case, then the state of Florida has no jurisdiction in the Miccosukee reservation. Even if everyone can agree that Kirk Billie did a terrible thing, the laws of a sovereign state are respected. The United States would never subpoena citizens of a foreign nation, nor would it try to override another nation’s laws. The question becomes this: Are Indian reservations sovereign states?These are abstract considerations. The real world has the habit of squashing the abstract. If you wanted to discuss the legitimacy of the Billie trial, delving into political philosophy and history is necessary. If you want to predict how the trial will turn out, your task is much more simple. The court of Florida carries with it the authority of the United States government, which is the most powerful institution in the world. The Miccosukee reservation has few people, and little money. Therefore, the trial will continue, and everyone in the tribe will be at the beck and call of prosecutors. The lesson to be learned here may well be this: In the present as in the past, questions of legitimacy don’t last long where there is an imbalance of power at work.Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.