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Peacemaking: a family affair

Navajo Peacemakers have a unique solution to the White Man's justice
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We are so used to presenting problems to powerful decision-makers (judges) for them to resolve that we cannot seem to understand that there are other approaches. But there is an Indian point of view. As Professor Leroy Little Bear of the Blood Nation in Alberta once put it, “The law shamans of White People must be very wise, because they can find the truth based on the lies of lawyers.”

Navajo peacemaking is not so much a search for “truth” as it is a quest for reconciliation. Here is a story to explain this.

In 1996, Ethelyn Begay went to her nephew's home with a gun, shot at his dogs, and told him she was going to put a bullet in him. She later went before a judge and was found guilty of threatening and the unlawful use of a weapon. Begay asked if she could take the case into peacemaking prior to sentencing.

As Professor Leroy Little Bear of the Blood Nation in Alberta once put it, “The law shamans of White People must be very wise, because they can find the truth based on the lies of lawyers.”

This was not simply a dispute between two people that got out of hand. This was a situation where a rural family, living closely together as is the Navajo custom, was fighting over personal property and animals. The arrest and charges were only a symbol of family infighting. The peacemaking session took the
occasion of the criminal charges as an opportunity for the family to straighten out their relationships.

The aunt's and nephew's family sat down together and developed a written statement. It said the defendant and her victim “resolved the disagreement, forgave each other, and agreed to live in peace and harmony.” The family members also pledged that they would respect each other's possessions and “start communicating in a polite manner, visit one another, and use k'e (clanship) to restore the family relationship.”

The judge accepted the family's plea and dismissed the charges against Ethelyn Begay.

In another case, a young woman was brought into peacemaking because of her disruptive behavior, linked to drinking. When family members laid the problem out before the young woman, she explained that she was acting out because she wanted to give up drinking, and she was having difficulty doing so. Then, she tearfully related what was bothering her and fueling her drinking: she had been sexually molested by a relative. This was the first time the family knew of that, and they were shocked.

The family came to realize that this “offender” was in fact a “victim” who should be supported in her efforts to deal with a personal tragedy, not punished.

Peacemakers tell me that these cases are not unusual. In the Navajo way, a crime is not an isolated event with an “offender” to be punished and a “victim” to be satisfied with punishment. A crime is evidence that there is something wrong with relationships. An event must be seen in the context of what created it.

Navajo peacemaking allows people to deal with their problems in a very intimate way, so that those in the best position to do something about the causes of crime can make their own choices.


James W. Zion is solicitor to the Courts of the Navajo Nation Email Signup
Is It Time to Close the Prisons?
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