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Claudette White, innovative tribal judge, dies at 49

A photo provided by Anne Makepeace of Claudette White
A photo provided by Anne Makepeace of Claudette WhiteANNE MAKEPEACE/NYT

Claudette White was 8 when she read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Dee Brown’s searing history of the conquest and massacre of Native Americans in the 19th century. Eyes thus opened, Claudette refused to participate in her school’s celebrations for Columbus Day — “Columbus was a bad man,” she declared to her third grade teacher — and spent the time confined to the library.

That was the beginning, said Dureena White, her sister, of a life of service to her people.

Claudette White, a member of the Quechan tribal council and a former chief judge for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, died on Feb. 6 at a hospital in Yuma, Ariz. She was 49. The cause was complications of COVID-19, her son, Zion White, said.

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Ms. White first joined the Quechan council when she was 23. She quickly became a part of the tribe’s successful efforts, along with environmental groups and others, to stop California, Arizona and the Dakotas from placing a nuclear waste facility on land in the Mojave Desert that the Quechan and other tribes consider sacred.

As a tribal judge, she practiced a judicial model known as restorative justice, which aims to heal and rehabilitate offenders and their victims as an alternative to punishment.

She knew at first hand the cycle of trauma and abuse that can ravage Native American communities. She grew up on the Quechan reservation, 45,000 acres bordering Arizona, California and Baja California, Mexico. Her father, Durman White, a Vietnam veteran, died of a heroin overdose when she was 24. A cousin also suffered from addiction and lost custody of her son — who struggled with substance abuse as well, and was sentenced to prison when he was 18.

“Recently, scientists said that Indigenous people are born with trauma in their DNA,” Ms. White said last year when she delivered the keynote speech at the Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative’s annual college exploration day at the University of Southern California. “We are also born with the blood of warriors, fighters, healers and amazing ancestors that survived every effort at termination.”

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Claudette Christine White was born in Yuma on July 19, 1971. Her mother, Delores Brown, was a home health aide; her father was a paramedic.

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, Ms. White often went on the road to promote their methods.

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

In addition to her son and her sister Dureena, Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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.”