Wellness Programming

Infusing traditional Yurok values into the tribal court's structure sparks improved outcomes for offenders with substance use issues.

By Honoring Nations

Honoring Nations 2018 Awardee

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

Poverty and incarceration

Most citizens of the Yurok Tribe in California hold seasonal jobs, meaning that unemployment can rise to 80% during the winter. Moreover, the tribe suffers from high incarceration rates, with many individuals being jailed for failure to complete alcohol/drug programs.

The Yurok Tribe's options to implement restorative justice programs were limited due to its location in a PL-280 state, leaving them with very little authority over incarceration. Recognizing the need for change, tribal leaders pushed jurisdictional boundaries, reformed the tribal court, and began working with neighboring counties to make wellness the primary focus of the tribal justice system.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

A new model for tribal courts

In 2009, the tribal court launched the Wellness Court to address drug-related offenses. Over the years, it has been expanded into a Wellness Program adding group healing for batterers, aid for domestic abuse victims, and elder advocacy amongst other services.

As the tribal court transitioned away from the western model, Yurok customs became the basis for new procedures. Tribal court staff engage with offenders in the way a Yurok aunt or uncle would, with an emphasis on community members’ responsibilities to and for one another. Court personnel dress informally and meet with defendants around conference tables that, when pushed together, visually recreate the culturally significant Klamath Watershed.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgramHonoring Nations

A groundbreaking 2012 Memorandum of Agreement with Del Norte County allowed non-violent, drug-related cases to be re-directed to tribal court. The Tribe also partnered with Humboldt County to establish a joint-jurisdiction Family Wellness Court for child abuse and neglect cases.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgramHonoring Nations

Shared jurisdiction and shared outcomes

The Tribe has developed a strong relationship with state court officials by prioritizing a common objective of ending the cycle of repeat offending. Relationships with the state courts have created the opportunity to develop innovative strategies that support tribal families.

The Yurok Tribe’s Wellness Programming shows there are strong benefits to incorporating cultural practices into the justice system. Court personnel help remove barriers to compliance, such as providing transportation for offenders to and from Klamath for court appearances. This approach reflects traditional village justice as community members work together to restore harmony and help offenders make amends for harmful actions. The court emphasizes non-monetary “fines” that reflect the importance of personal responsibility to the Yurok community.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgramHonoring Nations

Bringing the lessons home

In partnership with the state courts in neighboring counties, the Yurok Tribe is reclaiming its ability to adjudicate offenses committed by its citizens. The tribal court has moved away from the model of impartial justice and is actively involved in rehabilitating defendants.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

Awardee update

Since 2018, the Yurok Court saw a 10.6% increase in cases from 2021 to 2022 indicating in part sustained community confidence and need for the program's services and Yurok-centered approach to rehabilitation.

In response to growing community needs, they pursue opportunities that reinforce concurrent jurisdiction and defendant rehabilitation. In 2023, the court is finalizing an agreement with Humboldt County to formally divert Yurok criminal defendants to its wellness programs under the supervision of the tribe's reentry program. Also, with an award of $15 million, the tribe embarks on building a regional treatment center bringing needed services to tribes and non-Indians throughout the region. 


Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

The strengths of the wellness model are gaining attention from tribes as far away as Maine, Alaska, and Oklahoma, and even from non-Indian city leaders. In addition to welcoming tribal guests to observe a program based on the Yurok value system of interconnectedness, the tribe has been asked to advise on a Child Support Pilot Program for the City and County of San Francisco, in particular advising on their in-kind support model for families featuring family cooperative parenting approaches.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

Lesson 1

By finding ways to practice concurrent jurisdiction with state counterparts, tribes in PL-280 states can actively infuse traditional values into contemporary jurisprudence and serve tribal citizens in culturally appropriate ways.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

Lesson 2

By addressing the root causes of individual crimes and by allowing creative approaches to restitution, tribal courts can significantly reduce recidivism.

Yurok Tribe Wellness ProgrammingHonoring Nations

Lesson 3

By prioritizing community needs, tribal court programming can evolve to better serve individual tribal citizens and the Native nation as a whole.

2018 Honoring Nations, Yurok Tribe Presentation

Sharing the Yurok Tribe’s story of governance success in this video is Chief Judge Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribal Court.

Credits: Story

HONORING NATIONS: 2018 Awardee
Wellness Programming
Yurok Tribe

This exhibit was curated by the Project on Indigenous Governance and Development, Honoring Nations national awards program. All images were obtained with the permission of the host nation, and gathered during the site visit of the awarding year.

Honoring Nations Awards 2018
https://hwpi.harvard.edu/files/hpaied/files/wellness_programming.pdf?m=1638893711

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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