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June 2014 - California’s Yurok Tribe Needs Tribal Attorneys

by Stephen Burnett

There are a myriad of complex legal issues facing the Yurok Tribe and most federally recognized tribes. As the number of federally recognized tribes increases, the Native American legal profession has not kept the same pace. The number of American Indians/Alaska Natives enrolled in juris doctor (JD) programs nationally has declined by more than ten percent in recent years. There is also a sharp decline in first-year JD students, which have fallen by more than twenty percent over the last three academic years.

“We have a great need for Yurok tribal member attorneys,” explains Thomas P. O’Rourke Sr., Chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “Year after year, we have to continuously battle in the courts to protect our river and the inherent hunting and gathering rights of present and future generations of Yurok people,” said O’Rourke.

With 5,951 members, the Yurok Tribe is California’s largest Indian Tribe. The Tribe is a leader in watershed restoration, natural resource management, and language education. The Tribe’s reservation lands in northern California are both beautiful and remote. They extend for one mile on each side from the mouth of the Klamath River and upriver for forty-four miles. This makes it difficult for students who want or need to stay in the community to attend a brick-and-mortar college. Approximately 150 Yurok tribal members are enrolled in college, with four pursuing master’s degrees. In the last three years, 145 tribal members have graduated from high school.

The identified need for tribal member attorneys led to a pilot program with Concord Law School that began in March. “The program enables the Tribe to grow our legal system, which is based on the traditional principle of restorative justice,” said Chairman O’Rourke. “Every tribal member we can move from state court to tribal court—where counseling, drug treatment, and other support services are available—will have a better chance of becoming a positive and productive member of society.”

As an online law school, Concord Law School helps solve the issue of access for the tribe. Students can study completely online, allowing them to stay in the community as they earn their degree.

The school offers qualified Yurok Tribe students discounts and special programs aimed at supporting their success. Each student from the Tribe is assigned a mentor for some of the toughest parts of their first-year courses and a law advisor who offers support in study skills and time management. Special curriculum, in the students’ third and fourth years, will address aspects of law needed for practice in tribal matters. In addition to the California Bar exam, successful Yurok students will also have the opportunity to take the Yurok Bar exam, which is a requirement to practice on tribal lands.

“It is our hope to create a core of professional Yurok attorneys who will form the foundation of our nation’s legal system,” said Abby Abinanti, Yurok Chief Justice. “We are extremely grateful that such a well-respected institution heard our call for assistance in building the capacity of the tribal court and the Tribe as a whole.”

The Yurok Tribe’s fast-growing court is a model for California tribes. The Tribe’s legal system is based on the traditional principle of restorative justice. In all criminal and some civil cases the focus is on making the victim whole and giving offenders the skills to become positive members of society.

The Yurok Justice Center, which will house a courtroom, attorney offices, and a number of support services, is slated for construction this summer.

Stephen Burnett is Vice President of Graduate Legal Education at Concord Law School of Kaplan University. Concord Law School is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of the Distance Education and Training Council, a nationally recognized accrediting agency. Stephen can be reached about this article at

Orange County Bar Association | P.O. Box 6130 | Newport Beach, CA 92658 | 949.440.6700 |
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