Courtesy Abby Abinanti
Abby Abinanti, Yurok Tribal Chief Justice: “We’re creating a professional class of lawyers and advocates.”

Putting the Yurok Tribe First; Judge Abinanti Reflects on Her Career

Heather Steinberger

In 1974, Yurok tribal member Abby Abinanti became the first Native American woman to be admitted to the State Bar of California. Over the next 40 years, she served as a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner, acted as judge or magistrate for several Western tribes, and established the Yurok Tribe’s fishing court. Today, she is the tribal court’s chief justice.

It’s been an auspicious career for a woman who, as a youngster, never dreamed of donning a judge’s robe. Born in San Francisco in 1947 and raised on the Yurok Indian Reservation, which lies 45 miles from the Pacific Coast along California’s Klamath River, Abinanti originally wanted to be a journalist.

“I developed that interest in high school,” reflected Abinanti, 66. “The journalism teacher befriended me and worked with me during a difficult time in my life, and he gave me a scholarship.” With a laugh, she added, “I think he sort of made it up so he could give it to me.”

 While Abinanti was studying journalism at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, she came across a flyer for the University of New Mexico School of Law. The flier addressed programming specifically for Native American students.

“UNM was the home school for the Indian law program,” Abinanti explained. “I never really wanted to go into law, but I was told that we needed lawyers more than journalists. So I pursued it.”

After passing the bar exam in 1974, Abinanti delved into her work. What would become her lifelong specialties, family court and juvenile dependency, took shape in the wake of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

“I did a lot of dependency work,” she said. “Dependency court, delinquency, family law, back to dependency. It was a natural fit.”

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, she also got involved in training tribal court personnel. She focused on lay judges who hadn’t been to law school, teaching them about process and how to set up appropriate systems.

In 1978, Abinanti returned to the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest Native group with approximately 5,600 members, to help set up its fishing court. She returned again in 1993 when the tribe earned federal recognition. The official Yurok Tribal Court was launched three years later, and she became its chief judge in 2007.


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