Indigenous Roots of Restorative Conflict Resolution Practices;

Overview of Current Trends; Review of a Few Processes

June 2001

Introductory Remarks

This presentation explores the indigenous roots of restorative conflict resolution practices

It commences by examining a few key notions inherent to the ideology of indigenous and pagan peoples that have a direct impact on their understanding of justice

It then considers the impact of colonization and detribalization on these peoples, with a particular focus on Aboriginal peoples and the criminal justice system in Canada

Finally, it explores the reclaiming of traditional conflict resolution practices by indigenous peoples, and the profound impact this is now having on the international restorative justice movement


A Few Fundamental Values and Concepts of Pagan and Earth/Nature-based Ideologies that Underlie Restorative Processes

"The Way of Life" is inextricably connected with a fundamental spiritual foundation

Integration is with a creative energy that informs and sustains all creation such that all animate, inanimate and sentient beings are essential components of a "Great Mystery"

The divine is reflected in and accessed through the natural world around us

This linkage is honoured and acknowledged at all times

Principles of interdependence, respect and responsibility are fundamental values

Nature and the laws and symbolism of nature teach one respect, responsibility, interdependence and how to live one’s life

One comes to this understanding primarily through a process of personal realization or apprehension as compared to through the teachings of a prophet or institution or organized religion

The potential to co-create with all others and in particular with the creative energy of the universe exists for all, and thus choice and volition are important concepts

The Symbol of the Circle, the Medicine Wheel or Mandala

The symbol of the circle is fundamental to the ideologies of indigenous and pagan cultures

*Note – In most dictionaries, Pagan is defined as "one who does not acknowledge the God of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, or belief in a false God"; the Latin root of the word is ignored – pagus – village or country, that is the world of nature; the word heathan carries similar connotations, though its root comes from hearth, again nature.

The Medicine Wheel/Circle concept incorporates a cyclical view of life

There are many variations of the symbol, and its teachings are complex and endless

It is essential for the Medicine Wheel to be balanced, with no domination of any one spectrum

The Medicine Wheel spins and is always in motion

For indigenous peoples of North America, the Medicine Wheel can represent the following and much more:

It takes choice, will power and volition to keep one’s own Medicine Wheel spinning as one spirals towards achieving one’s individual potential

"All My Relations; We Are All Related"

This is the fundamental premise of the belief system and prayers of the indigenous peoples of North America (and others)

It stresses the interconnectedness, interdependence and relationship with all creation

It stresses linkages and relationships on Mother Earth and with the larger universe – and acknowledges their impacts on each other

It stresses the "interrelatedness" of well being

For example, consider the role the lion plays in the well being and health of the zebra herd

In contrast, note that we now have logging companies proudly advertising their tree replacement initiatives; they have no comprehension of the delicate ecosystems that have been destroyed and that cannot be restored

Interrelatedness within Community

Interrelatedness and interdependence are fundamental values in indigenous societies

The Spirit of Ubuntu in Africa

"Africans have this thing called Ubuntu. It is about a sense of being human. It is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person; that my humanity is caught up, bound up inextricably in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms therefore you seek to work for the common good, because your humanity comes into its own in belonging".

Bishop Desmond Tutu

Individuality versus Individualism

Individuality is the sum of the characteristics or traits peculiar to the individual, the aggregate of characteristics that distinguish one person from others

Individuality is synonymous with uniqueness, distinctness

In indigenous societies, the individual and his/her gifts are irreplaceable and contribute to the mosaic of the whole

Thus the individual is a cornerstone of the community

Individualism is a system or condition in which each individual works for his/her own ends, in social, political, or religious matters

It is the theory that one should have freedom in one’s economic pursuits and should succeed by one’s own initiative

It is the doctrine that the interests of the individual should have preference over the interests of the state or social group

In western society, the tendency is to see community as antithetical or even a threat to the interests of the individual

The Individual and the Community

Whether they are raised in traditional indigenous societies or in modern cultures, there are two things that people crave:

full realization of their innate gifts; and

having these gifts acknowledged, affirmed and confirmed

We need external recognition to inspire us to fulfill our life’s purpose, to achieve our potential and to take our places in our community

Our own confirmation or acknowledgement of ourselves is not enough

The need to be acknowledged by the community is so primal that if it is not met, people with go searching for it, adopt patterns of behaviour inappropriate for them, or become alienated and disturbed

This is echoed in the word of the old song

No man is an Island

And I need you

Honest I do

The Great Vision of Black Elk, Oglala Sioux Holy Man, takes the concept much deeper:

I was seeing in a sacred manner the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

Elder William Commanda espouses his vision for the coming together of the human race as a Circle of All Nations nationally and internationally:

" As we straddle these difficult times of the millennia, foreseen by spiritual visionaries across the ages and across the world, I bring to you this message from my ancestors, a message inscribed in wampum shell in the late 1400s.

It is a vision for a future where we honour our relationship and responsibility to mother earth and all creation, and celebrate our individual gifts and diversity while recognizing our place within a Circle of All Nations.

The steps are few, to realize this future.

First we look within, so we know ourselves first and best. We forgive ourselves our shortcomings and any failiure to achieve our best potential.

Then we seek to know and understand all others whose paths cross ours. We forgive them the hardship and pain they may have caused us. We trust that this energy will transform them spiritually.

We place peace within the ripples that our thoughts, words and actions create in our world, knowing that these ripples will travel far and affect mother earth and all creation.

We heed our minds and our passions, but we trust our hearts above all. This will lead us to justice, healing, love, sharing and respect.

The path will lead us to a "Circle of All Nations and a Culture of Peace".

The Child’s Life Purpose in the Indigenous Community

Indigenous and pagan peoples believe that each individual is born with a purpose

It is a unique purpose that is at the same time profoundly connected with community

Some communities are so interested in the purpose of the child that they consult with the stars or Mother Earth and the plant and animal worlds regarding its future

Names are chosen consistent with this mission

This life purpose is revealed in the aptitudes and interests of the child

The community is responsible for nurturing this potential

The developed child contributes to the strength of the community

Indigenous values underline the importance of "connectedness" with all creation

For many, ritual provides a sense of connection within community and with a greater dimension

Initiation rites are series of planned challenges presented to individuals so that they may grow into their potential

Tribal life is full of public ritual initiations marking the various stages of a person’s life

Successful completion of the rites increase the individual’s responsibilities within the community

The fundamental focus is on community responsibility as compared to individual rights

Individual Rights vs Community Responsibility

A source of conflict in reconciling the ideologies of the West and indigenous societies arises from the contrasting focus on individual rights and community responsibility

The Mahatma Gandhi alluded to this principle when asked to assist in drawing up a Charter of Human Rights, with other world leaders. He wrote:

In my experience, it is far more important to have a charter of human duties

John F. Kennedy echoed the same sentiment when he said

Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country

So much of the focus on rights in the West has come as a consequence of righting wrongs - it has not constituted an organic evolution

As a result of historic power imbalances, we now have women’s rights, workers’ rights, civil rights, human rights, children’s rights, animal rights, rights of the disabled etc.

The new Western focus on rights creates dilemmas for indigenous people whose traditional survival has entailed fostering responsibility and interdependence

Survival of the community was of paramount importance to indigenous societies. But, paradoxically, so was that of the individual

So the focus was always on reinforcing the "interrelatedness" theme and responsibility and respect were the fundamental underlying values that sustained communities

Unfortunately this delicate balancing was dismantled through the years of colonization, oppression and exploitation across the world

Harmony and Balance

Maintenance of harmony and balance was crucial to the well being of communities, and was the responsibility of all

When this balance was challenged by conflict, dispute or wrongdoing, all were engaged in reestablishing harmony

Resolving conflict therefore was the community’s business, and was rooted in a spiritual, community based process

Establishing guilt was not the central focus; reestablishing harmony was

Examples of a Few Traditional Restorative Conflict Resolution Approaches

Malidoma Patrice Some, in his book "The Healing Wisdom of Africa" describes the "Ash Circle", a process used in his community to resolve conflict and restore harmony:

The responsibility of each chief is to maintain the shrine of the group as well as to ensure that crises are handled the proper way. Each time a crisis occurs between two people, it is resolved by ritual in the presence of everyone else, and only after it has been examined through divination to ensure that it is just a conflict and not something deeper affecting more people, like a plague. The parties involved in the conflict come together in an ash circle. They sit facing each other; the defendant listens to the story of his accuser first. The accuser speaks about how the action of the other made him feel and the crowd, led by the chief, guides the two parties along. The whole crisis usually ends up looking like an unpleasant misunderstanding, and the two opponents become friends with the applause of everyone witnessing.

Of course, things may not always work out like this. It may be that the crisis, because it has been simmering for such a long time, does not cool of in the circle of ash. So a failed ash-circle ritual means that healers have a job to do – to reduce the heat between the two people before they meet again. Should none of this work, it shows that one of the parties is not doing his part. At such a time, the chiefs of all the elements will deliver their warning to the renegade party, making him responsible for the lingering of the crisis.

Gatherings and feasts constituted venues for community reconciliation and restoration of relationships in many societies. The Mi’qMaq people of Eastern Canada had a New Year ritual – a community feast which included a non-adversarial ceremony, led by the chief, of asking forgiveness for past wrongs both intentional and inadvertent. "Auld Lang Syne", sung across the world each New Year, echoes this sentiment.

Many African societies reflected the same approach – where the emphasis was on the reconciliation and maintenance or even improvement of social relationships. Chief and headmen played a central role in conflict resolution and an active role in the proceedings (Choudree)

With the Pedi people of Africa, great efforts were taken to reconstruct the cause of any dispute, to show individuals who were not the accused how their actions might have given rise to the conflict. Serious efforts were made to settle disputes out of court and matters were often postponed so that the parties involved could "secure yet more relatives to assist them" (Choudree)

With the Pondo of Africa, if a person realizes he is in the wrong, or it is apparent to him that his fellow lineage members deem him to be so, he may impose a fine of a sheep, goat or even a beast (cow) on himself to indicate his contrition and to "wash away" his offence (Choudree)

A recent example of the use of the cleansing and expiation process in South Africa was reported in the Weekly Globe and Mail – 1994 – Supporters of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, also Minister in the Government of National Unity) demonstrated against a meeting of the Zulu King and President Mandela and embarrassesd the King

– Chief Buthelezi offered his King two head of cattle as a "self imposed penalty" for the demonstration

The Mahatma Gandhi went to London to study to be a lawyer, but could not function in the courtroom in India – fate intervened - something Gandhi, looking back on his life from the vantage point of decades of inner evolution called an "act of grace", the unfolding of events according to some deep inner necessity which he himself was unaware – he went to South Africa (Easwaran)

He settled his first case through arbitration, out of court. He stated that "I had learnt the true practice of law. I had learnt to find out the better side of human nature and to enter men’s hearts. I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder" (Easwaran)

Around the turn of the century, J. M. Synge writes this tale about his visit to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland:

The old man "often tells me about a man who killed his father with a blow of a spade when he was in a passion, and then fled to this island and through himself on the mercy of some of the natives with whom he was said to be related. They hid him in a hole in … and kept him safe for several weeks, though the police came and searched for him, and he could hear their boots grinding on the stones above him. In spite of the reward that was offered, the island was incorruptible, and after much trouble the man was safely shipped to America.

This impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated English jurisdiction, but more to the primitive feeling of these people, who are never criminals yet always capable of crime, that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a passion which is as irresponsible as a storm on the sea. If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law.

Such a man, they say, will be quiet all the rest of his life, and if you suggest that punishment is needed as an example, they ask, "Why would one kill his father if he was able to help it?"

Some time ago, before the introduction of police, all the people of the islands were as innocent as the people here remain to this day. I have heard that the time the ruling proprietor and magistrate of the north island used to give any man who had done wrong a letter to a jailer in Galway, and send him off by himself to serve a term of imprisonment.

As there was no steamer, the ill-doer was given a passage in some chance hooker to the nearest point on the mainland. Then he walked for many miles along a desolate shore until he reached the town. When his time had been put through, he crawled back along the same route, feeble and emaciated, and had often to wait many weeks before he could regain the island. Such at least is the story.

It seems absurd to apply the same laws to these people and to the criminal classes of a city. The most intelligent man of Inishmaan has often spoken to me of his contempt of the law, and of the increase of crime the police have brought to Aranmor. On this island, he says, if men have little differences, or a little fight, their friends take care it does not go too far, and in a little time it is forgotten. In Kilkoran, there is a band of men paid to make out cases for themselves; the moment a blow is struck, they come down and arrest the man who gave it. The other man he quarreled with has to give evidence against him; whole families come to the court and swear against each other till they become bitter enemies. If there is a conviction, the man who is convicted never forgives. He waits his time, and before the year, there is a cross summons, which the other man in turn never forgives. The feud continues to grow, until a dispute about the colour of a man’s hair may end in murder, after a year’s forcing by the law. The mere fact that it is impossible to get reliable evidence in the island – not because people are dishonest, but because they think the claim on kinship more sacred than the claims of abstract truth – turns the whole system of sworn evidence into a demoralizing farce, and it is easy to believe that the law dealings on this false basis must lead to every sort of injustice"

The Impact of Colonization on Indigenous Peoples

The onslaught of colonization brought in new communities with new ideologies

It also involved the deliberate dismantling of indigenous cultures and communities, and in particular the spiritual framework

Indigenous peoples have suffered near genocide, oppression, exploitation, systemic and overt racism and misunderstanding and intellectual appropriation

The impact of the cultural clash is evident in the destabilization of all aspects of life of indigenous peoples across the world

It is little wonder that they are also disproportionately represented at all levels of the criminal justice system in colonized lands

Root Causes of Crime

Crime has its roots in dysfunctional, deprived lifestyles

Contributory factors include poverty, substance abuse, family violence, sexual abuse, unemployment, lack of education, fetal alcohol syndrome and effect, detribalization, alienation and isolation

These conditions are more prevalent amongst Aboriginal/indigenous/colonized peoples

Crime is motivated by social conditions rather than by greed

Offenders are invariably also victims

The plight is accentuated for women, and particularly for indigenous women and women of colour

At the same time it is important to note that others caught in the criminal justice system are also frequently marginalized, isolated and alienated from family and community

Twentieth century literature repeatedly explores the plight of the antihero, the lost soul who has lost his anchor, his sense of belonging

A regeneration of a spirit of community is essential to entrenching and advancing restorative justice

The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system evolved as punitive and retributive in most western democracies

The accepted term "system" establishes it as an institutionalized approach to resolving conflict

US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand have higher rates of incarceration; these are all colonized lands

Invariably, indigenous peoples are disproportionately represented at all levels of the criminal justice system – policing, courts, corrections and victimization

In the mainstream system,

In the indigenous world view,

- therefore, one needed to be taught


- therefore, one needed to be healed

as well

- one could be banished or branded

An Anglo European view of justice was imposed on peoples with fundamentally different values and ideologies, originally as a part of the process of colonization, exploitation and oppression

Beyond language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, there were often no indigenous words for mainstream justice terminology

For example, it is said that the Inuit have no word for Lawyer – it is explained as "the one who lies for you"

Elder William Commanda often shares this telling joke – An Aboriginal man was charged with possession of alcohol, and the judge informed him that he found him guilty of buying whiskey. The man protested "Me didn’t buy no guilty!"

In the traditional mainstream justice system:

In the 70s, community based voices and initiatives emerged :

Aboriginal peoples brought the community perspective into the equation

With the other alternatives, criminal justice system professionals were involved

For indigenous societies, community survival was dependent on harmonious relationships

Wrong doing and conflict threw this out of balance and created disharmony; this endangered the community

The community therefore had a vested interest in resolving the conflict

Notions of community and family are often interwoven in indigenous societies, because "all are related"

Chief Justice Yazzi of the Navajo Nation describes an offender as one who acts like he has no relatives

(He also believes the most important thing in his courtroom is the box of kleenex)

The now popular Family Group Conferencing conflict resolution process has its origins in the reclaiming of indigenous practices of the Maori – the name came because there was no word for "not family" as "all are related"

Renewal in Indigenous Justice

Over the past two decades, the momentum to reclaim indigenous restorative practices has accelerated, in particular in Canada

These efforts involve rediscovering and retrenching the fundamental practices of earlier times

Increasingly, people are returning to ceremony, sacred practices, and incorporation of spiritual practices in every day life

This includes vision quests and dreaming to rediscover self, identity and purpose, powwows to regenerate the spirit of community, and sacred rituals (smudging, sweats and sundances) for purification and healing

Community based problem solving and healing processes are being initiated

Communities are reclaiming ceremonial processes that were used to resolve problems

These protocols created an environment of respect or fear where the offender readily acknowledged responsibility for his behaviour

We now have many communities exploring sentencing and healing circles, conferencing, developing healing lodges, peacekeeping initiatives etc.

Recent Trends In Canada

In the 80s and 90s, the voice of indigenous peoples began to grow in strength

1993 ushered in the UN International Decade for Indigenous Peoples

The indigenous voice began to take its place at many levels, including on justice matters

In Canada, thirty decades of reports and studies established that Aboriginal peoples had been subjected to a justice system that to them was foreign and alien

In the 80s and 90s, Aboriginal Justice Inquiries in most provinces and territories found indigenous peoples ill served by the criminal justice system

In Canada, Aboriginal peoples are over represented at every level - policing, courts, corrections, victimization

Over the past decade, the federal government has introduced new policies and programs to better address the needs and aspirations of Aboriginal peoples

In the early nineties, there were three significant federal initiatives:

As well, there were innovative developments to address the cancer of sexual abuse

Restorative Justice

The clashes with respect to understanding justice have stimulated a reexamination of the premises for justice, and ushered in a growing interest in community based justice, under the banner of "restorative justice"

Aboriginal struggles, initiatives and programs have served as impetus to advance the notions of restorative justice and healing throughout the criminal justice system

This is evidenced in the new justice language, where hitherto unused words like balance, harmony, healing, community and spirit are now informing the dialogue

Strengthening of communities is also growing in importance – as is evidenced now in the promoting Volunteerism

Now, there is an active drive to promote restorative justice in Canada

Canada is also taking a lead in promoting restorative justice at the United Nations level

The fundamental principles underlying restorative justice are that

Examples of some Restorative Justice Programs are as follows:

Real Justice developed the Social Control Window to explain how restorative principles can be incorporated into formal and informal processes

It examines response to wrongdoing and conflict in the context of the interplay of the variables of control and support


Research undertaken by Dr. Paul McCold, Director of the International Institute on Restorative Practices, sister organization to Real Justice, examines the Types and Degrees of Restorative Justice Practice

He identifies three types of restorative practices with three primary stakeholders – victim, offender and their respective communities of care, as well as their primary "circles of needs": victim reparation, offender responsibility and community reconciliation

Restorative practices may address the needs of one, two or three of these primary stakeholders and their respective needs

The research indicates that processes that involve community are the most restorative

Circles and conferences fall within this category

Family Group Conferencing

International developments have had an influence on the promotion of restorative justice practices in Canada

One very significant practice, family group conferencing, was introduced in a conference in New Zealand in 1993

The NZ model was adopted and adapted by Australian Police Officer Terry O’Connell

It was promoted in Canada, US, UK and South Africa

Real Justice has promoted conferencing in N. America and internationally since 1994

It has developed and refined training materials, produced videos, website, newsletters, books

It offers training of facilitators, and training

of trainers

It has coordinated three international conferences

"Facing the Demons" is an Australian Documentary that profiles Terry O’Connell’s use of conferencing with a serious crime

Conferencing gives voice to victims and offenders and supporters - people whose voices have been taken away by the professionals (teachers, social workers, police, lawyers)

Conferencing allows participation in a context that permits expression of emotion, endorses reintegrative shaming and facilitates problem solving

Conferencing has great potential for use in schools, youth justice, criminal justice system, corrections, work places, in discrimination and harassment cases

Conferencing complements other alternative dispute resolution processes – victim offender mediation, sentencing circles, circles of support

The conferencing process is supported by the research findings of John Braithwaite and Donald Nathanson

Benefits include

It has longer term peace building potential



The indigenous perspective can offer an instructive context for a fuller understanding of the issues of conflict, crime, relationships and institutional structures

The indigenous perspective allows for a

focusing in on the core issues of pain, safety, forgiveness, healing and transformation

It adds a unique dimension to the exploration of the notion that the best end result of conflict is the restoration of the balance and harmony in relationships; that engaging the parties most closely involved in the conflict is important in this rebalancing process; and that the end result can be a spiritually transforming restorative justice

Romola Vasantha Trebilcock

506 Stratas Court, Kanata, Ontario K2L3K7

613-599-8385(ph) 613-599-7965(fax)