MISSION — As a youth, Matthew Johnson spent his afternoons playing basketball in the Umatilla Indian Reservation gymnasium, a building that also housed the one-room Umatilla Tribal Court, where his dad worked. Today, Johnson walks through the glassy, two-story rotunda of the Nixyaawii Governance Center to get to his office, where he works with his father as the director of one of the leading tribal courts in the United States.

In the 40 years since Johnson’s father helped set up the court system for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, it has shaken off the constraints of state jurisdiction on its lands and taken on the most comprehensive criminal jurisdiction allowed under federal laws that restrict tribal court activity.

Original Courtroom

This photo from the 1980s in the Umatilla Tribal Court’s original location (an office inside the reservation gymnasium), Judge David Gallaher and current Chief Judge William Johnson surround the late Chief Judge Raymond “Popcorn” Burke, who was the court’s founding judge. Behind them stands Betsy Showaway, the court’s first clerk.

Reversal of federal policy

Umatilla reservation builds its justice system

Nixyáawii Governance Center

The 100,000-square-foot Nixyaawii Governance Center building houses the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s tribal government functions.

Tribes share jurisdiction in some cases

A July morning at the Umatilla Tribal Court


A hearing takes place in July 2022 in Umatilla Tribal Court on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

‘Culture and traditions as guidelines’

‘The tribe really gets to define the crime’

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