Place Category: Traditional Practices
The Navajo Nation Peacemaking Program provides a traditional-culture alternative to Anglo-American justice practices by utilizing Diné wisdom, customs, and practices to resolve disputes. The program seeks justice for everyone involved by engaging the skills and perspectives of community members to come to a mutual solution. Community members sit down with the disputing parties to talk through issues, rather than having a “disinterested” third party (e.g., judge) make the decision for them. The consensual agreement of the parties in peacemaking emphasizes healing and lasting solutions rather than an adjudication of damages or punishment.
Program Running Length:
Roman Bitsuie, Peacemaking Program Coordinator
P.O. Box 520
Window Rock, AZ 86515
The Navajo Nation occupies portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico.
At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, larger than the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined. To the southeast of the main reservation, in New Mexico, are three noncontiguous Navajo territories: the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation, the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation, and the Tohajiilee Indian Reservation. The Nation’s land consists of varying physical environments including arid deserts, alpine forests, high plateaus, mesas, and mountains up to 10,500 feet.
The Navajo Nation’s reservation current population is estimated at 180,450 residents, of whom nearly 174,000 are Navajo. The Nation is organized into 110 chapters or local government subdivisions. Peacemaking serves the Navajo Nation lands and Navajo people who live outside the reservation area. The total population of the Navajo Nation is approximately 300,000.
The Peacemaking Program was developed to revive traditional Navajo justice methods. Beginning in the late 1800s, federal authorities instituted a Court of Indian Offenses on the Navajo Nation. This court, and the legal code that accompanied it, were based on Anglo principles of justice and were developed in part to supplant traditional tribal justice practices. Although the Navajo Nation replaced the Court of Indian Offenses with a new court system in the 1950s, federal and state pressure ensured that this court system continued to mirror the western, adversarial court model. By the 1980s, the Navajo Nation sought to return to more traditional Navajo justice methods. The Navajo Nation Council, judges, and tribal members desired a solution that had roots in Navajo common law and that would be informed by Diné wisdom, customs, and practices. Peacemaking would be combined with existing Anglo court procedures to change the fundamental nature of the judicial system.The Navajo Nation Peacemaking Program aims to serve any tribal member who has a dispute with another member or group. Peacemaking also: contributes to legislative, program, and policy development; provides education curriculum and services in schools and communities; addresses conflict and negotiations among agencies, Navajo and non-Navajo governments, and for the Navajo Nation.The Peacemaking Program is the culmination of a process that began in 1982, when the Navajo Judicial Council voted to create a Peacemaker Court. This court was the Navajo Nation’s first formal effort to revive traditional peacemaking methods in the judicial system. Over the next 30 years, however, Anglo court procedures came to dominate the Peacemaker Court and began to overshadow the core values of peacemaking. In response, the Navajo Judicial Conference and Navajo Nation Council worked to address the contradictions between peacemaking and Anglo court procedures, ultimately changing the Peacemaker Court into a non-judicial Peacemaking Program with its own set of guidelines intended to preserve the essential components of traditional Navajo peacemaking. In addition, the Peacemaking Program took on the responsibility of providing education about traditional justice practices throughout the Navajo Nation.The Navajo Nation Peacemaking Program aims to mend interpersonal conflicts through harmony, using consensus-based agreement as the primary tool. Parties are encouraged to solve their own problems by opening communication through respect, responsibility, and good relationships. The Peacemaking Program actively substitutes healing in place of coercion, helping people through a self-healing process of the mind, body, and spirit to end conflict.
Peacemaking strengthens Navajo culture by providing education for youth and adults in schools and community settings, and for service providers in many Navajo and non-Navajo agencies. Peacemaking’s Youth Apprentice program trains and mentors youth apprentice Peacemakers for peer-to-peer counseling in schools.
Peacemaking personnel are deeply engaged in policy and program development, bringing traditional cultural approaches to current issues such as education, addiction, violence, and suicide prevention.
Peacemaking maintains a library of traditional cultural information and performs research for judges and other government officials.Importantly, the Peacemaking Program is not a court process. A Peacemaker does not adjudicate or pass judgment on a dispute; rather he or she facilitates a dialogue so disputing parties can reach a decision for themselves. Matters of jurisdiction, venue, pleading practice, and rules of court are not a concern in the peacemaking process as peacemakers are not judges. Peacemakers are individuals who are widely respected and hold positions of influence in the community and who are well known for possessing exceptional leadership skills.
Participation in peacemaking is completely voluntary by all parties, and adversarial practices are not permitted. Detailed peacemaking guidelines have been developed to ensure that the process is carried out properly. The guidelines are not rules, but are meant to prevent intrusion by the adversarial process and promote the utilization of traditional Diné dispute resolution.
When a dispute is brought to the Peacemaking Program, a peacemaker is assigned to the case and interested community members may become involved as well. A session begins with an opening prayer, introductions, and instructions stating the hóóchxǫ’/anáhóót’i’, which is the collective terminology for disharmony in one’s life or between a group of people. Discussion of hóóchxǫ ’/anáhóót’i’is followed by further life value engagement, catharsis and opening up to hózh̨̨ǫ̨́, meaning harmony and balance. Acceptance of hózhǫ̨́ must take place before moving on to the discussion of nályééh, or all the chaos that disrupts inner and outer harmonious life. The session ends with a closing prayer. Sessions often conclude with everyone eating together. The ceremonies before and after each peacemaking session are holistic and connect each person to the elements, the seasons, the environment, and the heavenly bodies.The Navajo court system outlines the guidelines for Peacemaking, and the Navajo Judicial Conference and Navajo Nation Council have operated the program since its creation. The Peacemaking Program operates under the general supervision of the Chief Justice and oversight of the Law and Order Committee, while administered by the Peacemaking Program Coordinator. The Program Coordinator manages the Traditional Program Specialists, Diné Traditional Researcher, and Bi-Cultural Training Manager.
In addition to providing dispute resolution services, the Peacemaking Program promotes the research, development, and learning of Navajo culture, traditions, and other Navajo accepted beliefs in support of judicial and community programs by providing education and training to individuals, organizations, and communities.Eligibility Criteria
Any Navajo tribal member who has a dispute or conflict with another tribal member or group, and who desires assistance, is eligible. All matters, including personal, community, and economic conflicts, are eligible for peacemaking. Whether or not a matter is referred to peacemaking depends upon the mutual agreement of the parties to the dispute.
The Peacemaking Program accepts referrals from courts, schools, and other agencies. Referral forms can be found on the program’s website. Other methods of referral are accepted as long as the referral provides the contact information of the individuals seeking services and a summary of the problem.
Supervision and Compliance
There are three kinds of peacemaker who may be appointed to conduct a peacemaking session. Traditional Program Specialist, Chapter-Certified Peacemaker, or a peacemaker selected by the participant themselves. The Traditional Program Specialists are trained in peacemaking and life value engagements and are full-time staff of the Program. Their training includes multi-cultural and multi-faith approaches, as well as approaches specific to children. The Chapter-Certified Peacemakers are peacemakers who are certified by their respective chapter houses. Names of all Chapter-Certified Peacemakers are on a list maintained by the Program. These peacemakers are trained in peacemaking and life value engagements by the Program and are to obtain additional trainings on their own. Peacemakers selected by the participants themselves can be anyone the participants agree will serve their matter. Traditionally, an elder of the family or an esteemed relative of the clan would be chosen.
The peacemaker leads the sessions in an informal manner, maintaining appropriate decorum and control. By preventing adversity and hostility and promoting courtesy and respect, the peacemaker ensures that the parties’ conduct does not violate the spirit of Navajo peacemaking. A successful peacemaking will result in an agreement, or a sacred promise. The peacemaker is not allowed to write the agreement for the participants but may assist in making sure the whole understanding is written down if the participants are unable to write and no family member is available to help. All participants will receive copies of the agreement, and if the peacemaking was done pursuant to a referral, the Program will submit an outcome summary to the referral source and attach a copy of the agreement.
Follow-up sessions can be requested by any party to monitor progress or to consider amendments to the peacemaking agreements. Follow-up session are also requested to see if the agreement is kept, usually in the case of a vulnerable party such as an elderly person or child.
The peacemaker may expel any participant from the peacemaking session if the person’s conduct violates the spirit of Navajo peacemaking. Any unauthorized breach of confidentiality may be punished according to Navajo Nation law, which could include termination from the program.The Navajo Nation provides financial support for the program, with some additional support from grant funding. Peacemakers receive a fee, paid for by the peacemaking participants, called a yeel which is given as an acknowledgement of the value of their services.Peacemaking provides technical assistance to many organizations within and outside the Navajo Nation. Peacemaking personnel are available to provide policy insights in the formation of programs, policies, and legislation. Their technical assistance includes researching and providing opinions about the traditional, cultural solutions to problems and issues for judges, legislators, and administrators. Peacemaking provides traditional cultural curriculum used in schools, universities, and by agencies and service providers.Although the Peacemaking Program is separate from the Navajo court system, it partners closely with the courts. The courts refer many disputes to the Peacemaking Program, and each judicial district is assigned a Peacemaking Liaison who is responsible for maintaining the relationship between the program and the courts. In addition, the courts can issue orders to give effect to agreements reached in peacemaking.
Peacemaking has Memoranda of Understanding with 42 schools, the Navajo Housing Authority, and others to provide services to students, clients, program personnel, and executives.A great deal of the Peacemaking Program’s success can be attributed to the fact that it has revived a traditional approach to dispute resolution that is deeply rooted in Navajo culture. Rather than focusing on assigning blame and handing down punishment, Diné peacemaking is a consensus-based, community-centered approach that focuses on harmony and open communication. This restoration justice model returns participants to productive co-existence in their communities, instead of using incarceration or damages as tools of justice.Like many tribes, the Navajo Nation is striving to preserve its culture, language, and traditions despite the pervasive influence of the dominant society. This challenge is a difficult one, however, and many Navajo youth today are disconnected from their language and culture. The Peacemaking Program is not immune to these challenges, and it has taken on the responsibility of educating the Navajo people about important aspects of their tradition and preparing Navajo children to meet the demands of life both on and off the reservation.The peacemakers and community members have learned the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with the Navajo court system while not crossing the line into Anglo judicial practices. Maintaining this boundary is a lesson that is constantly being reinforced since the creation of the Peacemaking Program.
Another lesson is that consensus-based dispute resolution is more beneficial to the tribe than incarceration of offenders. It has been observed that when tribal members are released from jail, they often engage in the same—if not worse—behavior. Peacemaking aims to stop this cycle, and the Navajo people have seen that rehabilitation through peacemaking is more likely to lead to a lasting solution.
Finally, the community has learned that an effective peacemaker is someone known for fairness, wisdom, respect, and ability to plan. These individuals are highly regarded in the Navajo community and are nominated for the position.During FY 2015/2016, Peacemaking provided services, education, outreach, and intervention to over 7,000 people.Peacemaking consistently exceeds its program goals. During 2016, Peacemaking was to recruit, train, and mentor 50 youth apprentice Peacemakers. 100 young people graduated from training and are acting as peer-to-peer Peacemakers in their schools. Services to court-involved youth were also successful, with restoration of truants and youth offenders to their families and schools.The community is a critically important component of the Peacemaking Program. Diné peacemaking relies heavily on the community’s involvement and interest in becoming peacemakers. The community response has been so positive that a Peacemaker Youth Apprentice Mentoring Program was created to develop leaders for the next generation by promoting a strong Diné cultural foundation that will strengthen them for future challenges. This program has been brought into local schools to pass on the skills and values of peacemaking.Individual stories from Peacemaking participants are powerful examples of the importance of culturally-relevant solutions for conflict. Bringing together the extended family members of a couple suffering from domestic violence, and discussing the impact on the entire family and the surrounding community, is in sharp contrast to the limited testimony allowed in an Anglo-style court and the frequent result of incarceration. In Peacemaking, the family takes on responsibility to assist the couple in resolving the behavior, and enforces family and community expectations with ongoing guidance and involvement. Youth who are alienated from school because of acting out are brought back into the school community by acknowledging the impacts of their behavior and making amends, instead of being ostracized by their own embarrassment and sense of rejection. Parolees and probationers are returned to their families and communities in a process of reconciliation and healing, with support of their families negotiated through Peacemaking.
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