Tribal Justice. Directed by Anne Makepeace. Lakeville, CT: Makepeace Productions, 2017. 87 minutes.

Invoking Justice. Directed by Deepa Dhanraj. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 85 minutes.

Reviewed by Margaret Huettl

Tribal Justice, directed by Anne Makepeace, and Invoking Justice, directed by Deepa Dhanraj, introduce audiences to women-centered, non-Western legal systems. Set in two distinct cultural and political contexts—California and Tamil Nadu, India—these films provide examples of women from marginalized communities seizing space in legal systems not designed for them.

In Tribal Justice, Makepeace explores reemerging tribal court systems in California from the Yurok Tribe and the Quechan Indian Tribe. The film follows Claudette White (Quechan) and Abby Abinanti (Yurok), both chief justices of their respective nations, as they adjudicate cases ranging from child custody to drug offenses. Without falling into the trap of poverty porn, the film addresses what Judge White calls the “social ills” that bring people into her courtroom—drugs, domestic violence, poverty, and lack of services experienced by many reservation communities amidst ongoing settler colonialism. Additionally, the film exposes the constraints the United States has imposed on tribal courts and the opposition White and Abinanti have faced, both as women and as Native Americans. To address these challenges, the judges turn toward Yurok and Quechan values built on personal relationships that privilege healing and resolution above punishment and incarceration. In fact, both Abinanti and White mention that a primary goal is to keep their people out of state carceral systems, envisioning tribal courts as a place to restore communities living with intergenerational trauma. Makepeace’s subjects clearly articulate what is at stake with their burgeoning tribal justice systems. “In my capacity as chief judge, what I’m fighting for is our people, our independence, our sovereignty, our existence,” White explains. Tribal Justice thus presents tribal justice systems as a means of cultural and political survival for Indigenous peoples.

Invoking Justice relates the story of the Tamil Nadu Muslim Women’s Jamaat. Jamaat are local courts or councils that apply Sharia to familial and domestic disputes, from divorce to domestic violence, and customarily exclude women. In 2004, a group of women from Tamil Nadu formed the first women’s jamaat to counteract the patriarchal power of the current system. Told entirely through the voices of this jamaat, the film follows several cases over eighteen months, including a young woman burned to death in her husband’s home and the first woman to receive a divorce from such a court. The film depicts the backdrop of economic and political inequality that heighten violence against women—and the lack of justice they receive in customary courts. The women emerge as activists, although the film, which avoids overt analysis, never uses that word. In telling the stories of these courts, Invoking Justice also presents a more nuanced version of Sharia than the insidious threat commonly depicted in Western media. For these women, Sharia, based on what they understand as the fundamental Islamic belief that Allah created men and women as equal, has the potential to empower. They fight back against the all-male jamaat’s distorted version of Sharia, which they argue has been corrupted by politics and patriarchy.

Unlike the tribal courts in the United States, the women’s jamaat lacks state-sanctioned authority. Nevertheless, the women have inserted themselves into local legal systems by exerting pressure on police, jamaats, and male relatives and by demonstrating a sophisticated understanding of these systems, from the village councils to police hierarchy and political parties. Despite outside established systems, these informal courts wield moral authority that the community, as we see by the end of the film, has begun to recognize. Additionally, although Dhanraj allows the audience to see the emotions that drive both women’s jamaat members and petitioners, the film makes it clear that the jamaat follows a formal, transparent process involving careful documentation that bolsters its claim to legitimacy. It functions as a check on a corrupt or imbalanced system that disregards the rights and lives of women.

These films expose students to alternative justice systems in a way that respects the values that shape these communities. Together or on their own, they can spark classroom conversations about women’s agency in patriarchal and colonial systems; the role of religion and culture in law; relationships between poverty, disenfranchisement, and violence; and imagining justice systems beyond the carceral state. To help students think critically about the broader topic of restorative justice, teachers might pair the films with Howard Zehr’s The Little Book of Restorative Justice.1 I would also recommend assigning a novel such as Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which links gendered violence, settler colonialism, and Indigenous legal systems.2 These documentaries provide moving examples of the everyday activism of women working to improve their communities by reclaiming justice.

1 Howard Zehr, The Little Book of Restorative Justice (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002).

2 Louise Erdrich, The Round House (New York: Harper, 2012).

Margaret Huettl, a descendant of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibweg, Assyrian refugees, and European settlers, is an assistant professor in history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a scholar of Native American history and North American Wests, and her research examines Indigenous sovereignty and settler colonialism in a transnational context.