Navajo Common Law

Below are some cases regarding Navajo Common Law.  More cases may be obtained from the Navajo Supreme Court:


Oral agreement – A valid oral agreement, commitment, and/or contract is sacred and once made, is binding.  Tome v. Navajo Nation, No. WR-CV-153-83, slip op. at 21 (W.R. Dist. Ct. 1984). 

Execution – A person must follow through with an agreement made with another person Ben v. Burbank, No. SC-CV-23-95 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1996).


Democracy & Power Abuse – A naat’aanii is chosen based upon his ability to help the people survive and whatever authority he has is based upon that ability and the trust placed in him by the people.  If he lost the trust of his people, the people simply ceased to follow him or even listen to his words.  In re Certified Questions II (Navajo Nation v. MacDonald), A-CR-13-89, slip op. at 24-25 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1989).  See also Downey v. Bigman, No SC-CV-07-95, slip op. at 3-4 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1995).

Coercion – Navajo common law rejects coercion.  Navajo Nation v. MacDonald, A-CR-10-90, slip op. at 27-28 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1992).  See also Downey v. Bigman, No SC-CV-07-95, slip op. at 3-4 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1995).

Procedure/Due Process

Peacemaking – Controversies and arguments should be resolved by “talking things out”.  Navajo Nation v. Crockett, No. SC-CV-14-94, slip op. at 10 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1996); See also Rough Rock Community School v. Navajo Nation, No. SC-CV-06-94, slip op. at 12 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1995). 

K’e – includes equality and respect and leads to consensual solution.  Downey v. BigmanRough Rock Community School v. Navajo Nation, No SC-CV-06-94 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1998).  K’e contemplates one’s unique, reciprocal relationships to the community and the universe.  It promotes respect, solidarity, compassion, and cooperation so that people may live in hozho, or harmony.  K’e stresses duties and obligations of individual relatives to their community.  Atcitty v. Dist. Ct. for the Judicial Dist. Of Window Rock, No. SC-CV-25-96, slip op. at 7-8 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1996).  See also Ben v. Burbank, No. SC-CV-23-95, slip op. at 5-6 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1996). 

Naalyeeh – owed to family, clan or person.  In re Claim of Joe, No A-CV-39-92. slip op at 7-8 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1993).  One who inflicts harm must pay the victim to restore harmony.  Farley v. Kerr McGee, No. SR-CV-103-95, slip op at 7 (S.R. Dist. Ct. 1996).  See also Nez v. Peabody Western Coal Co., Inc., No. SC-CV-28-97, slip op. at 10, (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1999).  It should be enough “so there are no hard feelings.”… If a person is hurt, he or she looks to clan relations for help. The tortfeasor and his or her relatives are expected to set things right in accordance with the hurt…. Nalyeeh depends on restitution, reparation, restoring harmony or replacing the loss or paying back. The manner and amount of payback are not so crucial. Benalli v. First Nat’l Ins. Co. of America, No. SC-CV-45-96, slip op. at 16-17 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1998). See also Navajo Nation v. Blake, No. SC-CR-04-95, slip op. at 4-5 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1996). 

Punishment as last resort – Punishment were actions of last resort. Navajo Nation v. Platero, No. A-CR-04-91, slip op. at 7 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1991).


Traditional Wedding – basket ceremony requirements 9 N.N.C. 3(D) (1993).

Rejection of common law marriage – Unmarried couples who live together act immorally because they are said to “steal each other”.  In re Validation of Marriage of Francisco, No. A-CV-15-88, slip op. at 4, (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1989). 

Traditional Wedding & Divorce - Husband moves in with wife at time of marriage. At divorce, husband returns to mother’s unit. (Various methods to divide property discussed) Apache v. Republic National Life Insurance, 3 Nav. 4. 250 (1982).  See also Naize v. Naize, No. SC-CV-16-96, slip op. at 7-8 (Nav. Sup. Ct.1997).

Traditional divorce – Yoodeeyah doctrine Begay v. Chief, KY-FC-348-00 (2002);  Traditional divorce outlawed.  In the Matter of Documenting the Marriage: Ellen M. Slim and Tom Slim, 3 Nav. R. 218 (1982)

Navajo plural marriages – outlawed with exceptions. 9 N.N.C. 2 (1993).  See also Austin v. Smith, KY-FC-178-02 (Kay. Dist. Ct. 2002). 

Custody – Children are of the mother’s clan or extended family.  Goldtooth v. Goldtooth, 3 Nav. R. 223 (W.R. Dist. Ct. 1982). 

In-laws – Hadaane has certain duties.  Means v. Dist. Court of the Chinle Judicial Dist., SC-CV-61-98 slip op. at 17-18 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1999)

Respectful speech – People speak with caution and respect because speech is sacred.  Hosteen v. Tapaha, No. SR-CV-77-92, slip. op. at 9 (S.R. Dist. Ct. 1997).


Communal ownership – Families hold land (grazing rights) in communal ownership. Begay v. Keedah, No. A-CV-09-91, slip op. at 9 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1991).  See also In re Estate of Benally, 5 Nav. R. 174 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1987).  Private ownership is unknown to Navajos. Hood v. Bordy, No A-CV-07-90, slip op. at 11-12 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1991). 

Property ownership – Property belongs to wife and her children.  In re Trust of Benally, 1 Nav. R. 12 (1969); See also Lenta v. Notah, 3 Nav. R. 72 (1982). 

Property distribution – “Productive property” (sheep, land, land permits) are held for benefit of the individual and the camp, and upon death, such property is held for the benefit of those living in the camp.  “Non-productive property” (jewelry, tools, equipment, non-subsistence livestock) are held to belong to the individual.  In re estate of Boyd Apachee, 4 Nav R. 178 (1983).

Oral wills – must be in presence of family, In re estate of Lee, In the Matter of Estate of Chisney Benally, 1 Nav R. 219 (1978).

Discussing Death – Death is not a proper and lively item to discuss.  In re Estate of Tsosie, 4 Nav. R. 198, 200 (W.R. Dist Ct. 1983).

Children's Cases

Parent’s obligation – A child’s interest are paramount.  A parent must provide for the child’s needs until the child can support him/herself.  Burbank v. Clarke, No SC-CV-36-97, slip op. at 4 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 199). 

Father’s obligation – A father of a child owes that child support.  Touchin v. Touchin, No. CP-CV-237-87, slip op. at 5 (C.P. Dist. Ct. 1988).  A man who fails to pay support is said to have “stolen the child”.  Tom v. Tom, 4 Nav. R. 12 (Nav. Ct. App. 1983). 

Emancipation – A child is emancipated when self-supporting, independent, and free of parent control.  T’aabiak’inaaldzil doctrine. Burbank v. Clarke, No SC-CV-36-97, slip op. at 4 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 199). 

Adoption – Family members, aunts, grandparents obligated. In re interest of JJS, 4 Nav. R. 192 (W.R. Dist. Ct. 1993)