KLAMATH, Calif. -- Lauren Alvarado states it simply: “Meth is everywhere in Indian country.”
Like many here, she first tried methamphetamine at age 12. Legal trouble came at 13 with an arrest for public intoxication. In the years that followed, she relied on charm and manipulation to get by, letting her grandmother down often.
But today, at 31, Alvarado and her grandmother have built a new trust. She has been clean for nine months, she said recently, and is “hopeful, more grateful.”
Her recovery has come through a novel wellness program that puts traditional Yurok values to work to heal addicted men and women from California’s largest tribe, whose ancestral land -- and reservation -- hugs the banks of the Klamath River.
Created by Yurok Tribal Court Chief Judge Abby Abinanti, a longtime San Francisco County Superior Court Commissioner, the 4-year-old “wellness court” has earned a rare trust with the criminal justice system in Del Norte and Humboldt counties.
Some tribal members charged with nonviolent crimes linked to drugs or alcohol come as a condition of probation; others are diverted to Abinanti’s court before trial. If they succeed, charges are dropped.
A written agreement with Del Norte County spells out that arrangement, which tribal law experts say no other California tribe has brokered. Humboldt County officials have also agreed to case-by-case diversions.
Other participants find their way to the program without the hammer of the criminal justice system. They come on their own, persuaded that the cultural focus and village-style expectations of communal responsibility will work where other approaches have not.
Alvarado was one of those. She sought out wellness court coordinator Anthony Trombetti after a minor arrest left her facing a choice.
“Either I would keep messing up and I would be in jail, or I would have to be better for myself,” Alvarado said. “I chose myself.”
Wellness court staff found Alvarado a job assisting a doctoral student in natural resource management who had come back to the reservation to research mid-sized carnivores. On a late fall afternoon, the two women sat together before the tribal council and Alvarado helped explain the transects they’d marked, the bones they had found, the maps she helped create.
She was so nervous, Alvarado later acknowledged, she thought she would throw up. But it didn’t show. She beamed with pride as tribal chairman Thomas O’Rourke asked her to name her father’s village.
For participants who have taken the greatest steps toward self-discovery, Trombetti presents a large, hand-carved, redwood acorn. The symbolism is strong: Like them, it must fall, crack and find nourishment before it can flourish.
Alvarado is one of just two to receive one. She keeps it on the dresser in the sober living home she is managing in Crescent City. She credits Trombetti and other wellness program staff for her success, but has special praise for Abinanti, who sits around a common table with court participants and never rejects a call for help.
“She really wants for you to become whole again,” Alvarado said of Abinanti, 66. “She wants to hear what’s in your heart.”
Lori Nesbitt is the wellness court advocate. She pores over county jail logs at the tribal enrollment office to identify those who need help. She snoops with aunts and uncles of court participants to get the lowdown on how they’re really doing.
“People say, ‘That’s intrusive,’ but it’s not, it’s how we do things,” Nesbitt said, noting that aunts and uncles have particular authority to discipline in Yurok culture.
Not long ago, after a girl bolted from drug treatment, Nesbitt and Abinanti piled into a car to look for her, and found her at the Crescent City McDonald’s. She tried to run away, but then Abinanti showed her who was with them: her grandmother and aunt. She stopped in her tracks.
Tribal members are scattered through the remote coastal mountains that hug the river. It is Abinanti's staff who fetch them for state court appearances, transport them to drug treatment -- as far away as Manteca -- and make sure they stay. If they are allowed visits with their children, the tribe gets them there.
Rebecca Salinas, 32, sought out the program after hearing of Trombetti’s group counseling sessions. Like Alvarado, she and her brother were caught in the inter-generational trap of addiction: Their parents sold methamphetamine when they were kids and they followed suit.
Clean for nearly 11 months now, Salinas recently told Abinanti during a court appearance that she had landed a job. When she was using, she lost custody of her four children one at a time. Overjoyed, she reported that her second-oldest, age 10, would be coming home to her after Christmas.
“Did you sign up for the gift program?” Abinanti asked. “Because she’ll be needing presents.”
Afterward, the tribal court's SUV pulled up to take Salinas on the long drive to pick up two of her girls for a weekend visit. The next morning, they sat around the kitchen table of her sober-living house, beading.
As a young girl, Salinas had stored away beads to make Yurok regalia and dresses -- believed to be alive with their own spirit -- to pass on through the generations. “All I did was bead,” she said.
In wellness court, Trombetti had urged her to get back to it. Now, she is working on regalia for the summer Jump Dance.
“You put a lot of medicine into these pieces. I knew I had to be clean and sober to do it,” Salinas said. “Now I can make those dresses for my kids, and pass them on.”
Tribal Court's Chief Judge Works for Yurok-Style Justice
Abby Abinanti metes out a more community-based form of justice for tribal members — starting with the question, 'Who's your mom?'
Abby Abinanti squints at her docket. "The court is going to call — the court is going to put on its glasses," she says dryly, reaching to grab her readers and snatch some candy from a staff member.
As chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court, Abinanti wears no robe. On this day, she's in jeans and cowboy boots, her silver hair spilling down the back of a black down vest. In contrast to her longtime role as a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, she doesn't perch above those who come before her; she shares a table with them.
"Hi, big guy. How are you doing?" she softly prods a 29-year-old participant in her wellness court, which offers a healing path for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse.
Abinanti has watched Troy Fletcher Jr. battle bipolar disorder and methamphetamine addiction, land in jail and embrace recovery under the tribe's guidance. She's known his grandmother since before he was born.
Though that would be cause for recusal in the state system, here it's pretty much the point. Her most common question for court newcomers: "Who's your mom?"
"Here we have a village society," Abinanti says of California's largest tribe, "and the people who help you to resolve your problems are the people you know."
Native American jurisprudence has evolved since tribes began to regain their sovereignty, returning to traditional values of respect, community support and responsibility, and collective healing — for victims, perpetrators and the circle of lives they touch.
Abinanti, who in 1974 became the first Native American woman admitted to the State Bar of California, has been at the forefront.
I won't ever say you've used up your chances.”
— Abby Abinanti
"When you're looking to heal, you look wherever you can to find medicine, and one of those places is in the culture and practices of the community," says retired Utah appellate court Judge William A. Thorne Jr., a Pomo-Coast Miwok who teamed with Abinanti in the 1980s to train tribal court personnel nationwide.
Now, at 66, Abinanti has returned to her home on sacred Requa Hill above the fog-wisped mouth of the Klamath River. (Though she tried to retire from the San Francisco bench in 2011, she was recently asked to return every other week, so she commutes.)
"What happened is we lost touch with our responsibilities," Abinanti says. "You take responsibility for what you did.... And if you can ask for help, I'm willing to give you a hand. I won't ever say you've used up your chances."
Abinanti looks out over her mother's burial ground near the mouth of the Klamath River. With her own family's harrowing history, the Yurok Tribal Court's chief judge empathizes with those who come before her. More photos
Abinanti speaks often of "historical trauma" — wounds passed wordlessly through generations with an accumulating grief and the urge to salve it with alcohol and drugs. It is what Yurok tribal Chairman Thomas O'Rourke calls "the sickness of this land."
Her family had its share. Her maternal grandfather, Marion Rube, was described in press accounts as among "the notorious criminals of early California." Captured after a 1922 bank heist, he escaped six years later from a San Quentin prison road camp and was shot to death in southern Oregon.
Ostracized, his wife and three daughters fled their village. The girls were shipped off to government-run boarding school. Sorrow shadowed them; harsh deaths claimed them. One, intoxicated, froze in a snow bank; another, newly sober, caught on fire after backing into a heater. Abinanti's mother, who struggled with alcohol, depression and forced electroshock treatments, died while detoxing.
MORE: Yurok Tribe’s wellness court heals with tradition
Her history, rarely shared, informs Abinanti's compassion. "It's painful to be a drunk, to not meet your promises, to not look your kids in the eye," she says. "To disrespect them on top of that doesn't do any good."
Abinanti was studying journalism at Humboldt State University when she saw a flier for a program for Native American students at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Thorne met her in 1975 when he was interning at the Ukiah office of California Indian Legal Assistance. Just two years out of law school, she was the group's board president.
Yurok Tribal Court Chief Judge Abby Abinanti presides over a session of wellness court in Klamath, Calif. Wellness court, a part of the tribal court, offers a healing path for nonviolent offenders struggling with substance abuse. More photos
"In walked this powerful Indian woman," Thorne recalls. "She was this image of what I could seek to become, an Indian person who was a force to be reckoned with and yet just very kind."
Appointed to the San Francisco bench two decades ago, she has specialized in family court and juvenile dependency. She has also served as a judge or magistrate for four other Western tribes.
She first came home to Yurok country in 1978 to set up the tribe's fishing court, then again in 1993 when the tribe earned federal recognition. The Yurok Tribal Court was launched three years later, and in 2007 she became its chief judge.
Among her innovations: the first tribal-run program in the nation to help members expunge their criminal records; and California's first tribal child support program, which allows for non-cash alternatives to support payments — such as donations of fish or manual labor.
Yet her greatest impact has arguably come through wellness court. Some participants seek out the program on their own in the course of recovery; others, like Fletcher, come through a rare partnership with the state criminal justice system: Abinanti's decades on the bench have earned her crucial credibility with judges, prosecutors and probation officials, allowing her staff to pull tribal members out of criminal court and bring them home.
Fletcher was facing an arson charge for burning brush when a tribal court attorney secured his release from a Eureka jail cell in a pre-trial diversion agreement and brought him into Abinanti's program. He is now stable on psychiatric medication, off meth and in a sober-living home.
"I used to be afraid to go into court, afraid that they were going to take something from me," Fletcher says outside tribal headquarters, his large hands working a rope into a monkey's fist. "Here, they're trying to give something back.
"I've got the whole tribe behind me," he adds. "When I have to answer to my people, it makes me want to do better."
Taos Proctor walks down a hill in Klamath where he took a job cutting wood and moving heavy equipment. At Abinanti's insistence that he give back, he also hosts a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He has been off meth for 15 months. "Judge Abby knows me. She works with me," he says. "I've still got a lot of issues that I'm working on, but I don't have to hide them anymore." More photos
Abinanti never swears in witnesses, explaining: "If you're Yurok and you lie, that's on you."
On this day, her general court is in session, arranging restitution for various infractions. Participants can demand a trial, but most tend to tell Abinanti what they did. Then they talk about how to best "settle up."
So it goes with Taos Proctor, 32. Towering and broad-chested, with full-sleeve tattoos, he sits across from Abinanti, looking unhappy. His violation: fishing after the season had closed.
Of 73 fish seized, she orders that 53 be donated to a program for elders. The rest, which belonged to a relative of Proctor's, will be returned to him to give back to the rightful owner.
Proctor is also a wellness court client. Though Abinanti pokes him harshly with a long finger during a court break and quips to a visitor that he has "the manners of a stump," she is fiercely proud of him.
Pulled into the meth life, he was committed to a county boys' ranch at 16. Next came the California Youth Authority and prison. Released at 25, he bounced in and out of jail before he found himself facing a third strike.
The charge turned out to be unsubstantiated, and with help from the tribal court's criminal attorney, he pleaded to a lesser count. It marked the first time Del Norte County Superior Court Judge William H. Follett agreed to hand a felony case to wellness court as a condition of probation.
When I have to answer to my people, it makes me want to do better.”
— Troy Fletcher Jr.
"I know I can trust her," Follett says of Abinanti. "If people are continuing to not do their program or to do drugs, she'll know to send them back.... She's taught me that there's another way of doing things."
Proctor became a fish buyer, took a job felling trees and, at Abinanti's insistence that he give back, hosts a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He has been off meth for 15 months.
"Judge Abby knows me. She works with me," he says. "I've still got a lot of issues that I'm working on, but I don't have to hide them anymore."
Court staff members are pulling for him. "I don't want to let them down," Proctor says. "I want to help my community because for so long, I didn't."
Abinanti also presses participants to remember — or discover — what it means to be Yurok. It's a journey the tribe is taking collectively, as the language and ancient dances are revived.
On a recent day, she asks one man who has been drumming and stoking the fire at sweat lodge ceremonies if he'd listened to the CDs of Yurok songs she had compiled for him.
"I'd like you to hear 'em," she tells him. "I think that would help."
Abinanti could use a rest. Next to her armchair is a stack of books she longs to devour. But important work remains.
Of more than 5,000 Yurok tribal members, only a handful are bar-certified attorneys; and of the attorneys working for the tribal court, Abinanti is the only Yurok.
As the sun rises, Abinanti places flowers on her mother's grave next to her home at the mouth of the Klamath River along California's north coast. Abinanti visits the grave, now on her tribal land, before going to work. More photos
The tribal council recently approved a pilot project that Abinanti brokered with online Concord Law School- Kaplan University. Under the agreement, 10 tribal members will enroll by September, receiving tailored supervision to help them pass the bar exam. Four began last month. In return for tuition, which Abinanti must now raise from donors, participants agree to continue working for the tribe for five years once they pass the bar.
"I don't want to be diverted," she says. "I want to do what needs to be done at home that right now only I can do. If I do a good job, then that won't be true anymore.... I'm here. I need people behind me."
She knows, after all, that she won't be around forever.
Last summer, Abinanti established a family burial ground on her Requa Hill property, and after more than four painful decades brought her mother's remains home.
One day Abinanti will be buried next to her, and she hopes the resting place — filled with the music of the Pacific — ends the suffering of her maternal family line.
"She deserves some peace."