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Judge Nora Guinn

Judge Nora Guinn was interviewed around 1976 by Evan McKenzie in Bethel, Alaska. Thomas Okpealuk was the cameraman. Nora Guinn was born in 1920 in Akiak, Alaska to Joe and Anna Venes. She was educated at Eklutna Boarding School and high school in Portland, Oregon. She was a BIA school teacher in Tununak, and a United States Commissioner, deputy magistrate and district court magistrate in Bethel. In 1968, she was appointed the first judge of the new District Court in Bethel. She was the first woman and first Alaska Native to hold such a position. Being a fluent Yupik speaker, she would often conduct hearings in Yupik to ensure that her people understood the charges and the reasons for her judgments. In 1971, Nora Guinn was Master of the Family Division of the Alaska Supreme Court and conducted trainings for other judges and magistrates. She retired from the bench in 1976. In 1978, she received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Alaska Anchorage. In this interview, she talks about serving in rural Alaska and the importance of understanding the unique justice and cultural needs there, trying to make the court system understandable to Yupik people, and handling alcohol related cases.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2012-02-07

Project: Judges of Alaska
Date of Interview:
Narrator(s): Judge Nora Guinn
Interviewer(s): Evan McKenzie
Videographer: Thomas Okpealuk
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


People are uncomfortable in court

Things about the court that people don't understand

Explaining to someone in Yup'ik what it means to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest

Advisory sentencing where your peers come up with a sentence for the crime

Juvenile jury panel would help decide their peers sentence

People who committed crimes helped to move the graveyard when it was falling into the river as their fine

Coordinating the villages and the court system so that it continues to work

Working in the village to help the kids and making the village choose sentencing for its people

The judicial system should understand village issues to be able to help people in the villages

Minor incidents can be handled in the village instead of bringing people into the big cities

Teaching people how the judicial system works by having a court trial in the village

Treating people fairly and remembering that they are human beings

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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


NORA GUINN: Brought into court - the courtroom inside is, well like I say, often to a person who hasn’t had anything to do with -- with being in a court and there's podiums and witness places and they're asked to -- when they come in as a witness or even for an arraignment,

I think the atmosphere has got to -- while being formal, there has to be some sign of friendliness.

Most of the time when I -- when I entered the courtroom, I make sure I say good morning and usually my clerk says who I am, but I do take a little time to at least look at the person, maybe smile a little and say good morning to the attorney.

It's a scary -- it's really scary for a person and I never really realized how it was to be a witness until I had to be a witness and the shoe was on the other foot and I was -- I was frightened.

I tried -- from my courtroom experience, you know, not to shake, but I think I shook inside a little.

But another thing that -- bothers the people quite a little bit is the attorneys. They are not used to attorneys and they don’t quite understand that the attorney that's for the state and the attorney for the defendant are on opposite sides and must do what they can either to win the case and they don’t quite understand this many times and they really don’t know quite what -- how to take it sometimes.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Do they sometimes take it personally in a sense if somebody's -- NORA GUINN: Yes. EVAN MCKENZIE: -- trying prosecute them they think that it's a -- NORA GUINN: Yes, they do. EVAN MCKENZIE: Rather than just, he's just doing his job, he always has to do that. NORA GUINN: That is right.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Whether he thinks you are guilty or not, he has to prosecute in a sense. NORA GUINN: Well, that's the way they feel. It's just something that we haven’t explained.

If the attorneys will let me, I will try to explain the process in Eskimo first what we're going to do in court.

Many times before when we didn’t have attorney I did it all the time -- on what was happening and, you know, and contrary to what a lot of people think there are many times the defendant himself would act as his own attorney and is good enough to win the case.

So, it's just a matter of trying to make people feel at home -- not at home but more at ease.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Well, what -- what sorts of things -- that, I can see that -- what sorts of things do people not really understand? NORA GUINN: Well a lot -- a lot of the words are foreign.

What's a judgment for instance? They know you are going to pass out a sentence, but that word judgment is foreign, you know.

There's many words that the attorneys use, but they don’t know what they mean. They really don’t know what is going on.

I think that our public defender is spending quite a little more time with his clients telling them what he's going to do and why so that they're involved. Many times the defendants don’t feel involved at all.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Well what about -- is there ever any confusion in people’s minds over what it means to plead guilty or not guilty? NORA GUINN: There is a lot of confusion.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Sometimes I have heard people say that -- that a lot of people don’t know what it means, like if they think -- if they feel guilty that they should plead guilty. Is that -- do you ever find anything like that happening? NORA GUINN: No, because I do my own translating. EVAN MCKENZIE: Oh, I see. So you explain to them? NORA GUINN: Yes.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Well, how would you explain to somebody in Yup'ik, say, what it means to plead guilty? NORA GUINN: Well the words I use is -- what I say is that there are three things that they can say.

They can say not guilty, guilty and no contest and I translate those into Yup'ik so that they'll understand it and I tell them also that we don’t care what they say, but they themselves have to do this of their own free will.

And I also tell them if they plead not guilty there'll be a hearing -- a trial. They understand that. If you tell them if they plead guilty, they're telling me what, that every piece -- every word against them on that paper is true.

They are telling me that this is true and I could go ahead and sentence them. Then I go into the no contest -- nolo contendere and the best way I can explain that is to -- when I’m talking with them is to -- is to say you know there are many times that a person doesn’t remember what they do

and maybe someone -- one of their good friends will be there and tell them yes that is what you did. And if you really think that -- that you did it but you don’t really know then you say -- I can’t remember the word for it.

No contest, which means in our language -- I can’t remember the word we use right now. Been away from the court too long, but -- and they understand that I could sentence them.

But they have to be -- it just isn’t a guess. It's not a guess. I think I have been a lot stricter with taking a guilty plea by asking and rephrasing the question over and over until I am positive in my own mind that that's what they want to say.

And nowadays when we have, you know, we have the public defender and I tell them that, you know, that he studied the law, that he knows the law, that if they want assistance from him they can, but it is not going to cost them to seek advice from someone that knows the law.

So in the late years we haven’t had too much problem with that. But many of them will refuse an attorney and they will just come in and enter their plea and they will tell me they have something to tell me and usually they will just go ahead and tell me what they know.

Makes a lot of difference because they trust me. I think they trust me. They know that I know there's always two sides to something not justone that is on paper, but there is physical side to it too.

So over the yearss it's -- I have tried to use -- include people -- involve people in my -- all of my court activities many years ago or some years ago we had a great number of drunken in public cases.

And I just couldn’t see a fine and I just couldn’t see jail time. Sometimes I'd have to do jail time, but I also -- I also started what we call an advisory sentencing court.

And I'd haul them out of jail for a couple of hours in the jail room -- in the courthouse and I’d have them sit and after the people came up and plead guilty, or whatever they wanted to do, then we would send them out and we'd sit and talk about it.

And I’d say now what would you advise? What would you -- I’ll do the sentencing, but why do you think this? I’d take them right from the jail and I got them involved in advising me.

You know, they would say well this guy is just a happy drunk. He come in last night and heck he is just happy. He has got a little money, fine him. Okay, another guy comes in and he is really crying -- really sobbing. There's something to matter with him or we got to find help for him.

You know, I remember one case in particular. We had a young lady and there were about four men on there kind of older men and four or five and she come in and when she went out, this guy says, you know, she has a whole batch of kids. Jail isn’t going to help. She will be away from her kids.

A fine isn’t going to help her. The kids need food. Why don’t you tell her to stay home for ten days and at the end of the ten days come up before us again? I said okay.

So the ten days went by. I told her she couldn’t go anywhere, except if she had her children with her.

You know, like to movies, whatever it was, but she had to have her children with her and she'd come back after ten days, before us again and she said darn, I never knew there were so many clothes to mend. I never knew there were so many clothes to mend.

We never got her back again. But it's, you know, involving people is really great.

And I used to have a juvenile jury panel the same thing and we'd meet every Monday night. They brought in the kids that was drunk. This was off record, completely off record. There was no -- no record of the kid. And I had a group from the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. This was very way back like in ’68, ’69.

And I'd have about twelve -- twelve from the school. And they would come down. We’d have it Monday night and we'd meet there with whoever was, you know, before us and they'd decide what they wanted done.

But I wouldn’t let them decide right then. I, you know, I ultimately did the deciding, but we had a lot of involvement from the school then and a lot of interest.

And I remember one girl was called before -- before us and she was on the jury, on this advisory jury on sentencing or what we should make the kids do.

And it was always picking up garbage or helping somebody or chopping wood for somebody or fixing what they broke and things like this.

And this is right here in Bethel. Dig a ditch. Somebody needed a ditch dug, and so we'd assign them that, but they also took a couple of weeks or maybe even a full week and then they'd try to find out about this kid. Who is he going with? What is home life like? How are we going to help him?

How will we help him ourselves in school and in the community and it really worked. Many things that, you know, were maybe not legal but they worked.

Like, for instance, one summer we found our old graveyard was going into the river. I just come off of a fishing trip and the police officer was new here and he just drug me in my dirty old kuspuk and all and we went down and here were, you know, coffins.

We'd had a big storm -- just lying on the banks. We didn’t have any money to move that graveyard to where it is now at that time. The city had very little money. So I just decided okay we'll sentence them.

I'll sentence to dig a grave, dig up a grave. The police officers helped transport it back and buried the person with the proper marker. We moved a whole graveyard that summer.

It didn’t cost the city a penny. It didn’t cost anybody a penny. It cost the state, you know, transporting back and forth, but they were glad to do this. The state troopers at that time. We didn’t have city police at that time.

We moved a whole graveyard. Well, one of the nice things about it was, you know, that I didn’t have too many repeaters. I told them I didn’t care how long it took, they had to do it before they went home to their village.

Dig up one grave or two graves whatever the assignment was, you know. Dig a new grave. Dig up the others, get them and bury them, rebury them up at the new graveyard. I never got repeaters. And we got something done.

But I never always -- I didn’t always use fines or jail time. EVAN MCKENZIE: I think working -- NORA GUINN: I think working. One boy we used to get down from Tuluksak or Akiak -- where is, that's my home town.

It seemed like every time he came down he went on a drunk and the police picked him up. One of the churches needed to have a grave dug so I would have him dig the grave.

You know, that's worth like $25 to someone. So we used to kind of joke about it whenever I'd see him.

We still do joke a little bit about it. And then some of the people like some of the boys -- some of the others I'd send back to their village with assignments.

Assignments that I would talk over with council. Well, now it is easy to talk to council. You can pick up the telephone, but I'd just write a note back and say assignments or some job up there. He got drunk in Bethel, but I don’t want to keep him here. Make him do some work in your village. Clean up your graveyard, chop somebody’s wood and then let me know what he did. Those are --

EVAN MCKENZIE: How do -- how do you think -- you know, you were doing this for so long you must have a pretty good idea -- how do people in the villages, say maybe village councilmen or people generally in the villages feel about the court system here in the, you know, regional centers like Bethel?

NORA GUINN: Well, I've been their court system for so long. EVAN MCKENZIE: Yes. NORA GUINN: You know, but I'm just hoping that, you know, that they can coordinate the villages and the court system and it has got to be a combination of both. One can’t lean way back and neither can the other.

It's got to be an educational process. They respect the court system. The only problem many times that we have and that I've had in the past is we don’t know what Superior Court has done to somebody when they take him away to Fairbanks or Anchorage.

Now we have a Superior Court here or will have a permanent Superior Court here and I think that is going to take -- I think it's going to be an education process that will benefit my people making them understand more of the ways of the court system.

Now, I get people in that say well I didn’t know that was the law. Well, I go back to my own language and I say isn’t that one of our own laws? Like when you hit somebody and hurt somebody isn’t that one of our own laws is that says you must not strike another person without good reason.

I know my laws. I know my customs. I know my tradition. I know them all and I'll ask well what difference -- what difference? This is the white man’s law and this is the native law. You know this. You know our native laws and our white man laws are almost the same. You shall not kill. You shall not steal -- these kinds of things. So it's just a matter of education.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Education and understanding of why that's the way -- NORA GUINN: Education and understanding.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Yes. NORA GUINN: I feel very strongly about juvenile process. I -- I would like to see a juvenile facility here, but I think that what the judge is going to have to try to do more than ever and as special master I have tried is to keep the kids in their own village, among their own people.

I go to the villages if somebody is in trouble -- the kids. And I'll ask the council and ask the parents if they want to help because that's, you know, that's their person -- their child.

The village is not only a child it is even an adult and I feel very strongly that they must have a say -- that they must have a say in how you're going to judge that person, how you're going to sentence them.

And, you know, one of our biggest controversies around here is the bootlegging, you know. Okay, the kid came and we get lots of letters of what we should do with bootleggers. We do what we think is right.

Maybe to others it is wrong, but we do what we think is right. I got a kid in that bootlegged in the villages. He needed money. A really bright kid and he went to Anchorage and he got a couple cases of booze and he pedaled them in his village.

Okay. He came before me and, of course, I was stiff necked, you know, he plead guilty, finally plead guilty and I sentenced him and then I thought about it. What in the world am I sentencing him here for? He did it in his village.

So I -- I retracted my sentence and we took him out to the village and I called the whole village in the council room. And I said okay here -- here's this boy and he has bought booze and he has sold it like for forty or fifty dollars a bottle to you people here. Now what shall I do with this boy?

Okay, Bethel would say give him jail time. Now what do you want him to do? What do you want me to do? And they were really reasonable about it. They talked it all over and we talked it back and forth and the kid talked with the council people. He'd never been in trouble before.

The city asked me to sentence him to work for the city for five -- for the sum of -- until he reached the sum of $500. He's an expert bookkeeper. He'd been, you know, to two years of college or so. He agreed to it. Fine. They were happy. I was happy.

He was happy. Of course, he has a year’s probation also, but this is the same, you know, and it was fishing time, and more and more I think we have to go back into the villages to do the sentencing in the village where the crime was committed on nonviolent type crime.

But even with violent type it's kind of nice to find out what the village thinks about it personally because that moment of violence is normally under the influence of intoxicating liquor. It is not normal to have a violent type crime that is not connected to liquor.

Ninety percent -- 97% of the cases that come in are alcohol-related.

EVAN MCKENZIE: So it sounds like you're saying that the -- the village should have a very strong say -- NORA GUINN: Absolutely. If they're to understand -- if they're to understand the judicial system and if the judicial system is going to want to understand the people that it's working with and for, they have got to understand too.

EVAN MCKENZIE: I wonder how the village could -- could do that? I guess it depends. They have to have right now the way things are you have to have a judge who understands the problems like the way you do, but --

NORA GUINN: That can be developed. We have translators. There's more and more English spoken in the villages here, you know.

I don’t feel, you know, that I'm the only person that has done. I see Sadie Neakok doing it. I see our magistrates doing it. I’m not the only person that's doing this. The magistrates in the village are doing it. Whenever the council gets together with people that have, you know, been fighting with each other or whatever and they get them together and group them together and have them talk it over with arbitration and conciliation.

That's part of the system and it is a good system. Why should somebody be brought into Bethel because he stole a glove from somebody else? That can be handled right in the village. For taking something very minor.

EVAN MCKENZIE: So you're saying that the villages -- villages are a part of the system. NORA GUINN: They are part of the system. They have to -- EVAN MCKENZIE: It sounds like they are a very important part of it.

NORA GUINN: Somebody -- tear somebody’s coat when he's drunk. That can be taken care of right at the village. The coat -- all he wants is a new coat and if you can get them to be friends again well it's important to be friends in a little village -- very important to be friends.

You just don’t snub -- snub people kind of live together. You have to live together because you have to survive so. I think the court system is going in the right direction with the -- recognizing the conciliation for it, recognizing that the council has in the past done this.

We've never made any waving of flags or things about it -- we've just done it for people. EVAN MCKENZIE: Councils have handled it -- NORA GUINN: Councils have handled it.

I just call a council or a council will call me and say we have trouble with this guy here.

Why don’t you come up and we can talk about it? Sure I go up and we talk about it wherever it is. We get it ironed out there.

And the person usually agrees. He'd rather stay home than come down to the court place anyway. EVAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.

NORA GUINN: And then -- and then it's kind of nice sometimes to have what we call -- it's really hard to have a jury trial in a village because everybody knows what everybody does.

So it's kind of nice sometimes to have either a -- well a court trial just for the purpose of education.

EVAN MCKENZIE: So people can see how it works? NORA GUINN: To see how it works and I've had a great deal of luck with it, like in Mountain Village and some of the other places. Hooper Bay, the whole town turns out and everybody and his uncle is there with their kids and everything.

Normally, when I notify them that I am going to have a trial out there, which isn’t very often, even the school closes up and the school children come to the trial and it's with a non-jury court trial. And I've had some of those with a district attorney and a public defender.

EVAN MCKENZIE: So I guess people can learn a lot from that. They can see how -- how it the operates. NORA GUINN: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. EVAN MCKENZIE: Well --

NORA GUINN: I've driven people back to their own villages. I've had people -- or I assign, you know, like city council, members of the city council, members of Social Services, to give me a recommendation after a month of him living with the rules that I give him in his village before I'll sentence to see how he's going to work out whether he's going to cooperate or whether he -- works every time.

Because like I stress this person is from your village. He's your -- he's your relative. He's your friend. If you aren’t going to help him, nobody else is going to really try to help him because we don’t know how to help him. That’s involvement and involving people and making them responsible.

EVAN MCKENZIE: I guess your job as the judge would be a lot tougher if you don’t get cooperation from the people that -- NORA GUINN: Why wouldn’t I get cooperation I belong to them, you know.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Yeah, but I’m just -- I’m saying if you didn’t. In other words, it's very important part of the whole system of -- NORA GUINN: Well, if they believe that you are fair and are trying to help them.

You know, sometimes the only help we can do is to give jail time for a period of time. I think -- I think our judge will get cooperation and I hope that he'll continue the process of education, understanding.

I get a few losers too, but I've never had anyone threaten me, never. Sentence somebody to jail, I get letters from them because I tell them I have 60 days I can retract my sentence.

I tried them when I working down there -- I tried to get down to the jail once a week just to see if anybody needed to talk to me about something personal that I might be able to assist them with, just to see maybe they had enough jail time. You can tell if the guy has had enough jail time and it isn’t good to -- it isn’t good to make up your mind once and then forget the person, never.

That's a human being you have got there. That's a human being and I think maybe some people tend to forget that the judge in sentencing has taken away -- he's given jail time has taken away and has the power to take away a person’s liberty and freedom and that judge has got to realize that, you know, just because he says something once things can’t change for him to open up his hand and say, hey, this guy -- there's other factors here that I didn’t really know about before.

And there is factors sometimes that enter into a judgment and you just decide on another course. But I hope that my magistrates, and I call them my magistrates because I think the magistrate is very important in the rural areas -- in the bush areas.

I hope that never -- if they give jail time that they will never forget that in that hand and in, you know, the judge’s powers that he is not to forget that that's a human being.

It must be looked at again. You just don’t give a guy jail time and forget him. I couldn’t. I couldn’t sleep if I did. Because, you know, there's other things that come into it.

EVAN MCKENZIE: What kind of person he is, besides just what he did. NORA GUINN: Right. Right. Other factors that have to be taken into consideration, you know.

How much of a family does he have? Can you get assistance for that family and see that they get assistance, not just call a social worker? Just to make sure they are getting assistance if they need assistance, you know.

They say that isn’t our work, but that has to come from -- you just refer them to somebody. But out here you don’t refer anyone to anyone, you follow through. You just don’t do that.

EVAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. NORA GUINN: They're human beings and they're citizens, first class. That's what I always like to say citizens first class.

But I -- I set out a number of years ago with several things in mind. One was to get legal assistance for my people. We have Alaska Legal Services here now.

The other was to take a DA here. We have a DA here now. The other was better facilities than these facilities that we have are much better than we had in the past and we will be getting more new facilities.

And one other thing that I really pushed for was trial by jury of your peers. Trial in an area like Bethel, while it doesn’t go into every village at least the jury that we call a good number of them belong to the same race as the defendant or at least they're so similar living conditions, all of this that they understand what is happening.

We do that now. We don’t have to take them to Anchorage and forget them, you know, for six months before their trial comes up.