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Frequently Asked Questions

Peacemaking can be most simply described as a process where people can talk together to resolve conflict. It is a community-based process that addresses the concerns of all interested parties. While it has been adapted to other circumstances, in indigenous communities the process uses traditional values and sometimes ceremonial practices. Frequent examples include the group orienting itself in a circle, the use of prayer and purification, and attention to Clan relationships. A circle can involve supporters, elders, and interested family and community members. Within the circle, people are encouraged to speak from the heart, and together to identify and agree upon the steps necessary for healing the relationships harmed by the conflict.

All nations traditionally had methods in their culture for dealing with disputes. Indigenous Peacemaking involves continuation or revitalization of those practices in indigenous communities. In cases where group knowledge of a process may have been lost during colonization, models from other nations may be consulted. In many cases, local native people may have helped non-natives adapt and develop native practices to fit in the non-native contexts, such as for sentencing circles and peacemaking circles as dispute resolution tools.

Many traditional tribal practices involve some form of talking circles. A talking circle involves individuals sitting in a circle, taking turns to express their thoughts on a particular issue. In the circle, everyone has an equal place; there is no hierarchy. Often times, a talking piece is used and passed around the circle. The talking piece can be a feather or other treasured object. Only the person holding the talking piece is allowed to talk. This process requires active and deep listening. Historically, native cultures used talking circles as a way of bringing people together for the purposes of teaching, listening, and learning. More recently, talking circles are being used to facilitate healing processes in both tribal and non-tribal communities.

See Hon. Janine P. Geske and India McCanse, Neighborhoods Healed through Restorative Justice, 15 No. 1 Disp. Resol. Mag. 16-18 (Fall 2008).

See Paulette Running Wolf and Julie A. Rickard, Talking Circles: A Native American Approach to Experiential Learning, 31 No. 1 Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development 39-43 (January 2003).

Peacemaking-like circles are sometimes used to develop consensus on an appropriate sentencing plan that addresses the concerns of all interested parties. (See a related article from the National Institute of Justice website). They usually occur only after someone has entered a guilty plea in a court system.  In a tribal context, sentencing circles can integrate tribal values, traditions, and social structures. The use of sentencing circles began in the Canadian Yukon region in the early 1980s, and they are now increasingly being used across North America.

A circle process can be used in a focused manner to facilitate healing. In a criminal law context, separate healing circles may be held for both victim and offender. The healing circle for the victim may or may not be part of a larger circle process where both the victim and the offender will meet face-to-face in the same circle at a later date. On the other hand, the healing circle for the victim may also be entirely independent from the offender’s circle, or the healing circle may be the only process used in situations where the offender has not been identified or caught.

Focus Past conduct; individual responsibility; legal responsibilities. Past, present, and future conduct; party responsibility; needs of parties. Past, present, and future conduct; individual and community responsibility; individual and community needs.
Tools Incarceration; imposed restrictions; imposed damages; coercion. Self-determination; voluntary restrictions; voluntary damages; trust. Reintegration; restoration; support; trust.
Procedure Fixed rules. Fixed rules; flexible guidelines. Flexible guidelines.
Decision-Making Adversarial; state imposed. Consensus; party determined. Consensus; community determined.
Participation Restricted; limited to parties and party reps.  But, often public is permitted to watch. Restricted; limited to parties, party representatives or supporters. May be open to all; Impacted people may participate.
Third-party “neutral” 100% percent in charge with authority to level penalty and impose decision. No authority to make decisions; limited activity. Equal to parties in authority and activity.
Issues Broken laws; civil liability. Civil relationships Community, group and family relationships
Results Winner/Loser Agreement; no agreement. Consensus, common ground to maximize all interests
Confidentiality Public record Strict; few exceptions Honored; exceptions
–Source: Shawn Watts, Columbia Law School