Pursuing Equal Justice for All Native Americans

Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.

Ron Whitener

I am a member of the Squaxin Island Tribe of Indians, whose homelands encompass the southern waters of Puget Sound in Washington State.  I was born and raised among my tribe, and continue to participate in the cultural activities of my people.  I am proud of my Native American heritage, and I am grateful that my parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and a belief in the value of education.  My father taught in a state juvenile detention institution for almost 30 years, and his example led me to focus my work on assisting adults and juveniles in tribal justice systems.  Sadly, however, I am also motivated by an awareness of the tragic disparities faced by Native Americans as a result of both historical trauma and present-day realities.  Native Americans die from alcohol-related causes at a rate six times higher than that of all other races in the United States combined; they are more likely than members of all other races to commit suicide, to be the victims of homicide, and to die from unintentional injuries; they suffer from higher rates of infant mortality; and the United States Department of Justice has determined that one in three Native American women will be raped during her lifetime.  I have seen examples of these disparities among my own family and friends.

Much of my work at the Native American Law Center is focused on two especially vulnerable populations:  criminal defendants, who suffer disproportionately from chemical dependency, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, depression and other mental health issues; and youth, who are considered by most tribes to be their most valuable resource.  In 2002, with funding from the Tulalip Tribes, I created the Tribal Court Public Defense Clinic at the University of Washington School of Law.  Since then, the Clinic has grown to include three full-time faculty and two staff attorneys serving five tribes in Washington State.  My colleagues and I have trained over 100 law students in the practice of tribal public defense, and the Clinic has provided representation for over 2000 tribal members facing criminal charges in tribal courts.  This work has been funded almost entirely by gifts from the Tulalip Tribes and other tribes in Washington, as well as by private donors and grants.  Meanwhile, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Native American Law Center is working with Washington tribes to develop a Model Tribal Youth Code, as well as methods for using web conferencing technology to provide representation for juveniles in remote tribal courts.  We are also assisting tribes in the development of research regulatory systems, and hope to establish partnerships between tribes and universities to test interventions targeting the root causes of Native health disparities.

I am honored to be named as a Champion of Change, and I am especially grateful for this opportunity to call attention to the work of the Native American Law Center and its support for the exercise of tribal sovereignty in the pursuit of justice for all Native Americans.

Ron J. Whitener is an Associate Justice on the Northwest Indian Court of Appeals and is the presiding judge for the Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Indian Reservation.

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