The Christian Science Monitor

Native justice: How tribal values shape Judge Abby’s court

The mouth of the Klamath River – the spiritual heart of Yurok country – can be hard to find. 

Surrounded by mountains, cloaked in coastal redwoods, and emptying into the Pacific Ocean, the river is often obscured in fog. Only the salmon and the Roosevelt elk seem to have no trouble finding the Klamath.

Winter is the rainy season, but this morning is different. An early February storm has fought through the salty air and blanketed the famous towering conifers and steep, winding roads with a beautiful but treacherous layer of snow and ice.

Ira Thompson is here for his court date anyway, having made the 30-minute drive south from Crescent City. He grew up here, and when he got in serious trouble for the first time – a third DUI and a possible four months in jail – he knew he needed to come home. His court-appointed lawyer, he says, “wasn’t doing much.” Jail would mean missing Christmas and birthday parties with his two daughters, and probably losing his job. So he reached out to the Yurok Tribal Court. He reached out to Abby Abinanti.

The tribal court is not your average court. Everyone, including Judge Abinanti, sits at eye level. When pushed together, the court tables complete a carving of the Klamath River. 

As Mr. Thompson enters, the air tastes of musky angelica root (burned by a paralegal minutes earlier to cleanse the room of pain, anxiety, and other negative energy).  

Judge Abby, as everyone calls her, is not your average judge. She sits at a table across from Mr. Thompson wearing her typical court attire: gray jeans and a crimson turtleneck. Her obsidian nail polish matches her black cardigan and cowboy boots. A necklace of dentalium shells, as white as her long hair, hangs around her neck.

“How are things going?” she asks him.

“Staying home,” he replies. 

Mr. Thompson

Personal responsibility and renewal‘An Indian can’t be a lawyer’‘They never, ever talked about it’‘There’s got to be truth and there’s got to be forgiveness’

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