2007 Court of Elders

George Ramos and Ray Wilson

George Ramos, l., L'uknaxh.ádi (Raven moiety) from Yakutat and Ray Wilson, Kiks.ádi (Raven moiety) from Sitka, bring out an eagle chilkat robe during the Clan Leadership plenary session, March 22, 2007, Sitka during the Clan Conference (Sharing Our Knowledge: A Conference of Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit Tribes and Clans) [photo by Peter Metcalfe]


Naashaadei Nukx'ee
The SCA Court of Elders

Originally published in Raven's Bones/Alaska Native News
May/June 1986
By Robert Peck, Ph.D.

Sessions of the Court of Elders are held as necessity dictates. The elder who brings the matter to the court presides for the hearing of that matter.

In 1982, the Sitka Community Association (now the Sitka Tribe of Alaska) Tribal Council delegated a portion of its decision-making powers to a recently established tribal court for the purpose of adjudicating civil matters and for settling domestic relations and children's issues involving members of the tribe and for children who are members or are eligible to be members of the tribe.

Because the tribal court was envisioned as a judicial link between the tribe and other governments the format and protocols of the tribal court closely resemble those which are found outside the tribe˜with court rules, process, and codes which are compatible to other courts of record under the American system for the administration of civil law. This was seen as necessary to make "good faith and credit" between the tribe and other courts an easier matter to accomplish.

The council was concerned at the time that the traditional law of Southeast Alaska in contrast to the Americanized version of British Common Law be preserved and utilized whenever possible to adjudicate issues within the tribe and between tribal members and other Alaska Naives who through the centuries have been governed by that traditional law. The delegation of decision-making powers from the council to the tribal court stipulated that concern and mandated the use of traditional law in appropriated situations.

The powers of the council itself are the evolutionary powers of the several clans that comprise the Sitka tribe. Nowhere is there to be found a curtailment of the self-governing powers of those clans.

Under Southeast Alaska traditional law each clan was responsible through the leadership of the clan for the administration of traditional law to settle disputes between clan members and for the resolving of issues affecting the clan. Leaders were usually the elder males of each clan, or house, but female leadership was not absent. In occasional instances conflict between the clans could not be resolved between them. In such cases, and to avoid the possibility of overt conflict, issues were placed before a conclave of clan leaders of the same moiety for arbitration under traditional law.

These elders or leaders had only the traditional law as a guide in this process. Such rare issues might be concerned with land use disputes as an internal example, or with a crisis around natural resources or a conflict situation with "outsiders" as examples of external issues requiring he participation of all h clan elder of the community. Such a gathering was Naashaadei Nukx'ee (English meaning: Heads of the clans meeting together). This is the form of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Court of Elders.

The Court of Elders was convened in the spring of 1984 in response to the tribal councils wish to utilize traditional law whenever possible for resolution of conflict, for addressing questions of natural resource utilization and preservation, for issues arising from the perceived need to protect and preserve the cultural heritage of the tribe and of Southeast Alaska, for probate matters under traditional law and for advice and consultation with the tribal court in matters of children's interests and in domestic relations.

The original members are: Tom Young, Sr., (Klukwan) Xixch'I Hít (Frog House) Gaanaxhteidi clan/Raven moiety; Bob Peck, L'eeneidi clan, Raven moiety, clerk of the court; Jim Bowen, Mr. Bowen (Jamestown Klallam) has been formally adopted by the Sik'naxh.ádi clan of the Eagle moiety, court historian; Al Perkins, Shteen Hít (Steel House) Kiks.ádi clan/Raven moiety; Ellen Hope Hays, X'aaka Hít(Point t House) Kiks.ádi clan/Raven moiety; Cy Peck, Sr., Ghooch Hít, Kaagwaantaan clan/Eagle moiety; Al Davis, Kayaashka Hit, (Porch House) L'uknaxh.ádi clan/Raven moiety; Ethel Makinen, L'ook Hít (Coho House) L'uknaxh.ádi clan/Raven moiety; Pat Paul, Ghooch Hít (Wolf House) Kaagwaantaan clan/Eagle moiety; Joe Howard, Xaal Hít (Halibut House) Chookaneidi clan/Eagle moiety.

Matters which have been considered and acted upon to date by the Court of Elders include

  • The Southeast Alaska Herring Roe Fishery
  • Probate matters within the tribe
  • Protection and monitoring of the heritage-latent ceremonial artifacts in state and private museums in Alaska.
  • Advice and direction for the protection of gravesites and ethno-historical sites in Sitka.
  • Advice and direction to the tribal court for the proper placement of the children for the tribe who have been found to be in need of care of the court and in domestic relation issues.
  • Advice and direction for the benefit of the tribal council in ceremonial matters.
  • Many other issues are pending future sessions of the court.

Specifically clan matters are decided by each clan with interpretation of traditional law explicated for the clans' benefit by the whole court. The entire court participates in intermoiety issues.

Sessions of the court of elders are held as necessity dictates. The elder who brings the matter to the court presides for the hearing of that matter.

Call-of-the-court sessions are arranged by the clerk who then serves as moderator. All of the latter are concerned with external matters. The function of the court historian is to memorialize each session of court and to begin the long process of encoding the traditional law in writing-a necessary process if the oral heritage is to be preserved, as the elders are lost to us.

Very few uncles remain who are able and willing to teach the traditional law to the young. It is time that this comprehensive body of oral knowledge be preserved in witting for the benefit of future generations. Outside courts are willing to give faith and credit to the findings of the elders under traditional law but their time is limited and more of these cultural-masters are lost to us each year with no replacement. There is no fact of life not covered in the traditional law in Southeast Alaska. There is no situation to which it does not apply. In this era of permissiveness there is certainly a need for and a place for a body of law which places absolute responsibility for one's actions upon one, and which has explicit remedies for breach of contract and for wrongful acts.

The traditional law of Southeast Alaska is such a body. The court of elders provides the forum for the administration of the law and for its preservation.


Funded in part by the National Science Foundation
Sponsors include the Southeast Alaska Native Educators Association and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0636203. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2012, 12:36 PM