The Impact of Intercultural Legal Discourse upon Anglo-American versus Navajo Criminal Legal Theory

[1]  Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice & Sociology, Department of Anthropology, Criminal Justice & Sociology, Governors State University, University Park, IL USA.


Despite the desire for clarity, legal discourse is often unclear, leading to controversial interpretation. Moreover, the cultural dimension of legal discourse is rarely addressed, despite its importance in the interpretation of laws. This study examines the impact of legal culture on how legal principles are perceived and executed. Disparities emerge from long-standing cultural norms that influence the meaning of fundamental legal terminology. These legal phrases and concepts defy straightforward English understanding. Examples include the Latin word mens rea, which underpins both criminal and penal theory in Anglo-American law. Another example is the Navajo term hózhó from which all conceptualizations of social order emanate. Through an examination of conflict of laws as to U.S. federal courts and tribal law, this study aims to highlight the impact that legal culture has on the way legal concepts are understood and implemented. This case reveals an overlooked intimate relationship between law and culture.

Keywords: legal discourse, legal anthropology, punishment theory, mens rea, Navajo tribal law, hózhó


American Law Institute (1985). Model Penal Code: Official Draft and Explanatory Notes: Complete Text of Model Penal Code as Adopted at the 1962 Annual Meeting of the American Law Institute at Washington, D.C., May 24, 1962. Philadelphia, Pa:The Institute.

Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bhatia, V.K. & Bhatia, A. (2011). “Legal discourse across cultures and socio-pragmatic contexts”. World Englishes, 30(4): 481-495.

Blanchard, K. (1979). “The Navajo and the idea of ultimate reality and meaning”. Ultimate Reality and Meaning: Studies in Unconventional Science, 2(2), 84-108.

Bruchac, J. (1991). Native American Stories. Golden: Fulcrum Publishing.

Budryk, Z. (August 26, 2020). “Sole Native American on federal death row is executed”. The Hill.

Cheng, W. (2012). “Legal interpretation: Meaning as social construction.” Semiotica, 192 (2012), 427-448.

Cheng, L., Gong, M. & Li, J. (2017). “Conceptualizing cultural discrepancies in legal translation: A case-based study”. Semiotica, 216. 131–149.

Dressler, J. (2012). Understanding Criminal Law. New Providence, NJ: LexisNexis.

Duranti, A. (1997). Linguistic Anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evers, L. (1982). Between Sacred Mountains. Tucson: University of Arizona Press Ex parte Crow Dog, 109 U.S. 556 (1883).

Farella, J.R. (1984). The Main Stalk, A Synthesis Of Navajo Philosophy. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-98 (1994).

Focquaert, F., Glenn, A. & Raine, A. (2013). “Free will, responsibility, and the punishment of criminals”. In: Thomas A. Nadelhoffer ed. 2013. The Future of Punishment, Oxford Series in Neuroscience, Law, and Philosophy. Online edition, Oxford Academic, 23 May 2013)

Ginther, M.R. (2014). “The language of mens rea”. Vanderbilt Law Review, 67, 1327.

Gunther, V. (2010). “Murder most foul: Native Americans and the evolution of the death penalty.” In: . Bakken, G.M. ed.. Invitation to an Execution: A History of the Death Penalty in the United States. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Henderson, J. (1956). The Pollen Path: A Collection of Navajo Myths Retold. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Holmes, O.W. (1963). The Common Law. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hymes, C. (2020). “Native American executed for 2001 murders in fourth federal execution this year”. CBS News.

Jett, S. (2001). Navajo Placenames and Trails of The Canyon De Chelly System. New York: Peter Land Publishing Inc.

Kahn-John, M., Badger, T., McEwen, M.M.., Koithan, M., Arnault, D.S., & Chico-Jarillo, T.M. (2021). “The Diné (Navajo) hózhó lifeway: A focused ethnography on intergenerational understanding of American Indian cultural wisdom”. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 32(3), 256-265.

Katz, W.G. (1955). “Law, psychiatry & free will”. University of Chicago Law Review 22, 397 – 404.

Kluckhohn, C. (1949). “The Philosophy of the Navajo Indians”. In: Northrop, F.S.C. ed. 1949. Ideological Differences and World Order, Studies in the Philosophy and Science of the World’s Cultures. pp. 356-369.

Major Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1153 (1885).

McPherson, R. (1992). Sacred Land Sacred Views: Navajo Perceptions of the Four Corners Region. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Mitchell v. United States, 591 U. S. ____ (2020).

Northcott, J. & Brown, G. (2006). “Legal translator training: Partnership between teachers of English for legal purposes and legal specialists”.English for Specific Purposes, 25, 358-375.

Noyes, A. (1945). “Early causes and development of the doctrine of mens rea”. Kentucky Law Review, 33, 306.

Platt, A. & Diamond, B.L. (1966). “The origins of the ‘right and wrong’ test of criminal responsibility and its subsequent development in the United States: An historical survey”. California Law Review, 43, 1227.

Reichard, G.A. (1977). Navaho Religion, a Study of Symbolism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Robinson, P. (2002). “Mens rea”. Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law 34.

Russell, B. (1967). A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Sabine, G.H. & Thorson, T.L. (1973). A History of Political Theory. Oxford: OUP.

Smith, S.F. (2009). “Proportional mens rea”. American Criminal Law Review, 46, 127.

Swales, J. (2000). “Languages for specific purposes”. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 20, 59-76.

United States v. Blue, 722 F.2d 383, 385 (8th Cir.1983).

United States v. Mitchell, No. CR-01-01062-001-PCT-DGC (D. Ariz. Aug. 13, 2020).

von Hirsch, A. & Ashworth, A. (2005). A Proportionate Sentencing: Exploring the Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waelder, R. (1952). “Psychiatry and the problem of criminal responsibility”. University of Pennsylvania Law Review 101, 378.

Weinreb, L.L. (1987). Natural Law and Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, C. (1997). The Myth of Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Witherspoon, G. (1975). Navajo Kinship and Marriage. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Witherspoon, G. (1977). Language and Art in the Navajo Universe. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Wyman, L.C. (1970). Blessingway. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Zion, J.W. (2002). “Navajo Therapeutic Jurisprudence”. Touro Law Review, 18, 563,  597.

Zolbrod, P.G. (1984). Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.