An advocate for her people since childhood, ASU Law alum Claudette White's legacy lives on


Photo of ASU Law alumni and tribal judges Christine Williams and Claudette White

ASU Law alumni and judges Christine Williams (left) and Claudette White worked closely together on tribal court issues in California. With White’s tragic passing, Williams wanted to do something to honor her friend’s legacy and further the impact she made.

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In an effort to carry on the legacy Arizona State University alumna Claudette White built in Indian Country and pave the way for future students to make a lasting difference like she did, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has created the Judge Claudette White Memorial Fellowship.

White, an ASU Law 2005 JD alumna who tragically passed away Feb. 6, 2021, dedicated much of her life to criminal justice reform in tribal courts. The first in her family to attend college, she was a member of Quechan Tribal Council and former chief justice for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

In a New York Times obituary as part of a series on those lost in the coronavirus pandemic, the publication included this from White’s keynote speech at an event held at the University of Southern California by the Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative: “Recently, scientists said that Indigenous people are born with trauma in their DNA. We are also born with the blood of warriors, fighters, healers and amazing ancestors that survived every effort at termination.”

Among the many grieving 49-year-old White’s loss, Christine Williams — a fellow ASU Law alumna and also a judge who had worked closely with White on tribal court issues in California — wanted to do something to honor her legacy and further the impact she made.

“Judge White brought all that it was to be a Native American woman to every aspect of her life,” said Williams, a member of the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, who earned her ASU Law JD and Indian Law Certificate in 2000 and is a licensed attorney in California.

“I imagined that we would be warrior sisters on this path for tribal justice and sovereignty together until the end,” Williams said. “While devastated by the loss, her tragic passing gave me the opportunity to reimagine our path and focus on those future lawyers and judges coming along the path behind us, blazing new trails and surpassing the work we started in this life. In this way I feel she is still on the path beside me; her influence lives on.”

White gained recognition after being featured in the 2017 PBS film documentary “Tribal Justice.” The documentary covered the work she did to reduce incarceration and improve community safety. Most recently, she performed with the Quechan Lightning Singers to open the inauguration events of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, thanking them “for their commitment to upholding the U.S. trust responsibility to tribal nations and our sacred lands, with the promise to restore lands and protect the natural cultural resources within them.”

The Judge Claudette White Memorial Fellowship hopes to continue her life’s work by supporting and encouraging ASU Law students to work in tribal courts. Students who are selected as fellows will have a paid experiential opportunity to spend a summer working with the courts.

"Having recruited Claudette to ASU Law’s Indian Legal Program, I saw early on her passion for justice reform in Indian Country and am so grateful to have known her and witnessed firsthand her dedication to Indian law,” said Kate Rosier, assistant dean of institutional progress and executive director of the Indian Legal Program at ASU Law. “Honoring her through this fellowship is a tribute to the pride she had for our program and her 2005 law class. And we are all equally proud of her.”

Diandra Benally, an Indian Legal Program classmate of White’s and fellow 2005 alumna, recalls how White came to ASU Law with a clear vision to serve Native nations, Native peoples and Indian Country, and she did it with grit and grace.

"As an attorney, judge, scholar and artist, she brought a global light to the importance of Indigenous justice systems,” said Benally, now general counsel for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. “Claudette certainly leaves a legacy to be honored, modeled and appreciated.”

Another Indian Legal Program classmate and 2005 alumna, Chris Love, said when she first met White, she knew she was meant for greatness.

“We immediately bonded over our love of music and our shared commitment to seeking justice for our communities,” said Love, senior associate at Kewenvoyouma Law, PLLC. “That bond remains unbroken. As Claudette’s star rose, it filled our ILP family with immense pride. But to me, she was my sister-friend who had this wonderful sense of adventure, always made me belly laugh, and kept me and all of her loved ones in her prayers. We lost Claudette far too soon, and though it is not a loss from which we’ll soon recover, she lives on in our hearts and through the continuation of her life’s work.”

As the donor representative for the Judge Claudette White Memorial Fellowship, Williams said she is proud to help further efforts to ensure that White’s legacy of advancing justice and sovereignty for tribal nations will continue.

Contact Hallie.Rexer@asu.edu to learn more about the fellowship or visit pitchfunder.asufoundation.org/project/27093 to make a contribution.

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