In the typical American courtroom, a single judge or jury presides over the fate of two parties. To “win” you must viciously tear apart your opposition until nothing in their argument can plausibly stand as evidence against you. While this method of justice can be necessary, this system does not always act as a best practice in the courtroom, especially in situations where the opposing parties are of the same family and community.
This past September, I had the opportunity to see my tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, take a step away from the adversarial system in their family courts and instead rely upon a traditional, restorative justice system— the Peacemaking Circle.
An Indigenous Form of Conflict Resolution
Peacemaking Circles, a form of indigenous conflict resolution, have been traditionally used in several Native American communities and continue to be used in a variety of settings today; such models challenge the adversarial processes we often see in the western courtroom, which inevitably shapes the American understanding of conflict. Instead, this system relies on all impacted parties to join together and openly air their grievances of a conflict, while being moderated by an third-party, participant— the Peacemaker. The case has only been settled when all participants can unanimously agree on a resolution.
A Complex Mock Scenario
This system relies on all impacted parties to join together and openly air their grievances of a conflict, while being moderated by an third-party, participant— the Peacemaker. The case has only been settled when all participants can unanimously agree on a resolution.
During the Peacemaking training session held between the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, a mock scenario, which strongly resembled the cases that would be brought to the future Peacemaking Circle, was used as a training tool. This case centered on a fictional set of parents with one son, Anthony. When Anthony was young, his mother died and in his grief Anthony's father, John, became a reckless alcoholic. Anthony's paternal grandparents and maternal aunt stepped in to be his caretakers, and now, four years later, John has tried to heal from his alcoholism and has remarried to another woman with her own son. John believes he has a right to be Anthony's guardian again and raise him with the values of a Choctaw man. This case has been recommended to Peacemaking because of the complex underlying relationships that complicate the scenario. Along with all of the aforementioned participants, the town pastor, Anthony's social worker, and John's AA leader have been invited to participate in the Circle.
Although this is a faux case, it strongly resembles previous scenarios resolved in Peacemaking Court. Situations like these are optimal for Peacemaking because of the complex family history intertwined into the conflict. At the end of this, the goal is to reestablish family connections, create a support network, and make sure Anthony is in a happy and safe environment.
A Growing Movement in Tribal Communities
Over the past few decades, there has been a growing movement to reignite and formally instate models of traditional conflict resolution in tribal communities. Such processes allow for the development of the criminal justice and youth/ family court systems in tribal nations so that tribes can better protect their citizens and further display the sovereignty of their nations. With over 36 federally recognized tribes passing legislation to provide authority to cultural and traditional values in determining matters of the court, Peacemaking holds an increasingly important role in the functioning of legal systems in Indian Country.
During the past year, I have read every book, article, or journal I could find on these subjects but despite the hours I spent acquainting myself with this theory or even speaking with judges at the front lines of this movement, I could not understand the interpersonal relationships that are developed through Peacemaking and the skill set needed to foster community through such harsh disputes from afar. However, during my time in Oklahoma, I watched as trained lawyers and judges, community leaders, and elders came together to identify their core values as Choctaw people and then apply these morals in order to moderate a mock scenario that could potentially be recommended to their Peacemaking court in the upcoming months. These leaders were challenged to address these faux cases with a patience for all participants as they must share their pain and perspective, an understanding that conflict is dynamic and multifaceted, and the strength to navigate and push forward through the difficult terrain of dispute. At the end of the training, each participant had learned the basic theory of Peacemaking, the core values their leadership should be based on, the interpersonal dynamics necessary to carry on and facilitate conversation, and how to reach an agreeable solution.
As I continue forward with my studies at Stanford, I will continue to research and develop my understanding of how such conflict resolution mechanisms can allow indigenous communities to root themselves in their cultural values, which are often their lifeblood.
As I continue forward with my studies at Stanford, I will continue to research and develop my understanding of how such conflict resolution mechanisms can allow indigenous communities to root themselves in their cultural values, which are often their lifeblood. And this pursuit is not only an academic passion but a personal one. As I dive into this field of knowledge, I also hope to give back to my own tribal nation. Currently, I am studying at Oxford where I hope to learn more about conflict resolution based on indigenous, customary law in international conflict and transitional justice. In the winter, I plan on working as a teaching assistant for a class on Peacemaking Circles. Then, during my senior year, I hope to base my thesis on a comparative analysis of indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms with a strong focus on Peacemaking.
Without the relationships and culture that solidify the foundation of our community, we cannot thrive. And only with the combined effort of both the youth and elders, can we create a system based on the wisdom passed down from our predecessors but with a legacy to carry it forward into the future. As a young person, I hope to bear this torch, light the way for my people, and, in this way, make my community proud.
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