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Originally published Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 6:13 AM

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Native American chief judge works for tribal-style justice

Native American jurisprudence has evolved since tribes began to regain their sovereignty, returning to traditional values of respect, community support and responsibility, and collective healing — for victims, perpetrators and the circle of lives they touch.


Los Angeles Times

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KLAMATH, Calif. — Abby Abinanti squints at her docket. “The court is going to call — the court is going to put on its glasses,” she says dryly, reaching to grab her readers and snatch some candy from a staff member.

As chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court, Abinanti wears no robe. On this day, she’s in jeans and cowboy boots, her silver hair spilling down the back of a black down vest.

In contrast to her longtime role as a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, she doesn’t perch above those who come before her; she shares a table with them.

“Hi, big guy. How are you doing?” she softly prods a 29-year-old participant in her wellness court, which offers a healing path for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse.

Abinanti has watched Troy Fletcher Jr. battle bipolar disorder and methamphetamine addiction, land in jail and embrace recovery under the tribe’s guidance. She’s known his grandmother since before he was born.

Though that would be cause for recusal in the state system, here it’s pretty much the point. Her most common question for court newcomers: “Who’s your mom?”

“Here we have a village society,” Abinanti says of California’s largest tribe, “and the people who help you to resolve your problems are the people you know.”

Native American jurisprudence has evolved since tribes began to regain their sovereignty, returning to traditional values of respect, community support and responsibility, and collective healing — for victims, perpetrators and the circle of lives they touch.

Abinanti, who in 1974 became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California, has been at the forefront.

“When you’re looking to heal, you look wherever you can to find medicine, and one of those places is in the culture and practices of the community,” says retired Utah appellate court Judge William A. Thorne Jr., a Pomo-Coast Miwok who teamed with Abinanti in the 1980s to train tribal court personnel nationwide.

At 66, Abinanti has returned to her home on sacred Requa Hill above the fog-wisped mouth of the Klamath River. (Though she tried to retire from the San Francisco bench in 2011, she was recently asked to return every other week, so she commutes.)

“What happened is we lost touch with our responsibilities,” Abinanti says. “You take responsibility for what you did. ... And if you can ask for help, I’m willing to give you a hand. I won’t ever say you’ve used up your chances.”

“Sickness of this land”

Abinanti speaks often of “historical trauma” — wounds passed wordlessly through generations with an accumulating grief and the urge to salve it with alcohol and drugs. It is what Yurok tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke calls “the sickness of this land.”

Her family had its share. Her maternal grandfather, Marion Rube, was described in news accounts as among “the notorious criminals of early California.” Captured after a 1922 bank heist, he escaped six years later from a San Quentin prison road camp and was shot to death in southern Oregon.

Ostracized, his wife and three daughters fled their village. The girls were shipped off to government-run boarding school. Sorrow shadowed them; harsh deaths claimed them. One, intoxicated, froze in a snow bank; another, newly sober, caught on fire after backing into a heater. Abinanti’s mother, who struggled with alcohol, depression and forced electroshock treatments, died while detoxing.

Her history, rarely shared, informs Abinanti’s compassion. “It’s painful to be a drunk, to not meet your promises, to not look your kids in the eye,” she says. “To disrespect them on top of that doesn’t do any good.”

Interest sparked

Abinanti was studying journalism at Humboldt State University when she saw a flier for a program for Native American students at the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Thorne met her in 1975 when he was interning at the Ukiah office of California Indian Legal Assistance. Just two years out of law school, she was the group’s board president.

“In walked this powerful Indian woman,” Thorne recalls. “She was this image of what I could seek to become, an Indian person who was a force to be reckoned with and yet just very kind.”

Appointed to the San Francisco bench two decades ago, she has specialized in family court and juvenile dependency. She has also served as a judge or magistrate for four other Western tribes.

She first came home to Yurok country in 1978 to set up the tribe’s fishing court, then again in 1993 when the tribe earned federal recognition. The Yurok Tribal Court was launched three years later, and in 2007 she became its chief judge.

Among her innovations: the first tribal-run program in the nation to help members expunge their criminal records; and California’s first tribal child-support program, which allows for noncash alternatives to support payments — such as donations of fish or manual labor.

Yet her greatest impact has arguably come through wellness court. Some participants seek out the program on their own in the course of recovery; others, like Fletcher, come through a rare partnership with the state criminal justice system: Abinanti’s decades on the bench have earned her crucial credibility with judges, prosecutors and probation officials, allowing her staff to pull tribal members out of criminal court and bring them home.

Fletcher was facing an arson charge for burning brush when a tribal court attorney secured his release from a Eureka jail cell in a pretrial diversion agreement and brought him into Abinanti’s program. He is now stable on psychiatric medication, off meth and in a sober-living home.

“I used to be afraid to go into court, afraid that they were going to take something from me,” Fletcher says outside tribal headquarters, his large hands working a rope into a monkey’s fist. “Here, they’re trying to give something back.

“I’ve got the whole tribe behind me,” he adds. “When I have to answer to my people, it makes me want to do better.”



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