"Agha' diit' aahii," in Navajo means "the one who convinces" and identifies the attorneys who ply their legal trade on the Navajo Indian Reservation.
In an aluminum trailer faded by the Arizona sun and sandblasted by spring dust storms, Mike Nelson is an Agha' diit' aahii in Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Indian Reservation.Nelson's clients are mostly Navajo, having lived their lives on the Navajo Indian Reservation, a neighbor to Utah's southern border. Representing them in court means understanding their traditional ways.
"These are Navajo Courts, there's a Navajo viewpoint you have to understand," Nelson said.
For example, the Navajo culture is based on a matrilineal family, meaning the mother, not the father, is the traditional head of a large extended family. A single court decision can have extremely far-reaching implications.
"It's a difficult concept to translate," he said.
Nelson is in a private practice, but many Navajos are represented by attorneys working for the Navajo legal service called DNA, an acronym for a Navajo phrase meaning "attorneys who contribute to the economic revitalization of the people."
Lawrence Long is a DNA tribal advocate, a staff member without formal legal training but who often serves as council. Representing his clients is sometimes complicated by their Navajo ways.
`It's basically because the Navajo are really very reserved people, especially the traditional people," he said.
Much of his role includes coaxing Navajo clients to respond effectively to direct questioning, an extremely uncomfortable position for traditional Indians.
"They're really reserved and you can't get the whole picture sometimes," Long, a Navajo, said.
But by speaking Navajo in court, respecting elders in the "Navajo Way" and by nurturing relationships sometimes for months, clients and attorneys can develop relationships that survive in court.
"We find that by speaking Navajo in all the proceedings that that makes them feel they're in their own ball park."