Eagle, Harley. A Journey in Aboriginal Restorative Justice

In this article he discusses restorative justice and aboriginal life, specifically connecting restorative justice with indigenous cultural traditions (for example, the significance and use of the circle, or Medicine Wheel, in community discussion and action).

By Harley Eagle

Harley is the program coordinator of the Oglala Lakota Nation Mennonite Central Committee Voluntary Service Unit, a long with his wife, Sue Eagle. Harley is of the Saulteau and the Dakota Nations and a tribal member of the White Cap reserve near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Harley and Sue are members of the Fort Hardy Mennonite Fellowship, Port Hardy, and British Columbia. 

The Oglala Lakota Nation Mennonite Central Committee unit has been working at restorative justice for many years through efforts the past program coordinators and continuing with my wife and me as the current program coordinators. We find ourselves using the concepts of restorative justice in many situations and are called on often by the people in the community to share what knowledge we may have-as well as our contacts and resources. Teaching restorative justice at the local Lakota College where we use an indigenous model is one area of focus in our work on the Pine Ridge Reservation, also known as the Oglala Lakota Nation.

It is important for me to start this article by stating that these thoughts are from my perspective of things thus far in my journey into restorative justice and peacemaking. It is also important for me as an Indigenous person to state that writing is a format that I am not completely comfortable using. I come from an oral tradition and culture. I feel that when a person puts his or her thoughts on a matter down in ink, it is assumed by most readers that this is what that person will believe far the rest of time. It is my understanding that when things are written on paper, a misconception arises that this is the way it is forever and always. The thoughts of that person are "frozen in time," if you will, and that person becomes static in the mind of the reader. I would ask that the reader bare in mind that this is my understanding of aboriginal restorative justice thus far.  I look forward to learning more in the passage of time.

Our teaching of the Aboriginal Restorative Justice course for the Oglala Lakota College (OLC) students incorporates a style of teaching that I find comfortable as an Indigenous person.  My wife and I make it cleat that we depend greatly on the wisdom, knowledge and experiences of the class participants and incorporate practical applications of our learning in every class.  In the field of education this is considered a form of "popular education" though indigenous people understand that it is learning in a natural way.  While using this process in class, coupled with the education and participation in talking circles, the students have found themselves focusing on the many uses of the circle process.

A talking circle is a model used for group interaction. Participants are seated in a circle--on chairs or the floor--taking turns in either a clockwise or counterclockwise manner (depending on the particular indigenous nation's practices), without cross-talk or interruption of the speaker. The speaker often holds a talking piece--traditionally something either from the air (a feather), the earth (a stone), or the water (an abalone shell). While the speaker holds the talking piece, he or she is the only one to speak. Upon finishing his or her thoughts, the speaker passes the talking piece on in the person to the right or left, as decided by the circle keeper (facilitator). There are certain guidelines and protocols to follow, including sharing from the heart; respectful, deep listening; and speaking with the intent of supporting one another, rather than encouraging others to take on a certain viewpoint.

For most indigenous cultures throughout this world, circles play a significant role both in the symbolic realm (including their use in teaching and ceremonies) and the practical domain (through their use in problem solving and as a structure for discussions).

In our cultural teachings as Native people, we understand that circles are a part of the natural order of creation and thus should be an important part of our lives. The circle, often referred to as the Medi­cine Wheel or sacred hoop, is one of our primary teaching symbols. We are often told that in one lifetime we cannot collect all the teachings that this symbol holds for us. One of the foundational teachings of the Medicine Wheel is that it is divided into four quadrants, making up our being as humans.  There are many levels of understanding regarding the teachings found within each quadrant of the Medicine Wheel, though only one level will be discussed in this article.

On one level, the first quadrant is the spiritual aspect of our being, the second is the emotional, the third is the physical and the fourth is the intellectual. This is a construct that is very helpful in dealing with conflict. Another basic foundational reaching of the Medicine Wheel is the interconnectedness of all things.  It holds that even one thing that happened long ago has a continuing impact on many other areas of a person's life. Those in the restorative justice field can see the evidence if this connection in hearing the "hows" and "whys" behind crimes and the importance of addressing those seemingly insignificant factors in order in to promote holistic healing.

In teaching our class, my wife and I use the four-stage circle approach and rely on its wisdom to better get our point across.  This approach is the foundation of aboriginal restorative justice, as well as the basis for the educational experience in the class setting. Our first stage in the course is to set the tone by explaining the protocol of the class and discussing the model of learning, which is very different from the western European style of education.
We must understand the relationship of things that may have happened years ago and their bearing on why we are dealing with the present conflict.

We remind the students that we are all sacred beings and that we all must have a respectful way of treating each other. Since some of the students have been raised with the teachings of the Lakota culture, we are able to blow the dust off these teachings and hold them up to encourage the students to respect one another. This is a direct correlation to the first quadrant of the medicine wheel--the spiritual. The teachings and talking circles used in the class parallel the use of the circle process for dealing with a victim/ offender situation. At this point in the aboriginal restorative justice model, the tone and mood of the process are established.

The second step uses the emotional quadrant of the Medicine Wheel.  In the course we could call this developing relationships.  We need to learn about the people in the circle by sharing our personal stories:  who we are, our hopes and our frustrations and needs.  We remain in the emotional quadrant to talk about he ways in which we deal with various kinds of conflict.  Mediators may recognize this as the part of the circle process when we listen to the story of the incident and how it has affected each one of us.

The third aspect of our being through the construct of the Medicine Wheel is the physical realm. This is highly important and one area that I think our current justice system chooses to ignore. This is the time in the restorative justice process when we step back from the incident and look at the big picture. In order to do that we must know all the facts, stories and feelings surrounding the issue. We must understand the relationship of things that may have happened years ago and their bearing on why we are dealing with the present conflict. It allows us to see that we are not alone, but are somehow all connected. Our actions have a greater bearing on a larger community than we may have thought. In our class, we take a good look at our history as Native people and try to put some language to the cumulative oppression that we have faced for over five hundred years.  We call this "historical oppression."  We also examine the concept of racism and white privilege to further this understanding.
We are finding that we can be a part of reestablishing the old way of healing justice and, as a result, excitement and hope is building for this Lakota Nation.

The last quadrant of the Medicine Wheel teaching is the intellectual. This is the time in the healing process of restorative justice when we focus on what we can do to help make things right again in light of all that we have heard and learned. We put our thoughts together to come up with a workable plan. In our class this is when we examine programs and processes in the restorative justice field.  We spend most of our time studying and discussing programs with a distinct indigenous flavor and compare them to our own cultural understandings and teachings.  We then come up with a class project that will provide a practical application of justice as healing that is appropriate for our community, while enhancing our understanding of restorative justice.

It is a common thread of wisdom through all cultures and teachings that we grow from our mistakes. If conflict is handled in a "good way" it promotes healing and reestablishes harmony within a community. Long before contact with white Europeans, we as Native people understood this and would use the circle process in dealing with our conflict. Sadly, because of contact and the subsequent tearing down of our way of life, we have lost much of our indigenous way of working through conflict. Today, for the most part, we still depend on the adversarial style of the dominant society to deal with our problems. We are finding that we can be  a part of reestablishing the old way of healing justice and, as a result, excitement and hope is building for this Lakota Nation.  We are observing and interacting with people from other indigenous nations who have reinstated their cultural customary practices of holistic ways of dealing with conflict. We are learning from them.

It seems that the time is ripe for the application of aboriginal restorative justice methods here on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Schools are asking for help in establishing traditional ways to deal with conflict. The courts, public safety commission and the medical system are working together to find alternatives to deal with problems and crime. More and more people are recognizing the value of using the circle process in dealing with conflict on many levels. My personal point of view is that it restores pride in individuals and our nation when we can claim that this process has been ours all along, that it was taken from us and that now we have the opportunity to restore it.

Through my training, research, mediations, teaching and interactions with both indigenous people and people from the dominant culture, I understand that we as Lakota people used this method long before contact with white people. It provided for a fairly harmonious social society.  For a time, I didn't understand how we could go back to a system that depended on a constant reinforcement of ethics and morals that we once used on a daily basis, since that system is now in tatters. For five hundred years, indigenous people have faced oppression at the hands of people of white European descent, forcing us to live under their value system and laws. The understanding that I have now is that working through this conflict and dealing with it in a way that is culturally appropriate using the circle and the teachings of the Medicine Wheel, we will reestablish the ethics and morals that we once had.  We need to be able to take matters into our own hands and go back to our old ways of justice which have always been restorative.

My journey continues.

Conciliation Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 3

Reprinted with permission from Mennonite Conciliation Service.

March 2002

Created by: james
Last modified: 2007/05/02 20:39:59.438000 US/Eastern