Natasha Brennan
Special to Indian Country Today

Fort Yuma Quechan Tribal Council member and former San Manuel Band of Mission Indians judge Claudette White died last Friday due to complications from COVID-19. She was 49.

White is survived by her son, Zion, and siblings Mary Brown, Joseph Cachora, Caine Palone, Dureena White, Lorie White and Roxanna White.

“She touched a lot of lives on and outside of our reservation and was a symbol for love and light everywhere,” Palone said.

White was a pioneer for restorative justice and gained international attention for her part in the award-winning PBS documentary, “Tribal Justice.”

“Judge White was instrumental in working with numerous tribal nations to advance tribal court system structures,” National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp wrote in a letter. “Councilwoman White inspired change for American Indian and Alaska Native People and their communities. Her legacy will live on and she will be remembered for her tireless work in laying the groundwork for our future generations,”

White was sworn into the Quechan Tribal Council in January.

“Her education and creativeness inspired a level of encouragement for the Quechan Tribe and many others. Claudette will be missed by many; her brilliance will not be overlooked,” University of Southern California Director of Native American Students Karras Wilson, Quechan/Cocopah, said.

On Jan. 16, White and the Quechan Tribe’s Lightening Singers kicked off President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ virtual inauguration event with a song.

Claudette White and the Lightening Singers from Quechan Tribe open the five-day inauguration events with a song. (Screenshot)

“She loved to share the arts, culture and music. She was one of the greatest minds the Quechan had,” Zion White said. “Her love for our culture – how she always pushed me to use my mind, just do it and not limit myself – is why I’m studying archaeology.”

In 1995, while in the last year of her bachelor’s in criminal justice program at Northern Arizona University, White was elected for her first term on her tribe’s council, becoming their youngest elected leader at 23. She later went on to manage the tribe’s casino operation.

“We mourn the loss of this great leader and pray for her family and loved ones,” Quechan Tribal Council President Jordan D. Joaquin wrote in a statement this week. “She demonstrated true love for her family and unwavering dedication to her community. We stand together in strength and love for the family, our community, and many other tribes and families battling the challenges and losses faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We pay tribute to White's legacy and longstanding heart of service as we recognize her work, love and support for our tribe and indigenous people all over the land."

White completed her juris doctorate with a specialization in federal Indian law from the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in 2005. That year, White started All Nations Legal Advocacy, which provides legal advice for individuals in tribal court.

Claudette White at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University (photo courtesy of the White family).

The next year, she began her 11-year tenure as the Quechan Tribe’s chief judge, the first member of the tribe to hold the position. In 2018, she became the chief judge for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and served two years.

“Judge White was a tremendous resource for the San Manuel Tribal Court and a noted authority on Native American jurisprudence covering a career that unfortunately ended much too soon,” the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians announced in a statement.

White’s life-long passion for Native American issues began in elementary school. Inspired by the book, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” she refused to celebrate Columbus Day at school and got in trouble, her family shared.

“We stand as giants on the shoulders of our tribes and ancestors who have paved the way for us to be here,” White said at an event last year. “Less than 10 percent of our people survived early US federal policy. But from that small remaining number, here we are today, existing as Indigenous people, thriving and excelling, just as our ancestors had intended,”

White dedicated much of her life to criminal justice reform in tribal courts, spearheading programs that used traditional concepts of justice to reduce incarceration rates. The program, known as “restorative justice,” gained recognition by the mainstream courts and was documented in the PBS film, winning Best Documentary Feature at the American Indian Film Festival in 2017.

After a member of her family went missing, White used her platform to advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and people.

“She really cared about her people,” her son said.

White advocated for education as a means to not only help one’s self rise, but also family and tribal community. She was invited as the keynote speaker at the University of Southern California and Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative’s Sixth Annual College Exploration Day in February 2020.

“If I became the first from my family to go to school, dealing with the impacts of the negative issues we all have in our tribal communities, so can you. While many tribal people struggle with collective traumas, both personal and historical, we are also resilient,” White told the USC crowd.

Claudette White talks about her experience and path to higher education at the University of Southern California and Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative’s Sixth Annual College Exploration Day in February 2020 (Photo by Natasha Brennan).

White and her siblings were raised by their mother, Delores Brown, and White worked from an early age as she attended school on her reservation. Her hard work paid off in scholarships for college.

“Recently, scientists said that Indigenous people are born with trauma in their DNA. But we are also born with the blood of warriors, fighters, healers and amazing ancestors that survived every effort at termination,” White said at the event. “Let that be a prevailing thought when you think about the blood that flows within you and the power and strength you have to meet every challenge that you face. Especially in education, because that path will not be easy.”

While in law school, White, a single mother, moved to Phoenix with her son and sister Dureena. On top of attending classes and studying, she supported her family working full-time. The sisters sold food and baked goods to make ends meet.

“She did what she could, worked hard, studied at night and rarely slept,” her sister said. “The love that she had for Zion was beautiful to watch. She did everything she could to give him all the opportunities to broaden his horizons and expand his knowledge.”

White contracted the coronavirus late last month while caring for her son, a severe asthmatic whose life was threatened by the disease. White suffered from asthma. She succumbed to the disease after a short battle on Feb. 5.

“She lived for Zion, he was her life. And in the end she was all he worried about,” Dureena White said. “He is her legacy and her blood runs through him. Even though she’s gone, she’s living on and that’ll never end.”

Claudette White and her son, Zion, who she affectionately called “Sonnyboy” (photo courtesy of Zion White).

Years ago, when her son’s asthma became incredibly severe, White took him all over for treatments, a testament to her love for him, the family said.

While juggling law school and parenthood, White worked at a group home for girls and became attached to them, inspiring her passion for helping children and families affected by the Indian Child Welfare Act.

“A lot of people in the community looked up to her as a mother,” Zion White said.

Taking care of the future generations was important to her, but so was her “commitment to culture and community,” the Quechan Tribal Council president said.

She raised her son to embrace their tribe’s traditions and enjoyed dancing and praying as he sang traditional songs for her. The pair has traveled to Washington, D.C. and the Word Trade Center in New York City to perform and speak.

White has had a lasting impact in preserving her tribe’s culture and traditions, inspiring the Native American community and influencing the nation’s criminal justice system.

“As we rise to the sunrise with blessing of being here among the many leaders, elders in Indian Country, we are taught that life brings us gifts from those that sacrificed their lives. Providing their beliefs by following tribal traditions. Beliefs that are part of who we are, to give for the future of Indian people. Setting examples for the Indian youth, with honor and dignity. We lost one of those great leaders, Claudette White from the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe,” Wilson said.

In honor of her belief in the power of education, White’s family is working to create a memorial scholarship fund at the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law.

A viewing will be held in Yuma, Arizona on Saturday and traditional services will take place at the Quechan Bighouse in Winterhaven, Calif. on Sunday. Condolences and cards may be sent to the family of Claudette White, care of Dureena White, at 5045 W. Baseline Road, A105, #277, Laveen, AZ 85339.

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Natasha Brennan, Cahuilla, is a journalist and photographer from Southern California covering the surrounding Native communities. Follow her on Twitter, @Natasha_Marie_B, or Instagram, @Natasha_Marie_B.

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