By Richard Ross
I offer condolences this Thanksgiving—sending a note to the chief judge of the Yurok tribe. The Yuroks are the largest tribe in California. 6500 people whose traditional lands are along the Klamath River. Many of the Yurok have no running water nor electricity. Roadside deer are not road kill, rather they are “harvest.” These are people who have survived by being invisible and hiding from the devastation of whites, but it may not serve them well moving forward.
I visited the week prior, meeting families in a half dozen homes. There was a common thread… rather a common frayed thread. While there was a certain guilelessness about the households—when I would enter a house, no one objected, welcomed, or even really noticed. People and animals walked in and out at will. If you were in the house, you were supposed to be there, among the multiple generations who shared space. Rooms were often chaotic with grocery bags, popcorn, and clothes stacked in corners. Pots on the stove, dishes in the sink, and garbage overflowing.
In my conversation with Judge Abby Abinanti, with as much deference as I could summon and a true sense of curiosity, I asked about this common scene.
“First my people were massacred, then we were enslaved—it was an indentured servant program—but it was slavery, then our children were taken away to mission schools. The links of some families were broken at many instances and at many levels. This is not something you can go in and repair in a blunt manner. It takes time. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time. We are a strong people, united by culture, dance, singing. We can do it, but it will take time. We are not filthy. We are a River people. We bathed regularly. It was the Whites that were filthy, who came and did not have bathing as a common practice. They came and took the fish, the logging and gold. The only way we could survive was to fade into the land. This is a difficult time for us but we will survive. These links were broken as each person was removed from a chain and it will only be repaired one person at a time...We can do it, but it will take time."—Judge Abinanti
Driving across the Yurok nation from Eureka to Crescent City and beyond to the north, the 101 becomes a two lane tunnel encapsulated by the towering redwoods and punctuated with roadside elk. This is a different country. Counter point to the natural beauty are the marks of poverty, with ramshackle housing competing with newer structures built by the Tribe. Financially, the Yurok depend upon governmental support and grant writing. Tribal court officers explain that Native Americans have the highest degree of truancy of any demographic in California. “If you can’t get kids into their seats in class, you can’t teach them.” The one school on the western end of the reservation, Margaret Keating School, is limited to kids in K-6. Older students are bussed to Crescent City. In keeping with tribal custom, there is a dance circle and a sweat lodge on campus.”
The industry on the reservation is the reservation itself. There is little outside employment beyond working for the Tribe. The Tribe repairs and builds new housing and maintains a small casino next to the Holiday Inn Express in Klamath. It’s right across the street from the Klamath Country Club, which is a dark bar, pool table and grill, which closes at 7:30 every night. Smoking is allowed, a true anomaly. Meth and alcohol use are pervasive. They become part of a life that has kids and adults embroiled in the legal system. California is one of 9 states that is subject to a federal law which transfers enforcement of certain federal laws to state law enforcement agencies. In many cases, this means the involvement of the state in handling enforcement and adjudication, where tribal law can often resolve cases alone. In the context of juvenile justice, rather than implementing tribal/restorative justice—which the Yurok prefer for their youth—the kids are brought into detention in a county facility, where they are disproportionately represented among the youth there. According to the judge, “We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives. The idea of justice by strangers is foreign to us. It is hurtful. We want Yurok justice that helps the child, the family, the community.
"We believe in having everyone in the room, and trying to come to a solution. I know every one of the families of this Tribe, and each person is important, they are not numbers they are relatives."—Judge Abinanti"
In correspondence with Judge Abinanti, she graciously responded to my query with the words “May we all go forward together in respect and peace… to live in community, responsible for each and all.” A wonderful thought for the day, season and a way of life.