Indigenous justice | USA

“These days, we have very few trials”

Judge Abby Abinanti worked for decades in both U.S. state courts and the Yurok Tribal Court. She says many lessons can be learnt from her community’s close-knit approach to justice
A slightly older woman sits at a desk with folded hands, behind her two flags are vaguely visible. She has long white hair, wears silver earrings and a gray sweater with an overcoat. She looks directly into the camera.

Judge Abby Abinanti is a member of the Yurok, an indigenous community in Northern California, and has worked for Californian state courts for many years

Judge Abinanti, you are a member of the Yurok people in Northern California. What shapes your work as judge and lawyer when working within your own community? What values are important in tackling problems?

Over the years, Yurok practices have changed, but our core values shouldn’t. That’s what divides us and non-Native cultures in the United States: we have a different value system that informs our practices. But over the years our community has developed some very bad habits, like drinking, drugs and violence. These are our responsibility to correct, regardless of where they come from - and the long history of state domination.

When things aren’t working out we maintain close dealings with our people. For example, take when parents aren’t taking good care of their children: In our indigenous system, we react by continuously mentoring the parents, meeting every two weeks so we can help them fix problems so they can focus on their parenting. The mainstream system is more remote - only meeting with troubled families once every six months.

“It’s their job to improve, but we help facilitate that”

How exactly do you work directly with individuals that break the law?

First, we help deal with practical issues, like finding work or housing. This means taking people to parenting classes; helping them learn to read if they want to. The Yurok tribe is located in northwestern California which is rural with poor transport links. This brings problems, for example, when a someone manages to get a job, but are told to attend obligatory drug tests that are far away and during work hours.

Going there would likely cost them their job, leaving them and their family with no income. We find a simple solution, like sending someone to their house to administer a drug test after work. Our involvement is constant, helping fix whatever needs fixing. It’s their job to improve, but we help facilitate that.

So you are deeply involved in people’s lives?

Our advocates are taught to behave like aunts and uncles in how they deal with people who need help. Yuroks really respond to this approach – after all, it has a long cultural history: this is how we’ve done things for thousands of years.

Did this way of working clash with the values and traditions you encountered when you worked as a California state judge?

Yes. Take the whole idea of "stranger justice" which means you can’t deal with a case if you know the individual involved. Our community doesn’t have that barrier. At first, people said I couldn’t be the judge if I already knew the person or family. I replied that we Yuroks all know each other. We grew up on the same river and we have lived together for thousands of years. We often have spats but we can’t find a stranger to resolve them because there simply aren’t any strangers. My colleagues went quiet and, after that, I was allowed to work with people from my community.

“When things aren’t working out we maintain close dealings with our people”

And how did people from the Yurok group respond to having a native lawyer?

People came in and there’d be arraignments - the formal criminal charging in the presence of the defendant - and I would ask them if they wanted a trial or would rather talk to me. They mostly chose to talk to me, which came more easily to them because of our traditions. They come in to explain the situation to me and together we reach a resolution on how to fix it. These days, we have very few trials.

Once, when I was practicing as a state court lawyer, a fellow lawyer asked the judge: “How come you always release her clients without bail?” The judge replied: “If they don’t come in, she’ll drag them here.” And it’s true! If a Yurok is on the run, I know where to find him: he’s either at his auntie’s or his grandma’s. I collect them - and they’re more afraid of me than they are of the police.

“You don’t want a system that only gets active when you’re in trouble”

And do you think criminality has its roots in a waning sense of community?

Problems in families occur when there’s a lack of outside help. Without support, people feel like they’re failing. And you don’t want a system that only gets active when you’re in trouble. As a group we must keep our eyes open: There are new threats all the time. When I heard about Fentanyl - (a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine) - I trained our personnel to deal with it. We were one of the few tribes that did. It is still a problem, but at least we were ready to respond and help our people.

Is state justice taking note of how the Yurok’s Tribal Court works?

Yes we’ve seen an upsurge of interest with people coming from around the country to see how our Yurok court operates. We’ve had visitors from other tribal courts, foreign countries and national state courts. We have pilot projects to help the state set up different programs, for instance, a Family Wellness court which supports families and children.

We’re going to start a Parent Partner Program which helps people navigate the system and break bad habits. It introduces the idea of becoming their friend and basically behaving like extended family would. People copy this format because it works. Now they’ve set up a tribal state court forum, where indigenous justice and state courts share ideas.

In California, we now share jurisdiction so we’re partners. I always remind the state court judges: Every time Judge Abby deals with a case, it means you don’t have to!

Interview: Jess Smee