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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 7:47 pm | Fair 53º


Tribal Justice Documentary Much More than Courtroom Drama

In its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Tribal Justice follows two extraordinary Native American women, both chief judges for their tribes’ courts: Abby Abinanti is chief judge of the Yurok Tribe on California’s northwest coast, and Claudette White is chief judge of the Quechan Tribe in the southeastern desert near Yuma, Ariz.

Both are creating innovative justice systems that focus on restoring rather than punishing offenders in order to keep tribal members out of prison, prevent children from being taken from their communities, and stop the school-to-prison pipeline that plagues their young people.

Four years in the making, Anne Makepeace’s Tribal Justice will be shown at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, at the Lobero Theater, 33 E. Canon Perdido St. The second screening is at 11:40 a.m. Monday, Feb. 6, at Metro Four Theatre, 618 State St.

This is Makepeace’s fifth film to screen at SBIFF. Both Judges Abinanti and White will be at the Feb. 5 premiere. Makepeace will be returning to her hometown of Santa Barbara for both screenings.

Restorative justice has become a buzzword in mainstream legal circles, with many in the field advocating a shift from our punitive justice system to one addressing root problems. Throughout history, Native American tribes have been doing this, resolving disputes by finding ways for offenders to right wrongs and restore balance to the community.

Mainstream courts are looking to Native American models to reform their own legal systems, as can be seen in Collaborative Courts across the country and in Santa Barbara’s own Veterans Treatment Court in Santa Barbara County. As Abinanti remarks in the film: “There’s a winner and loser when you walk out of state court, straight up. That isn’t okay here. It does not resolve the issue.”

Abinanti and White are reaching back to these methods to address the myriad problems on their reservations today — poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, the breakdown of families, loss of cultural connection — and to heal their communities from within, one case at a time. They are having a high percentage of success, as exemplified in two of the cases profiled in Tribal Justice.

To many Americans, indigenous people in the U.S. are invisible, an overlooked minority seen as having vanished into history or stereotyped as venal casino owners or drunken derelicts. Few people are aware of the complexities of contemporary Indian life, or of the innovative work being done in tribal courts.

By showing two strong Native women judges creating new forms of justice based on their traditions, Makepeace hopes her documentary will inspire indigenous communities everywhere with renewed determination to provide culturally appropriate forms of justice to their people.

She also hopes mainstream courts, law schools, and other law-related organizations will see the potential for their own practices to shift away from process and punishment oriented methods to more personal, humane, and effective ways of dealing with offenders.

As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has written, the innovative methods of tribal courts “have much to offer to the tribal communities, and much to teach the other court systems operating in the United States.”

Makepeace met the judges in 2013, when she attended a California Tribal Court-State Court Forum meeting with Executive Producer Ruth Cowan. They were both moved by the judges’ dedication, passion, humor and determination to bring traditional forms of justice back to their people.

A few months later, Makepeace and her cinematographer Barney Broomfield were shooting in the judges’ courtrooms and in their lives, a process that continued over the next three years. The documentary was completed just a few weeks ago. It will air on PBS’s documentary series POV late in 2017.

Tribal Justice was funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, Vision Maker Media, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and private foundations and individuals.

— Maureen McFadden for Santa Barbara International Film Festival.


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