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Tribal Justice

Documents an effective criminal justice reform movement in America: the efforts of tribal courts to return to traditional, community-healing concepts of justice.

A printer-friendly version of this page 87 minutes
SDH Captioned>>

Directed by Anne Makepeace
Executive Producer: Ruth Cowan
Production Consultant: Jennifer Walter
Cinematographer: Barney Broomfield
Editor: Russell Greene
Composer: Chris Ruggiero
Co-Producers: Daniel Golding (Quechan) and Lori Nesbit (Yurok)
A co-production of Anne Makepeace Productions, Inc., American Documentary|POV and Vision Maker Media with major funding provided by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting

"Highlights the potentially redemptive force of restorative justice in tribal communities. It's not to be missed." Angela R. Riley, Dir, Native Nations Law and Policy Center, UCLA
TRIBAL JUSTICE is a feature documentary about a little known, underreported but effective criminal justice reform movement in America today: the efforts of tribal courts to create alternative justice systems based on their traditions. In California, the state with the largest number of Indian people and tribes, two formidable Native American women are among those leading the way. Abby Abinanti, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe on the northwest coast, and Claudette White, Chief Judge of the Quechan Tribe in the southeastern desert, are creating innovative 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.

Abby Abinanti is a fierce, lean, elder. Claudette White is younger, and her courtroom style is more conventional in form; but like Abby, her goal is to provide culturally relevant justice to the people who come before her. Observational footage of these judges' lives and work provides the backbone of the documentary, while the heart of the film follows offenders as their stories unfold over time, in and out of court. These other stories unfold over time, engaging viewers with the dedication of the judges, the humanity of the people who come before them, and a vision of justice that can actually work.

Through the film, audiences will gain a new understanding of tribal courts and their role in the survival of Indian people. The film will also inspire those working in the mainstream legal field to consider new ways of implementing problem-solving and restorative justice, lowering our staggering incarceration rates and enabling offenders to make reparations and rebuild their lives.

Grade Level: 7 - 12, College, Adults
US Release Date: 2017     Copyright Date: 2017
DVD ISBN: 1-941545-88-2

"Raw and honest, Tribal Justice takes an unflinching look at criminal justice in Indian country...Alongside a fearless portrayal of reservation life and those caught up in the criminal justice system, this film highlights the potentially redemptive force of restorative justice in tribal communities. It's not to be missed."
Angela R. Riley, Professor of Law, Director of Native Nations Law and Policy Center, University of California, Los Angeles

"A superbly produced film that explores a complex constellation of human, legal, and cultural issues...Depicts the human cost of dysfunction while providing a sense of hope for well-being in those communities...This film and the stories it tells are a testament to the strength of tribal communities and sensibilities."
Stephen Wall (Ojibwe), Tribal College Journal

"A lovely, bittersweet film about an intensely delicate subject."
John Anderson, The Wall Street Journal

"Tribal Justice is an emotional and moving story about some of the issues facing American Indian communities and tribal attempts to use court systems for restorative justice and healing instead of just to punish. This movie shows the innovative and culturally appropriate efforts of tribal governments in California, and two native female judges in particular, who are working to improve the lives of the parties in court and their communities at large."
Robert J. Miller (Eastern Shawnee), Professor of Law, Director of Rosette LLP American Indian Economic Development Program, Arizona State University

"Tribal Justice is about bringing traditional balance back to the lives of Native Americans when in crisis. The film is a powerful testament on the strength of Tribal Courts to hold together communities, sovereignty, and law."
Angelique EagleWoman (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota), Dean and Professor of Law, Lakehead University, Co-author, Mastering American Indian Law

"Tribal Justice provides a compelling and humane face for tribal sovereignty...We meet fellow tribal members whose struggles with poverty, alienation, substance abuse and violence inevitably bring them to the attention of their tribal courts and, in the process, to traditional Indigenous justice systems that emphasize restoration and healing, instead of retribution and ostracism. The outcomes are not always successful, but in this clear-eyed and honest film, we gain a sense of the humanity residing within the tribal justice system and with it, the optimism for tribal communities to succeed on their own terms."
N. Bruce Duthu, Professor of Native American Studies, Dartmouth College, Author, American Indians and the Law

"A beautifully shot and incredibly moving portrayal of the strengths and challenges of tribal communities today. I learned a lot from it, even though I have lived and worked on reservations, and written about tribes and Indian law throughout my career...High school, college, and graduate level classes on many subjects--indigenous peoples, criminal justice, family law, women's leadership, and substance abuse, just to name a few--would be enriched by showing this film."
Bethany Berger, Professor of Law, University of Connecticut

"A very poignant and heart-wrenching documentary depicting the painful struggles of Indigenous people in the United States to break from the colonizing cycle of drug addiction and family fragmentation...The instructive roles played by Yoruk Chief Judge Abby Abinanti and Quechan Chief Judge Claudette White can be of significant benefit to U.S. criminal justice."
Dr. Julian Kunnie, Professor of Religious Studies/Classics, University of Arizona, Author, Indigenous Wisdom and Power: Affirming our Knowledge Through Narratives

"Excellent new film...Judges Abinanti and White use the sheer weight and velocity of the powers of the settler state not to terrify their charges, but to remind them that the tribe is present in the physical body of every member. This is why one must take care of oneself...In the end, everyone must leave together and drive down the same roads, live on the same Reservation, and take their kids to the same schools. The direction of tribal justice is circular rather than vertical."
Martin Billheimer, CounterPunch

"Tribal Justice is to be commended for showing how native peoples are trying to take control of their own destiny using the survival skills that will ultimately be necessary for the rest of us to live: respecting mother earth and respecting humanity."
Louis Proyect, CounterPunch

"Illuminating...Nuanced and poignant, this film is a highly recommended addition to classroom discussions of criminality and justice and a revealing slice of contemporary Native American life."
Chelsea Couillard-Smith, School Library Journal

"Extraordinary...As beautiful to watch as it is haunting...By focusing on Abby Abinanti and Claudette White, two strong women determined to do good work for the people they love, Makepeace has made a film that is as gratifying as it powerful."
Bruce Murkoff, Millerton News

"The film draws us in and makes us part of the discussion happening on screen...You have to applaud the director--for making this not about the abstract idea of justice but rather a story about people where we really get a sense of the stakes for everyone involved. Recommended."
Steve Kopian, Unseen films

"Tribal Justice, recently screened by the California Supreme Court...illustrates beautifully what justice systems look like in societies of kin versus in societies of strangers...The documentary conveys an important overall lesson to the wider society and to the state systems-work with us to look out for our people, they are part of us, and we know how to help them."
Patricia Sekaquaptewa, Professor and Hopi Appellate Court Justice

"A remarkable film that highlights the work of tribal courts...Since many in the United States are not familiar with the work of tribal courts or the governments of Indian nations, this film can open eyes to the ways Indian nations govern in the modern era, the problems with which they contend, and the court procedures designed to enforce the law while helping human beings through rough times. This is a film that should be seen by every law student and law professor in America."
Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University


Select your institution type

DVDs include public performance rights.

DVD Features
DVD includes SDH captions for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and scene selection.

The Film's Website
POV's Website for the Film with Excellent Resources for Educators and Organizers
POV's Lesson Plan for Educators
POV's Discussion Guide
Wonderful LA Times Front Page Article about Judge Abby Abinanti

Awards and Festivals
National Broadcast on PBS's "POV"
Directing Award, Cinetopia Film Festival
Best Documentary Feature, Social Justice Award, Charlotte Film Festival
Best Documentary Feature, American Indian Film Festival
Grand Prix Rigoberta-Menchu, Montreal First Peoples Festival
Society for Visual Anthropology Film Festival
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
Santa Barbara International Film Festival
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
Berkshire International Film Festival
Mendocino Film Festival
Port Townsend Film Festival
Arlington International Film Festival
Bushwick Film Festival
Brooklyn Film Festival
Olympia Film Festival
Adirondack Film Festival
Asheville Film Festival
Woods Hole Film Festival
Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival
Martha's Vineyard Film Festival
NatiVisions Film Festival
Erie International Film Festival
Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
World Film Festival Tartu
Las Cruces International Film Festival
Anchorage International Film Festival

American Studies
At-risk Youth
Criminal Justice
Human Rights
Indigenous Peoples
Mass Incarceration
Mental Health
Native Americans
Restorative Justice
Social Justice
Social Psychology
Social Work
Western US
Women's Studies

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... more Reviews

Tribal Justice has inspired me to have a new understanding of justice. It also allows me to look at prisoners in a more diverse and tolerant way, and point out the difference between traditional justice and restorative justice in helping prisoners. If more people in Taiwan can learn that not all criminals are incurable, there'll be more chance to awake the gentle side of humanity in society."
Law Students, National Taiwan University College of Law, Taipei

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