PBS Documentary on Native American Tribal Justice
Tribal Justice spotlights Abby Abinanti and Claudette White, chief judges in tribal courts that incorporate indigenous beliefs into their justice systems.
A new PBS Documentary on POV titled Tribal Justice that spotlights tribal courts that incorporate indigenous customs and beliefs into their justice systems and the families that are affected. The documentary, directed by Anne Makepeace, follows Abby Abinanti and Claudette White, chief judges in two of the more than 300 tribal courts across the country, as they navigate cross-jurisdictional issues in their courts and communities.
Tribal Justice has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on Monday, August 21, 2017. POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season.
White is the chief judge of the Quechan Tribal Court in the Southern California desert. She says the affiliated tribe has been “vastly diminished,” but never removed from its homeland. “We have a lot of social ills in our community based on our location and the limitation to services,” she says in a PBS press release. “In my capacity as chief judge, what I’m fighting for is our people, our independence, our sovereignty, our existence.”
White and Abinanti are focused on restoring their communities rather than punishing offenders and they share the goal of increasing safety and decreasing incarceration.
Both judges enlist cultural pathways to justice for families dealing with historical trauma and intergenerational addiction.
“You guys could be leaders in our community or you could help destroy our community,” White tells two teenage boys in her court.
Abinanti remarks, “I have responsibility to one set of people—6,000 Yuroks and their families. And that’s what I’m responsible for: for that and for this land.”
In the documentary, viewers meet Taos Proctor, a large and gregarious young man facing a third-strike conviction and 25 years to life in prison. Over two years, the film follows Abinanti and her staff as they take on Proctor’s case and help him to complete court programs and rebuild his life.
Additionally, White invokes the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 to reunite an autistic and epileptic 9-year-old boy with his family. She also takes on a more personal case when she becomes the legal guardian to her troubled teenage nephew, Isaac Palone.
Director Anne Makepeace says in the release that she was immediately moved by the two judges upon meeting them in 2013 and felt that audiences needed to know about their work. “I realized the film would educate a broad audience about something few Americans know about—tribal courts—and that it could have a tremendous positive impact on our criminal justice system.”
“Tribal Justice challenges viewers to reexamine the current definition of justice in America,” says POV executive producer Justine Nagan in the release. “Through the often personal experiences of two powerful women striving to elevate their people through the tribal court process, Anne Makepeace gives us the opportunity to watch a rarely seen justice system effectively at work.”
About the Filmmaker: Anne Makepeace, Director, Producer
Anne Makepeace has been a writer, producer and director of award-winning independent films for more than three decades. Her previous documentary, We Still Live Here, about the return of the Wampanoag language, had its broadcast premiere on the PBS series Independent Lens.