The casino will be the only one of its kind in the Redwood National and State Parks system. It’s part of the tribe’s $25 million campaign to boost the local economy — other projects include a visitor center and amphitheater across the street from the gaming facility and a village that will showcase traditional culture.
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.
Now, 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.”
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 press 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.”
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 non-cash 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 pre-trial 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.”
Abinanti never swears in witnesses, explaining: “If you’re Yurok and you lie, that’s on you.”
On this day, her general court is in session, arranging restitution for various infractions. Participants can demand a trial, but most tend to tell Abinanti what they did. Then they talk about how to best “settle up.”
So it goes with Taos Proctor, 32. Towering and broad-chested, with full-sleeve tattoos, he sits across from Abinanti, looking unhappy. His violation: fishing after the season had closed.
Of 73 fish seized, she orders that 53 be donated to a program for elders. The rest, which belonged to a relative of Proctor’s, will be returned to him to give back to the rightful owner.
Proctor is also a wellness court client. Though Abinanti pokes him harshly with a long finger during a court break and quips to a visitor that he has “the manners of a stump,” she is fiercely proud of him.
Pulled into the meth life, he was committed to a county boys’ ranch at 16. Next came the California Youth Authority and prison. Released at 25, he bounced in and out of jail before he found himself facing a third strike.
The charge turned out to be unsubstantiated, and with help from the tribal court’s criminal attorney, he pleaded to a lesser count. It marked the first time Del Norte County Superior Court Judge William H. Follett agreed to hand a felony case to wellness court as a condition of probation.
“I know I can trust her,” Follett says of Abinanti. “If people are continuing to not do their program or to do drugs, she’ll know to send them back…. She’s taught me that there’s another way of doing things.”
Proctor became a fish buyer, took a job felling trees and, at Abinanti’s insistence that he give back, hosts a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He has been off meth for 15 months.
“Judge Abby knows me. She works with me,” he says. “I’ve still got a lot of issues that I’m working on, but I don’t have to hide them anymore.”
Court staff members are pulling for him. “I don’t want to let them down,” Proctor says. “I want to help my community because for so long, I didn’t.”
Abinanti also presses participants to remember — or discover — what it means to be Yurok. It’s a journey the tribe is taking collectively, as the language and ancient dances are revived.
On a recent day, she asks one man who has been drumming and stoking the fire at sweat lodge ceremonies if he’d listened to the CDs of Yurok songs she had compiled for him.
“I’d like you to hear ’em,” she tells him. “I think that would help.”
Abinanti could use a rest. Next to her armchair is a stack of books she longs to devour. But important work remains.
Of more than 5,000 Yurok tribal members, only a handful are bar-certified attorneys; and of the attorneys working for the tribal court, Abinanti is the only Yurok.
The tribal council recently approved a pilot project that Abinanti brokered with online Concord Law School- Kaplan University. Under the agreement, 10 tribal members will enroll by September, receiving tailored supervision to help them pass the bar exam. Four began last month. In return for tuition, which Abinanti must now raise from donors, participants agree to continue working for the tribe for five years once they pass the bar.
“I don’t want to be diverted,” she says. “I want to do what needs to be done at home that right now only I can do. If I do a good job, then that won’t be true anymore…. I’m here. I need people behind me.”
She knows, after all, that she won’t be around forever.
Last summer, Abinanti established a family burial ground on her Requa Hill property, and after more than four painful decades brought her mother’s remains home.
One day Abinanti will be buried next to her, and she hopes the resting place — filled with the music of the Pacific — ends the suffering of her maternal family line.
To aid in the Yurok Tribe’s climate change research on Klamath River wetlands, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the tribe part of a $1.5 million grant this week.
Environmental protection specialist Suzanne Marr — who previously ran the agency’s wetlands program — said the Yurok Tribe’s application came complete with successful research.
”It’s a very competitive program, and not easy to get funded,” Marr said. “The Yurok Tribe has a strong program, and has competed very well over the years.”
Wetlands specialist Bill Patterson of the tribe’s environmental program said the $135,000 award is the fourth two-year grant the tribe has received from the EPA program. Each grant, Patterson said, has funded a variety of wetlands research projects spanning nearly eight years and different regions of the Klamath River.
”What we’re trying to do is expand on the previous data that we’ve had that includes an inventory baseline of wetlands species and water quality parameters,” Patterson said. “This cycle we’re looking at specific species that may be threatened in the face of climate change impacts, in particular sea level rise.”
The research project will collect baseline data on the wildlife and conditions of coastal estuaries near the lower Klamath River, which Patterson said can be useful for future research.
”The inventories are very useful in that they’re snapshots in time,” Patterson said. “For something like sea level rise, if the estuary is going to be 6 feet underwater in 25 years, you can look back at how it was impacting them in 2014.”
Patterson said that while past research with the tribe’s fisheries program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has focused on mapping, water quality and restoration efforts in both upper and lower regions of the Klamath, efforts to analyze sea level rise are critical due to its substantial effects on coastal estuaries.
”If you want to talk about the future of climate change, what you’re potentially going to see with sea level rise is increased salinity,” Patterson said. “The saltwater levels rise, and that can significantly change the plant community and the species that rely on that community.”
With wetlands disappearing at an alarming rate, Patterson emphasized the importance of assessing the local wildlife that rely heavily upon the fragile ecosystem.
”It’s a really rare habitat, because it’s in a coastal climate, and is significant to a lot of species,” Patterson said. “People often overlook these areas.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s current wetlands program coordinator Leana Rosetti said it is important to help tribes and local governments protect and improve their wetland programs. The application period for next year’s grants are still open, she said.
”We encourage folks to develop plans to compete for grants to fund their own wetlands program,” Rosetti said. “The more applicants, the better.”
FRESNO, CALIFORNIA – On August 22, the Yurok Tribe received some excellent news. A federal court judge acknowledged the biological importance of supplemental water flows for Klamath River salmon. This was a far-reaching legal case between the Bureau of Reclamation, the Yurok tribe, as well as other tribes in the region against central California industrial agriculture.
Yurok tribal members Pete Thompson and Bob Ray cast a drift net into the Klamath River on the Yurok Reservation.
The Yurok Tribe of Klamath, California is the largest federally recognized tribe in California and is the single largest harvester of Klamath River salmon.
The Yurok reservation spans one mile on both sides of the Klamath River for 44 miles. The tribe requested 2,800 cubic feet per second of water flow to be released. This is the same rate of water flow per second that the Yurok fisheries experts defended in their scientific case in a Fresno, California courtroom. Originally the Bureau of Reclamation (at the Yurok tribe’s request) made additional water available in order to avert another fish kill. In 2002 a large fish kill occurred on the Yurok reservation in river conditions eerily similar to this year’s.
Above, Salmon is cooked in a traditional Yurok way. At least 272,000 Fall-run salmon are expected to return to the river.
“In 2002 more than 33,000 Chinook and Coho salmon died before reaching spawning grounds. It was heartbreaking to see the fish floating upside down on the river by the thousands. We learned from that tragedy. This year, when the water temperature was so high, and we knew we were expecting the 2nd or 3rd highest volume of returning salmon predicted in decades, we asked the Department of the Interior to increase water flow. But then the injunction was filed by agribusiness to stop it,”
said Yurok tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke, Sr.
In early August, Westlands Water District and San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority, which represent a large portion of California’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry, filed suit to stop the water flow from being released.
The Yurok tribe presented key science testimony to the court by two witnesses, Senior Fisheries Biologist Michael Belchik and Dr. Joshua Strange.
“Yurok science of the Klamath River basin is renowned not only in this nation, but abroad. This a western science that allows us to substantiate our claims,”
said Chairman O’Rourke, Sr.
At least 272,000 Fall-run salmon are expected to return to the river this year, almost 1.7 times the number that returned in 2002.
There is also a contingency plan in place. At the first sign that the salmon look diseased or distressed, the tribe will seek to have flows doubled for up to seven days. They will not allow the combination of low, warm river water and inadequate water flows to jeopardize the salmon.
“There is knowledge passed down from our ancestors to take care of our resources so that they will take care of us. We must ensure its continuance for future generations to come. The river is our lifeline,”