Claudette White, Innovative Tribal Judge, Dies at 49

Bizar Male

The first in her family to attend college, Claudette earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Northern Arizona University in 1995. She was later courted by Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which granted her a full scholarship. She earned her law degree in 2005.

She served as her tribe’s chief judge for more than a decade, after which she spent two years as chief judge for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. She was also a circuit court judge serving different Native communities in Southern California; a board member of the National American Indian Court Judges Association; and a member of California’s Tribal Court-State Court Forum.

Her work, and that of Abby Abinanti, chief judge for the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, was the subject of “Tribal Justice,” a documentary by Anne Makepeace seen on PBS in 2017. The film followed the stories — agonizing, hopeful, always complicated — contained in the two women’s courts, and showed how the judges blended traditional tribal concepts of justice with contemporary legal practices. After the film’s release, Judge White often went on the road to promote their methods.

As part of President Biden’s virtual inauguration celebrations, Judge White led a group of Quechan performers in a traditional song of creation.

In addition to her son and her sister Dureena, Judge White is survived by six other sisters, Mary Brown, Roxanna White, Lori White, Leah Brown, Amber Espino and Starla Cachora; and three brothers, Joseph Cachora, Caine Palone and Patrick A. Brown III.

Among her family, Judge White’s nickname was the General, and she handed out stars and ranks to relatives. She had a habit of roping her siblings into activism, her sister Mary Brown recalled: “You would think you were going for a visit or a ride, and you’d end up with a picket sign in your hand.”

Judge White’s strong arms were emblazoned with tattoos. On her right arm, she wore the face of Wonder Woman, rendered as a Native American, with feathers in her hair and traditional tattoos on her face.

“It was a representation of herself,” Zion White said. “She was definitely Wonder Woman to me.”

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