Tulalip Tribes’ Elder Court gives youths a second

By Krisa Kapralos
Tulalip, Washington (AP) 12-08

The young man wore loose jeans slung low on his hips. The hems were worn and frayed, and wet from being trampled on rain-soaked sidewalks. A large black sweatshirt flopped over his shoulders and arms.

It was 7:30 a.m., and he needed help.

Don “Spat-ub-kud” Hatch welcomed the teenager into a courtroom in the Tulalip Tribes’ courthouse, and told him to sit down. Before long, the young man faced Hatch and two other Tulalip elders. The teen seemed hopeful that the elders would do all the talking, but the elders refused to let him slide.

“Don’t just say, ‘Yeah,’ say ‘Yes!”’ Hatch said after the teen answered questions with little more than grunts.

“We’re going to try to get you back in school,” elder Lee Topash said.

“How is this elder court working for you?” Virginia Carpenter asked. “Do you think it’s helping?”

The teen made eye contact with each elder. He answered their questions as best he could. At the end of his time, he walked around the table to give each person a warm hug.

For the young man and others who appear before the Tulalip Tribes Elder Court, the board of senior citizens who offer grandparentlike advice is their last hope at starting adult life with a clean slate.

“When we release them, their charges are wiped clean,” Topash said.

Tulalip Tribal Court handles cases charged by Tulalip Tribal Police, including drug abuse and sales, driving while intoxicated and violence. But if the defendant is between the ages of 18 and 25, has never before been charged with a crime, and seems to be straddling the line that separates criminals and productive citizens, the judge can choose to turn that offender over to Elder Court.

The court started about three years ago, when Hatch met with Tribal Court judges to find a way to give tribal youths another chance.

Since then, eight young people have graduated from Elder Court.

“We’re playing the role of grandparents,” Hatch said. “Sometimes, it’s all they need.”


The Elder Court calls the young defendants “clients.” Clients are scheduled to appear before Elder Court early on Friday mornings. If they’re late, they face a reprimand.

Once inside, elders begin an interview. There are questions about school, jobs, home life. Most clients answer, Hatch said. But some dig in their heels. One even asked to be turned back over to Tribal Court.

“We had to convince him to stay,” Topash said. “We told him that the charges will follow him for the rest of his life if he doesn’t stay.”

They warn clients that criminal charges could keep them from getting a job at the Tulalip Casino, where tribal employment specialists and trainers work overtime to find jobs for tribal members.

Most of the time, the cautions work. The clients agree to stay on at Elder Court.

“But some people just don’t want anyone telling them what to do,” Hatch said.

Tulalip Tribal Court Judge Gary Bass said he has referred more than 25 people to Elder Court over the past three years. That’s a small percentage of the 500 or so cases the court hears each year, but the change is making a big difference.

“With the ones who are successful in Elder Court, we don’t wind up with them back in criminal court,” Bass said. “You get them to start learning about their culture, their heritage, and you can actually change the way they act in their life.”

It’s not easy to make it through Elder Court. Clients must return to appear again and again. Along the way, the young adults are asked to interview relatives and create a family tree.

That’s an eye-opener for many clients, Topash said. They often discover that members of the Elder Court are second cousins of their parents, or great-aunts and uncles. Like in most tribes, Tulalip Indians must prove that their lineage connects them to historic tribal leaders in order to be enrolled in the tribe.

But many tribal members who were born on the reservation and who haven’t had to prove their ancestry don’t know their own lineage, Hatch said. When a client discovers that the elder who is handling his or her case is a relative, they’re often more willing to do what’s asked of them.

Elder Court doesn’t have very many guidelines. The elders can ask a client to return again and again, every few weeks, and assign five, 10, 20 or even 40 hours of community service.

“We never come in here with an agenda because you just never know,” Topash said. “Mostly we just play it by ear.”

A client graduates from Elder Court when the elders decide he or she is ready.

Even then, a young Tulalip Indian doesn’t escape the eagle-eyed supervision of the elders.

“We’re a small community, so we see them around,” Topash said. “A lot of times, they’ll give us a hug.”