Tribal Justice (Makepeace, 2017)

Tribal Justice is a documentary following two judges who reside in California in Native communities and how they’re working to help their tribe members. Abby, who is from the Northern California tribe Yurok is very reserved. She’s an elder in the tribe who had previously worked in the state courts where she was told “You can’t be a lawyer you’re an Indian.” Abby graduated from law school when Claudette was born. Claudette is a judge who resides in the Quechan tribe and she looks up to Abby as a role model. She opens her home and her life to the film. Abby and Claudette work with community members who have had run-ins with local and state law, some of whom have been in and out of the system since they were children.

Tribal Justice subtly informs its audience on how the state system fails many individuals, Native in particular, who happen to come through it. It focuses on the symptoms rather than focusing on the root cause of the problem. The tribal courts work with the state system to gain custody of tribal members and work with their members to find a solution. Abby and Claudette work to know their charges, some of whom come from a childhood where their parents were alcoholics and drug users or who beat them, some of whom grew up in group homes, some of whom experienced both. They work to understand the needs of the individuals as well as the challenges that they face. No person is the same, though state courts tend to treat individuals that way. In addition to the two judges, Tribal Justice, follows Taos in the Yurok Indian Reservation and Isaac and Dru (and Dru’s parents) in the Fort Yuma-Quechan Reservation.

What is particularly encouraging while watching these stories unfold is the way in which humanity, personality, and individuality is brought to those deemed “criminals” by society. It’s very easy to demonize and dehumanize those who commit crimes and I commend Anne Makepeace for following the compassion the judges exhibit and treating the subjects with the care and respect they deserve. This documentary suggests that we should focus on the causes and treat the individuals rather than just locking them up. And perhaps treating individuals leads to higher rehabilitation rates as well as lower incarceration rates.