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‘American Analysis’: A Tribal Courtroom in California Works to Heal Household Separation



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Episode 8: “Tribal Values, Tribal Justice”

Abby Abinanti is chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court and a member of the tribe. 

While previously working in the California court system, she was discouraged and angered by the number of cases in which Indigenous families were separated or tribal members were removed from their communities because of nontribal foster care placements or incarceration. The Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy organization, found that Native people are overrepresented in jails in the United States.

A digital illustration in watercolor and pencil. Judge Abby Abinanti is in the center of the image, painted in warm gold tones with highlights of teal and pink. Behind her, in a centered circle, is a pattern which represents the Yurok Tribe. A pair of Scales of Justice hang at each of her sides.
(Oona Tempest / KHN)

Abinanti said the Yurok Tribal Court is helping to address these disparities. The court is one of roughly 400 operated by federally recognized tribes in the United States. These courts reflect the values of their communities, and Abinanti said for the Yurok that means prioritizing restoration over punishment.

“I don’t think any human being is disposable,” she said. “Our system is designed to help you return to the community and be an asset in the community.” 

Episode 8 explores the intergenerational impact of historical traumas on the Yurok people and a local tribal court’s work to meet community needs.

Voices from the episode:

  • Abby Abinanti, chief judge, Yurok Tribal Court
  • Ursula Running Bear, assistant professor of public health at the University of North Dakota
  • Blythe George, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California-Merced

Season 4 of “American Diagnosis” is a co-production of KHN and Just Human Productions.

Our Editorial Advisory Board includes Jourdan Bennett-BegayeAlastair Bitsóí, and Bryan Pollard.

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