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.    – Harley Eagle (2002)

“In indigenous paradigms, justice is embedded in a holistic worldview. In a holistic worldview things are not separated; peacemaking and circle processes are embedded in a way of life, and the outcome of justice is tied to healing and restoring balance to oneself, one’s relationships and to nature.”  – Carl Stauffer and Sonya Shah, introduction to LISTENING TO THE MOVEMENT: ESSAYS ON NEW GROWTH AND NEW CHALLENGES IN RESTORATIVE JUSTICE.


Life Comes From Justice

In our modern context of the restorative justice movement, there is not one story of origin but many stories of origin. One example in the 1980s is the revitalization of centuries-old Navaho peacemaking traditions as described in an article by Judge Robert Yazzie. 

The following paragraphs are excerpted from Yazzie’s article “‘Life Comes From It’: Navajo Justice Concepts” (1994).

The Navajo word for “law” is beehaz’aanii. It means something fundamental, and something that is absolute and exists from the beginning of time. Navajos believe that the Holy People “put it there for us from the time of beginning” for better thinking, planning, and guidance. It is the source of a healthy, meaningful life, and thus “life comes from It.” Navajos say that “life comes from beehaz’aanii,” because it is the essence of life. The precepts of beehaz’aanii are stated in prayers and ceremonies which tell us of hozho, the perfect state. Through these prayers and ceremonies we are taught what ought to be and what ought not to be.

Ancient Pataki petroglyph, Sedona, Arizona

The circle is the symbol of Navajo justice because it is perfect, unbroken, and a simile of unity and oneness. It conveys the image of people gathering together for discussion. Imagine a system of law which permits anyone to say anything during the course of a dispute. A system in which no authority figure has to determine what is ‘true.’ Think of a system with an end goal of restorative justice which uses equality and the full participation of disputants in a final decision. If we say of law that “life comes from it,” then where there is hurt, there must be healing. Navajo concepts of justice are related to healing. 

Navajo justice is a sophisticated system of egalitarian relationships where group solidarity takes the place of force and coercion. In it, humans are not in ranks or status classifications from top to bottom. Instead, all humans are equals and make decisions as a group. The process, which we call “peacemaking” in English, is a system of relationships where there is no need for force, coercion or control.

The clan system fosters deep, learned emotional feelings which we call “k’e.” The term means a wide range of deeply-felt emotions which create solidarity of the individual with his or her clan. The Navajo encounter ritual is in fact a legal ceremony, where those who meet can establish their relationships and obligations to each other. The Navajo language reinforces those bonds by maxims which require duties and mutual (or reciprocal) relationships. Obviously, one must treat his or her relatives well, and we say: “Always treat people as if they were your relative.” That is also k’e.

Navajo justice uses k’e to achieve restorative justice. When there is a dispute, the procedure, which we call “talking things out,” works like this: Every person concerned with or affected by the dispute or problem receives notice of a gathering to talk things out. At the gathering everyone has the opportunity to be heard. In the vertical legal system the “zone of dispute” is defined as being only between the people who are directly involved in the problem. On the other hand, as a Navajo, if my relative is hurt, that concerns me; if my relative hurts another, I am responsible to the injured person. In addition, if something happens in my community, I am also affected. I am entitled to know what happened, and I have the right to participate in discussions of what to do about it. I am within the zone of a dispute involving a relative. In the horizontal system the zone is wider because problems between people also affect their relatives. The parties and their relatives come together in a relaxed atmosphere to resolve the dispute.

The parties and their relatives come together in a relaxed atmosphere to resolve the dispute. There are no fixed rules of procedure or evidence to limit or control the process. Formal rules are unnecessary. Free communication without rules encourages people to talk with each other to reach a consensus. Truth is largely irrelevant because the focus of the gathering is to discuss a problem. Anyone present at the gathering may speak freely about his or her feelings or offer solutions to the problem. Because of the relationship and obligation that clan members have with each other, relatives of the parties are involved in the process. They can speak for, or speak in support of, relatives who are more directly involved in the dispute.

Judge Robert Yazzie

The involvement of relatives assures that the weak will not be abused and that silent or passive participants will be protected. An abused victim may be afraid to speak; his or her relatives will assert and protect that person’s interests. The process also deals with the phenomenon of denial where people refuse to face their own behavior. For instance, a perpetrator may feel shame for an act done, and therefore hesitant to speak. Relatives may speak to show mitigation for the act and to try to make the situation right.

(end of excerpts)

Anyone familiar with the principles and practices of restorative justice will find strong affinity of language between Yazzie’s description of Navaho “horizontal justice” and the best articulations of restorative justice. 

Church Study Group Question: What concepts in Yazzie’s article show an affinity with how Paul’s epistles to the early church communities address matters of dispute and offense?


Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice by Rupert Ross (first published in 1996)

During a three-year secondment with Justice Canada in the early 1990s, Ross traveled from the Yukon to Cape Breton Island, examining—and experiencing—the widespread Aboriginal preference for “peacemaker justice.” In this remarkable book, he invites us to accompany him as he moves past the pain and suffering that grip so many communities and into the exceptional promise of individual, family and community healing that traditional teachings are now restoring to Aboriginal Canada.

The Congruence Between Indigenous Justice and Biblical Justice

Christopher Marshall, in his chapter called “Restorative Justice” in Religion Matters: The Contemporary Relevance of Religion, ed. Paul Babie and Rick Sarre (Singapore: Springer Nature 2020), discusses multiple areas of intersection between religion and restorative justice.

Read excepts from  Marshall’s RJ and Religion Chapter on how the biblical roots of the initial restorative justice ideal is precisely what made it so congruent with indigenous justice.

Source of first circle image above: Onefeather Journal/Medicine Wheel