Decolonizing Restorative Justice

By Denise C. Breton, Unsettling Ourselves

When I first heard about restorative justice, I remember feeling liberated and inspired by a movement that advocates responses to harm other than inflicting more harm. What a concept! It gave me hope that the untold harms in this world could be addressed in healing ways—ways that addressed why harms were happening in the first place. We could put our energies and resources into repairing whatever needed mending and changing whatever was generating hurt.

If, for example, a square peg was not fitting into a round hole, hitting it harder, denigrating square-ness, or locking the peg in a drawer for a few years was not going to solve the problem. According to restorative justice, harms alert us that we need to look deeper into our relationships and how we are going about life. If we respond to harms in a good and open way, they can help us live better with a greater understanding of those around us and the nature of our worlds. Because there is no part of our lives where conflicts, hurts, and harms do not arise, restorative justice can be revolutionary to virtually everything we do. The concept seemed so simple yet so profound.

Restorative justice still gives me hope, but I have had more time to think about it, and I have since been on the 2004 Dakota Commemorative March. I still think restorative justice holds huge promise for helping us learn how to coexist as people, but I think the very essence of restorative justice as a philosophy and way of life calls us to expand our focus to include more than person-to-person harms. What about our history—how we got to where we are as Peoples? How did we end up with this “round pegs only” pegboard, and at what cost?

These are the more fundamental questions—those that make us look at the roots of harms. As we do, we are challenged to apply what restorative justice practitioners have learned about healing harms between people to healing harms between Peoples. This is the direction restorative must go, I believe, or it will fall short of fulfilling its promise. Indeed, it will risk joining the other side and becoming part of the institutions that not only deny the greatest causes of suffering but also actively perpetuate harm.

For those new to the concept, restorative justice is about intervening on painful plotlines and exploring how to shift those plots, so that people’s lives can move in more healing directions. It is about responding to harms not with knee-jerk forced removals to detentions, suspensions, jails, or prisons but with concerted efforts to work things out and make things right. At its core, restorative justice is about coexistence: How can we make coexistence work—not when things are easy but when they are hard? Precisely when hurts occur and where harms exist, restorative justice poses the questions:

  • What happened?
  • Who was hurt?
  • Who caused the hurt?
  • What amends could and should be made now?
  • And what might it take for those harmed to feel whole?

When all those affected, including communities, come together to address these questions in open, honest, and heartfelt ways, healing generally follows. With time, effort, and resolve, people change, relationships blossom, and communities grow. Possibilities open for addressing harms that before seemed impossible.

Central to the restorative justice process is listening. It begins with listening to others and hearing stories different from our own. Before long, we start listening to ourselves in different ways as well. By creating spaces for people to share their stories, restorative justice processes bring to light how the individual and the collective overlap. Interconnected as we are, we each face realities not of our making but which affect us nonetheless. As we reflect on the larger contexts of harms, we inevitably ask: How did we arrive at a point where harms like this happened—and will happen again if we do not change?

Initiated in the 1970s with victim-offender mediation programs, restorative justice is basically new to the dominant society’s criminal justice system, yet its core concepts are ancient. Many Indigenous Peoples’ teachings and traditions distill generations of experiences about coexistence as a way of life and therefore about how to mend relations when they break down. For people living in closely knit communities, reacting to the surface event of harm without addressing the dynamics that led to it is neither logical nor practical. The realities of connectedness suggest that hurt is not an isolated event; it comes from somewhere, and because of connectedness, it affects many if not all people in the community.

In fact, those most affected serve to protect the wellbeing of the community, much as the canaries who died in the mines warned the miners of bad air: one person’s harmful act or another person’s suffering signals something out of balance that could be harming everyone. If a member of a community is behaving hurtfully to others, the rest of the community needs to ask why. Where is the urge to harm coming from? To effectively heal a hurt, those involved need to consider how it arose, and to do that, the whole community needs to participate in some way. The goal is not retribution but to repair broken relationships for the good of all. When harms occur, the most practical question is: What does it take for the community to come together and feel whole, so that the community and everyone in it are stronger, healthier, and less susceptible to similar harms in the future?

There are no set ways to do this; those affected must simply come together and decide how they want to work things out. Some Indigenous traditions do not rule out taking a life in extreme cases, such as murder, though banishment is more common. If killing the perpetrator of harm is chosen, though, it is generally not done to punish or deter. Other reasons are given, such as to appease the aggrieved so that retributive violence does not escalate, or to make it possible for the soul of the murdered to work things out with the soul of the murderer by sending the latter to the life beyond. The aim is healing, repair, restitution, and making whole, so that the community heals.

The Dakota linguist and scholar Ella C. Deloria provided an example of this determinedly reparative approach from her People, the Yankton Dakota. In her article “Some Notes on the Yankton,” published in Museum News of the Dakota Museum, University of South Dakota (Vermillion, South Dakota), March-April, 1967, Ms. Deloria shares her notes from a 1936 interview with Simon Antelope (the full text is reproduced on the Web site of Living Justice Press). Mr. Antelope was well into his seventies at the time and considered a man of standing in the Yankton Band of the Dakota. Mr. Antelope explained four methods that a Dakota community might use to respond to murder, and any of these methods was considered effective for community healing.

The first option was for a relative of the murdered person to kill the murderer: a life for a life. This option ended the matter.

The second option was to convene a council, and the most peaceful men would approach the murderer and the one who had been appointed to avenge the death to see if peace could be made. The whole community would contribute fine gifts for this process, because it was in everyone’s best interests that peace be restored. When the two antagonists accepted peace, the gifts were divided equally between them.

The third option was considered the most powerful and by far the most exemplary response, though it was the most difficult to do. It was for the family of the murdered person to adopt the murderer as a relative to take the place of the one killed. If this path was chosen, the murderer was not treated as a despised slave to the family but was given the finest gifts and treated with all the kindness and respect that the dead relative would have received. By so doing, both the family of the murdered person and the murderer would spend the rest of their lives committed to healing a harm that might otherwise have divided the community. “Such a man usually made a far better relative than many a natural relative,” Mr. Antelope observed, “because he was bought at a high price.”

Putting the murderer through ordeals of physical endurance was a fourth possibility. If the person failed the test, he was killed instantly by the arrows of onlookers related to the person who was murdered. If he passed, he was either taken in as a relative by the kin of the murdered or allowed to go free, exonerated.

The challenge for restorative justice today, I believe, is to apply this determinedly reparative, healing approach to addressing harms between Peoples—harms that go back generations. Yet the choice to engage in this process remains a hard sell, and many objections are raised to dismiss it:

All this awful stuff happened in the past. I didn’t personally do it. Why should I pay for what my great, great, great, great uncle did or didn’t do—or for people I’m not related to at all? People are just using the past to avoid taking responsibility for their lives now. My grandfather came here with two pennies in his pocket and built a good life; why can’t others do the same? We should put the past behind us and start fresh—let’s make it a clean slate. We’re all equal now. In fact, people of color get favored over the rest of us. Does the past really affect us all that much? Even if we wanted to, fixing the past is impossible, so why waste our time trying? Our ancestors won, and yours lost. That’s just the way it is. Get over it! Move on! Stop whining and blaming others for your problems! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Blend in! Get with the program! In any case, how do we know you’re not exaggerating? Our historians don’t tell us about these terrible events. Stories of atrocities aren’t in our written records. When Columbus landed, there probably weren’t more than one or two million Indians here anyway. I can’t help it if their immune systems couldn’t handle European diseases. Whatever happened, it’s no one’s fault; it’s just progress. If it hadn’t been us, it would have been someone else. Let’s focus on today’s harms; we’d be lucky to put those right. You can’t go forward by looking back. Face it: you’re better off now than your ancestors were before we came. You’ve got TVs, computers, cars, music, refrigerators, cell phones—tons of stuff you didn’t have. And look at TV sitcoms and all the news anchor people of color: there’s no racism anymore. We like everyone. I do anyway. Some of my best friends . . .

These reactions defend the status quo, and they keep how we got to where we are off the collective radar. Our time frame extends no more than a few decades into the past and into the future. If it were comparable to how we live personally, it would be like refusing to think one minute ahead or behind “now.” How could we sustain relationships or any serious endeavor? How could we learn to act responsibly? To offset this collective Attention Deficit Disorder, I imagine how I would feel if I were watching a movie about our history on this land:

The scene opens on a People who are human in every way—families, desires, differences, good years and hard years, close relations with some neighbors, more difficult relations with others. Over countless generations, they have worked out respectful relationships with all the beings who people the land. Indeed, as a People, their traditions teach them from their earliest moments of life how to be a good relative to each other and that all beings are their relatives. Respect and being generous out of gratitude for the generosity that sustains them are values that pervade their way of life. They are raised to be mindful of how we are all related, not because they have always done this perfectly, but precisely because they remember times in their history when they have forgotten to do this and have lived in unbalanced, disrespectful, or ungenerous ways. The costs, first paid by others, came back on them and proved too great. Having learned through hard experiences how to be a good relative, they have lived as a People on the land since time immemorial, and their ancestors are buried there.

Then the scene shifts. One day, a different sort of People arrives. At first, they seem friendly, but it quickly becomes clear that the Newcomers are there because they want what the Original People seem to have, namely, not only the land but also control of everything within the land. It is also clear that the Newcomers do not place much value on “being a good relative.” Seeing the Newcomers hit and yell at their children, saying “spare the rod, spoil the child,” the Original People wonder why the Newcomers don’t like their own offspring. It worries them, because if people treat their own so harshly, why would they treat others better? When these children grow up, where in their lives would they have learned how to treat others with respect, integrity, and kindness?

As the film moves on, the Original People’s worst fears come true. The Newcomers, now Settlers, become insatiable about claiming land without regard for those who live there and taking resources without noticing how it upsets the Natural World. They seem to stop at nothing to gain control of the place where the Original People have lived for generations. Inequitable agreements wildly favoring the Settlers are made under fraudulent and deceitful circumstances, and even then, the Settlers ignore the meager terms afforded the Original People. The Settlers give the Original People gifts of blankets infected with smallpox, so that huge numbers of them get sick and die. Dispossessed of their lands and livelihood, betrayed by governments that ignore their commitments, homeless and starving—we know what happens next.

But the conflict between the two Peoples simply provides a pretext for the Settler’s original agenda to go into full swing: to exterminate the Original People, either by killing them outright, causing their death through starvation, disease, exposure, or torture, or forcibly removing them beyond their borders. The genocide that follows, openly mandated by the Settler’s governor and executed by every crime against humanity, is perpetrated not by a few in government divorced from the will of the citizens but as a direct response to the will of the Settlers, so that the Settlers and their descendants can live where the Original People have lived. In fact, the Settler population actively carries out genocide against the Original People, murdering men, women, and children, even babies to collect a bounty, which for a single murder amounts to a year’s income.

As I watch this movie, I wonder how on earth it is going to work out. It’s as if I am watching The Godfather, only it’s much worse—more like Schindler’s List without a Schindler. Depressing as it is, I decide to fast forward.

A century and a half later, the Settlers have now become firmly entrenched as the Colonizers, the ones who hold the power, call the shots, arrange things for their own benefit, and don’t consider the cost to others. At any point, they could have changed their relationship with the Original People, but they haven’t and have no thought of doing so. In fact, having done everything they could to kill the Original People or to drive them away, the Colonizers have achieved their goal of never having to think about the Original People. Colonizer life goes on as if the Original People never existed on the land.

True, the land retains many of the place names used by the Original People, but many counties, roads, and public facilities are now named after the most virulent Settler leaders of genocide. Colonizer children born only decades after the holocaust have been taught nothing about what happened or how they came to live on the land. They encounter very few if any of the land’s Original People as they go about their daily lives. The region becomes known as the “whitest state in the Union,” yet no one asks how this came to be so. Instead of explaining the infamous history, schools, museums, clergy, books, magazines, and newspapers promote a story that celebrates the Settlers’ occupation, while dismissing the Original People—their language, traditions, knowledge, relationship with the land, even their competence as humans—as minor footnotes buried in the past.

Not surprisingly, the Colonizers live well: they are mostly landowners, they have nice homes by and large, most of them do not worry about food, they have good jobs, their children enjoy promising futures, and they have full representation in their colonial governments. They are told and believe that they live in a just, fair, and equitable society. They assume that when conflicts occur, everyone involved will receive “due process.” “The law of the land” is assumed to be basically good, and the system is trustworthy and reliable. Though injustices occur, the Colonizers are raised to believe that these are the exception rather than the rule.

True, there are problems, yet the problems these descendants face as a People are those they themselves have created, and in large part because they have not questioned the means that were used to get them where they are. “Might makes right” has continued as an unfortunate but inevitable way to conduct business and government. The Colonizers spend most of their waking hours in institutions that are authoritarian, hierarchical, competitive, and driven by money. “Being a good relative” is not a value in this environment; instead, doing what it takes to succeed and maximize profits are the priorities. Not only does the Natural World suffer as a result, but also the ruthlessness once reserved for the Original People overshadows the Colonizers’ working relations. Though the Colonizers have been raised to accept this way of life, many are unhappy. Heart attacks most commonly occur on Monday mornings. Addictions are epidemic, as is the use of antidepressant drugs. Many of their children are unhappy as well. Staggering numbers of them must be medicated in order to attend school, and some become vandalistic, violent, or suicidal.

Nonetheless, the Colonizers view themselves as good people, and they consider their society the pinnacle of human evolution. They view themselves as superior humans living in a superior culture. Their ethic is to get an education, work hard, go to church, and be conscientious in childrearing, even questioning their ancestors’ harsh treatment of children. Some volunteer to help the needy through their religious institutions, while others are active in civic and political life. Precisely because their schools and institutions still promote win-lose ethics and competition as the way to find one’s place in the world, the Colonizers feel they have earned whatever they have and that they deserve a good life. Their self- image is that of a wholesome, dedicated, God-fearing, and generally righteous People. They have no sense that the good life they enjoy came through the suffering and genocide of their neighbors—indeed, of those whose ancestral lands they inhabit. Neither do they realize how profoundly their genocidal history shapes their society as well as their character as a People.

As I sit and watch this familiar self-characterization, it is hard to view the movie’s Colonizers as they obviously view themselves, and it is clear how much the Colonizers’ self-image and way of life depend on keeping their history of genocide off screen. In fact, when a few of the Colonizer characters learn a little of the history, they go through a predictable sequence of mental and emotional turmoil. The ones who persevere through the stages of denial, defensiveness, self-justification, and anger find themselves plunging into identity crises: self-doubt, shame, guilt, grief, loss of the otherwise solid sense of themselves as good people, depression, and despair about what to do.

As a movie-goer, I think about what I would want the “good citizens” to do. What would feel satisfying to me as their response to this history? What would I like to see happen? And how would I feel if the movie ended here?

When the scene shifts to the descendants of the Original People, I see how differently they live:

Two hundred years after the Newcomers arrived, many Original People do their best to maintain their traditions, for it is through them that they have maintained the will and the means to survive. “Being a good relative” has not been forgotten, and its attending values of respect, honor, and generosity continue to be taught to their children through practice more than words. A sense of community and identity as Original People remains.

Yet despite the positive force of their traditions and values, these descendants struggle under the realities of multigenerational trauma created by the core conflicts between the Original People and Colonizer society, which remain unresolved centuries later. The crimes of genocide and massive land theft have been made invisible. In fact, they continue, but under bureaucratic, corporate, economic, social, political, legal, or institutional guises. For the Colonizers, it is as if the deeds of genocide never happened; for the Original People, they never stopped happening.

As a result, the Original People do not share the Colonizers’ belief that the prevailing colonial order is just, good, or reliable. “Due process” is not something they experience, either as victims or offenders or as a People. Quite the opposite. Against their will, they have been forced to live under the constant threat of annihilation, since the Colonizers have never questioned their state’s official policy of genocide. It is as if post-WWII Jews had to live in a place called “Hitler County,” and when they went to some of the finest restaurants where the monied and powerful go, they saw pictures of Hitler hanging on the walls; how safe would the Jews feel? Would they feel that the society was committed to their safety and wellbeing or to reversing the genocidal policies of the past?

So, too, the Original People find no grounds for regarding any aspect of Colonizer society as trustworthy. For example, when a group of them broke into a Colonizer headquarters a few decades ago, they discovered that the “health care” provided by the Colonizers had been routinely sterilizing their women without their knowledge or consent. Billions of dollars that treaties guaranteed them in payment for access to resources on their lands have somehow mysteriously disappeared. Through centuries of such experiences, the Original People have come to realize that no aspect of Colonizer society can be trusted to defend or promote their best interests. Instead, every aspect encroaches, invades, threatens, undermines, and altogether works to destroy the Original People—both as people and as a People.

Those who venture into Colonizer society to make a living find that what it takes to become a “successful” person in Colonizer society—willingness to win at all costs, willingness to embrace Colonizer language and self-promotional ways, willingness to swallow racist treatment, willingness to disregard community good or respect for the Natural World in order to achieve material gain—goes against Original People teachings. Original People face a dilemma: to survive “well” in Colonizer society, they are pressured to go against who they are as Original People, yet to do so intensifies their genocide.

As if this dilemma were not challenge enough, the racism that was used to justify the extermination of Original People persists, so that Original People descendants are largely excluded from getting good jobs, obtaining loans or mortgages, or gaining opportunities for their children. They remain the “degraded Other,” “those People.” This makes it exceedingly difficult for them to break the cycles of poverty that began when the Settlers invaded and destroyed their means of livelihood. Denied their traditional ways and unable to afford good Colonizer food or medical care, their health deteriorates.

Retraumatized daily by having to cope with a society whose values are so antithetical to those of their ancestors, many seek to anesthetize their trauma of dislocation through addictions. Suicide rates are high, especially among young people. Confronted daily with messages that denigrate, marginalize, and dehumanize who they are as a People, the descendants of the Original People manifest a range of behaviors. Some are unhealthy and damaging—violence under intoxication, property violations, or domestic abuse—though nothing of the order of the organized crimes against humanity that the Settlers and now Colonizers have perpetrated.

Other behaviors are clear assertions of identity and sovereignty as Original People but which Colonizer authorities (teachers, bosses, police, administrators, and government officials) find threatening. A young boy, for example, writes “Original People Pride” on his notebook, whereupon a Colonizer teacher thinks he must belong to a gang and interprets the student’s subsequent conduct through this filter. Teens weaned on Settler-Colonizer racism pick fights with the boy for being proud of his People, yet he is the one labeled a troublemaker by the school authorities. He no longer enjoys school, and so truancy goes on his record. Before long, his parents are charged with neglect, and the authorities use their institutional might to forcibly remove the son from his parents’ home. He grows into adulthood in a Colonizer boarding school, juvenile facility, or foster home far away from his family and community. He is told that his forced removal is for his own good. Given such “opportunities,” Colonizers expect him to “make good,” and so when grief overcomes him to a paralyzing degree, some of the Colonizers conclude that he is from an ungrateful, lazy, no-good People.
As an adult, it does not take much for this man to find himself in court.

Continuing the original policy of forcibly removing those who do not conform to Settler society, the Colonizers systematically remove large numbers of Original People, especially men, to prisons. Some go for life because they cannot afford adequate legal representation. This “solution” of forced removal fits with the Colonizers’ historical response to conflicts with the Original People. The Colonizers’ “law enforcement” system uses force, intimidation, punishment, and imprisonment to maintain control. Instead of facing the history, the Settler descendants continue to define “the problem” in ways that blame the Original People. “‘Those people’ have a problem; we have nothing to do with it.” The ones in prison are just “bad apples” who “need” to be locked up. After all, look at the “successful” Original People! Hard feelings are planted to divide Original People against each other, while the Colonizers’ role remains unnamed.

All this is supported by the Colonizer’s origin story—the story told to new generations about how the Settlers came to this land. The story describes the Settler population and culture as superior and the Original People as quaint, savage, and destined to go extinct. “Why be concerned with the plight of those who can’t ‘make it’? The best we can do is put them in prison where they’re fed and have a place to sleep—but can’t reproduce.”

Watching this movie is incredibly painful—certainly for the descendants of original peoples but for many colonizers like myself as well. Even for colonizers who have known only the colonizer narrative, witnessing this origin story told to include the experiences of the Original People can be “unsettling.”

Of course, I know this is one of many movies I could watch. I could, for example, watch a movie about a time and place several millennia earlier where my ancestors were the original people and faced a similar invasion and colonization. In that story, the physical differences between the settlers and the original people were not so marked, and so assimilation and hence loss of culture occurred more completely as the centuries passed. Even so, millennia later, vestiges of my original-people ancestors’ teachings and traditions remain.

I could also watch a movie about the traumas my ancestors suffered in Europe as a result of their colonization—the social, economic, and political traumas that drove them to find new homes, to treat their children as they did, and presumably to behave so savagely to the original peoples when they came here. By the time they arrived, my settler ancestors were apparently unable to conceive of coexistence as an option. Whereas Native Peoples largely operate from a “me and my relatives” paradigm—and “relatives” includes all of creation—my ancestors largely operated from a “me and not-me” or “us and not-us” paradigm. Everything that was “not me” or “not us” was viewed as a threat. Given this outlook, they evidently had no knowledge or experience of what it means to work out relationships with those who seem different but whose needs are much the same. They assumed coexistence was impossible: one people or the other could survive but not both. “Not me” and “not us” had to go.

Participating in the Dakota Commemorative March was like seeing the Original People–Colonizer movie for a week, only I was in the movie and living it, and I still am. It’s a painful movie to live in, to be sure, but it keeps me focused on harms that, from a restorative justice perspective, I and my fellow colonizers need to address if we care about our dignity and self-respect. Whether I personally committed these crimes or not, I benefit from them. They were planned and executed precisely so that I could live here now in the whitest state in the country, Minnesota. And I perpetuate these crimes by continuing in the colonizer habits that have been my way of life since birth.

Colonizer habits include ignoring the history, acting like it never happened, not holding myself and my People accountable for immense harms done, and escaping to a comfortable, consensual, racial amnesia. These habits reinforce the biggest colonizer habit, which is to regard the land I live on as legally, legitimately mine. After all, everything that happened was done for land. The Dakota had it, and the Settlers wanted it. Once they exterminated the Dakota to get it, the Minnesota colonizers finished the job by passing laws that made the whole land-grab through genocide seem legitimate, lawful. The land is now “legally” ours: this is the epitome of colonizer thinking.

Participating in the March is about breaking these habits. If I am here, how I came to be here matters. The history directly affects me, and on more levels than I ever realized. Most fundamentally, I live on this land—land gained through mass murder. Yet not only do I benefit materially from being a descendant of the People who did these things, but also I am shaped by my People’s collective character, which has been formed through this history.

My Euroamerican history tells me, for example, that if my position affords me the power to harm another for my own benefit and to get away with it, then I should do this, and I should never question whether I did something wrong, much less worry about making it right. If this were not so, Congress and corporations would not behave as they do. Corporate ravaging and “preemptive” wars to conquer other Peoples and to control their lands and resources are not an aberration in American history; they are how Native Peoples have experienced us from the start. These classic colonizer habits are programmed into me, and even if I work every day to question and challenge this internal programming, its ways of hooking me are continually reinforced by the colonizer society, which is everywhere now.

Yet once I have seen the movie and lived in it, I can no longer escape asking myself if this is the kind of person I want to be. Is this a kind of People in whom I can take pride? The movie is still playing, and, although I am not its director, I have some say in how it goes. Keeping the painful movie in view helps me to remember the programming, to name it for what it is, and to attend to its dismantling. I no longer see myself or my fellow colonizers only as we see ourselves but also in the light that our People-to-People history sheds. I need the pain to help me do my work and not get lost in the mesmeric forgetting, which every nuance of my programming would have me do.

To be clear, it is not that I enjoy the pain of putting my hand on a hot burner; it is rather that the pain reminds me to pull my hand away. The burner in this analogy is not the Dakota People or even the history; it is the settler-colonizer programming that set horrific cycles of pain in motion and then tried to build a “good” society on this foundation.

The pain is also useful, insofar as it marks the first movements toward learning what it means to be a good relative. I can’t imagine healing a relationship that’s been so broken by so many for so long without experiencing pain in the process. If I believe in the restorative justice process—if we as a people want to find our way to being a good relative to those whose ancestral homeland we inhabit—we have to be willing to feel the pain of what’s been done and our ongoing roles in it.

As useful as the pain can be, though, it is also good to be living in a movie whose plot we can alter. Obviously, there are some things about this movie that we cannot change. We cannot change that genocide happened, for example, but we can change denial of this fact. We can begin to acknowledge the magnitude of harm and its ongoing effects. We can acknowledge who did what to whom, and then we can work to heal these harms in whatever ways are possible—and much is possible. We can begin to intentionally imagine coexistence in ways our colonizer programming has kept off-screen.

Minnesota’s colonizer society has responded to this history and its effects mainly through social service programs or, if those don’t work, through the criminal justice system, i.e., imprisoning Native people. Yet neither of these responses addresses the roots of harm. Quite the opposite, they keep the movie’s plot going in its original genocidal direction, because the aim of both institutions—social services and criminal justice—is forced assimilation into colonizer society. They are not designed to honor the Dakota People or to rectify longstanding harms against them.

Restorative justice could offer a more appropriate response, because it would require acknowledging that at the root of these harms lies a criminal act—indeed, immense crimes against humanity. The issue between Minnesota’s colonizer population and the Dakota People is a criminal issue first. All the social, economic, and political issues that Native people face today follow from this central truth: crimes have occurred that have never been rectified or brought to justice.

As with any victim–offender situation, restorative justice processes begin when the perpetrators of harm acknowledge guilt and take responsibility. Acknowledging the crime and rectifying its effects are central to helping both the victim and the offender recover and be able to live good lives. Only when the crime is addressed to the victim’s satisfaction can the victim and the offender begin to explore whether or not they are able to be in a good relationship with each other.

If, however, the crime is not even acknowledged much less repaired, victims are continually re- victimized. In fact, they are often blamed for the harm, as if they deserved to suffer or as if it were their fault; they are blamed for failing to “bounce back”; or they are blamed for the dismal condition that the crime left them in. The assumption is always that something is wrong with the victim. In the meantime, the offenders not only go scot-free with the booty but also continue to harm their victims by not holding themselves accountable for the ongoing suffering they are causing.

If the restorative justice movement fails to address the People-to-People issues and the crimes embedded in our history, it will risk losing credibility in this country, as it seems to have already done in Canada. Many First Nations now reject restorative justice, and precisely on these grounds. The core vision of going to the roots of harm and doing what it takes to make things right is experienced as empty rhetoric, invoked only when colonial power structures deem it advantageous to do so. Instead of working toward wholeness for Peoples, restorative justice functions as another tool of colonizer institutions, whose goal is not healing but for one People to conquer and dominate another. Restorative justice is simply used to make the violence of the criminal justice system—the colonizers’ control-by-fear device—seem more humane. Instead of addressing the wider contexts that generate harms, the focus stays on trying to fix person-to-person conflicts. Individuals, families, or communities are viewed as “the problem,” while the larger reasons that individuals, families, or communities have problems remain invisible.

This does not mean that we as individuals—colonizers or original people—should not be held accountable for the harms we do. Yet here in Minnesota, we colonizers have not been held accountable at all for state-sanctioned, citizen-supported crimes against humanity—and yet we describe ourselves as international leaders in restorative justice. How could Dakota people—or anyone else who knows the history—take restorative justice seriously if we diligently hold this or that offender accountable for drug possession or stealing a car while we fail to hold ourselves accountable for genocide that we committed so we could steal an entire state’s worth of land? If we were to apply our own laws about murder and stolen property to this case, we would have to rule that every time we sell a house in Minnesota, we commit a felony, and every Minnesota realtor should be imprisoned for dealing in stolen property gained through murder.

Restorative justice does not have to be hijacked into being an accomplice to colonization, for its roots are not there. If restorative justice embarks on People-to-People healing, the systemic issues causing suffering to Native Peoples will begin to be addressed and rectified. Together as Peoples, we can acknowledge the massive harms done, name racism as it operates to hurt Native Peoples, arrange land return, honor the inherent sovereignty and self-determination of Native Peoples, make restitution and reparations, find and return the billions of dollars in missing trust funds, respectfully cease behaviors that denigrate Native Peoples (such as using them as sports mascots), and teach everyone the full history of this land.

Such efforts would help heal our People-to-People relationships by grounding them in economic, social, political, and basic human justice. It may take decades or even centuries to rectify harms of this magnitude. But with this work, it is reasonable to postulate that many if not most person-to-person harms done by Native people—committed largely against themselves or each other, not against colonizers—would likely disappear. It is also reasonable to postulate that both Peoples would benefit by taking the journey to coexistence.

Indeed, this is another reason why I hope that restorative justice will embark on People-to-People healing. A core tenet of restorative justice—something practitioners have come to believe because of extensive experience in this work—is that holding the perpetrators of harm accountable is essential not only for fairness but also for their healing and transformation. When offenders experience accountability, they are transformed.

In restorative justice, being held accountable is not about punishment or revenge. It is about connecting and becoming more real—connecting with more of reality than the narrow sphere in which inflicting harm made sense. To start, it means becoming acquainted with the effects of their harms, which usually involves listening to victims. Offenders meet the human faces of their harms. They hear the pain in the voices of their victims as they tell their stories. Harm is not abstract or “over there”; the person who has suffered is sitting in the same room and telling the offender face to face how life has changed as a result of the crime.

Being held accountable leads to honest soul-searching: Why did I do this? What was I thinking or feeling, and where did these thoughts and feelings come from? Restorative accountability does not lead to self- rejection but to self-compassion and ultimately to self-acceptance. If anything, running away from harms we have committed or denying that we did them constitutes self-rejection, because it rejects our reality and prevents us from confronting who we are, as if we could not handle facing ourselves.

Being held accountable also means finding out from those harmed what restitution they need and working to provide it. Offenders step up to the plate of doing whatever they can to put things right, no matter how long it takes. Making restitution affirms the offenders’ competence and establishes their dignity and self- respect. It feels good to own up to a harm and to work to make it right, just as it feels demeaning not to do so.

Another reason that holding perpetrators accountable transforms them is that, through the process, people who obviously felt isolated now learn to build connections. The process forms relationships, and offenders experience something of what it means to be related. Even though the process is filled with pain and remorse, it is still transforming, suggesting that even the slightest experience of being related can bring profound change.

Transformation is certainly what we colonizers need as a People, and we would be among the first to be blessed by the process of making things right. Holding ourselves accountable for the massive crimes embedded in our history and recurring in our present would help us become the kind of People we aspire to be but are not. By making ourselves come to terms with other Peoples’ realities, we could discover coexistence—a way of being that depends not on conquest and oppression but on respect, honesty, integrity, and mutual good. Embracing our accountability could also effect a healing in our collective psyche of traumas going back millennia—traumas that conditioned us to think in “me vs. not-me” terms. Instead of engaging in Darwinian, colonizer struggles for survival, we could learn how to “be a good relative,” and we could discover that it is a better, happier, and more sustainable way to live.

Can restorative justice play a significant role in effecting this level of transformation? Yes, but only if we are serious about decolonizing. What does this mean? This is a huge question, and I can only begin to respond by trying to set the restorative justice compass in a decolonizing direction. To start, restorative justice must set its sights on undoing colonization, since this is the core injustice, the root crime that must be addressed. To address the crime of colonization, decolonizing restorative justice means raising the questions that restorative justice typically poses but raising them on the level of Peoples—the level on which the crime of colonization has occurred:

  • What happened in our history on this land?
  • Who as a People was hurt and continues to be hurt?
  • Who as a People caused the hurt and continues to benefit from it?
  • What People-to-People amends could and should be made now?
  • And what might it take for the Dakota People to be made whole?

Those of us who are the perpetrators and beneficiaries of colonization in Minnesota must be involved in addressing these questions, but we are not the ones to determine the answers. We must listen to what the Dakota People have to say. In the process, we have to give up the power advantages as well as the presumptions of superiority that we have taken on ourselves as colonizers and instead humbly and sincerely work to make things right as equals with those of the Dakota Nation.

Certainly, decolonizing restorative justice means not using restorative justice to reinforce colonization. For example, restorative justice must not be used as a better way to enforce assimilation or to perpetuate the criminal justice system. White supremacy and colonizer hegemony must be challenged. Our premise must be that the State of Minnesota is not the government of the Dakota People; it is their oppressor—the “might makes right” regime of the occupiers. Therefore, the restorative justice agenda here is not to make Dakota people more comfortable in the State of Minnesota or more willing to live under its rule; it is to establish a healthy nation-to- nation, People-to-People relationship that enables us to coexist respectfully as equals, as we do with Canada or
France.

To get there, some serious amends must be made, and the process of making these amends is how respect is built on both sides. Indeed, everything we have learned about restorative justice says that we simply have to do the work that the healing process requires—and we discover what is required as we engage in it. If we commit to engaging in this process not as colonizers but as decolonizers, the restorative justice work is not something we do “to” Dakota people; it is something we do “with” the Dakota People.

In 2004, I was invited to participate in the Dakota Commemorative March. Whether I will do so again in 2006, 2008, 2010, or 2012 will depend on the Dakota: What contribution, if any, can colonizers make by being present? In restorative justice, the victims of harm get to say what feels healing and what doesn’t. Certainly the perpetrators and beneficiaries of harm are in no position to decide on these matters.

During the March, I saw the look on the faces of the Dakota, especially the Elders, when they saw me—blonde as can be, clearly not raised among them. I saw the effects of lifetimes of suffering at the hands of my fellow colonizers—nearly boiling water poured on children’s hands in boarding schools as punishment for speaking their language, beatings and sexual abuse in schools, rapes and murders never even investigated much less brought to justice, children stolen from their parents, continually dehumanizing stereotypes and messages about them in colonizer society, exclusion from economic opportunities, yet complete denial that injustices had ever been done. Though not ungracious, the Dakota Elders did not come up to me, shake my hand, and say how glad they were to see me there. How could they?

Restorative justice does involve bringing together victims and offenders, but only after considerable preparation has been done on both sides. Forcing those harmed to come together with those who have benefited from those harms prematurely could do greater damage, especially during times when the victims of harms want nothing more than to be left alone to grieve their loss. As for us colonizers, we are far from doing our preparation for such a meeting. Most of us have not seen the movie—we live oblivious to the immensity of harms done—so we are not even considering what preparation on our part would be necessary.

Whatever my personal participation in future Marches might be, I am profoundly grateful that I could be there in 2004. The experience is one I will never forget, and it has changed me far beyond what I could ever imagine that sitting in a car for seven days could do. Participating in the March has been a life-altering experience.

During the March, I felt that this was the most important place for me to be, and the rest of the world with all its busy-ness did not matter as much. The March seemed to occur outside of time. I suppose I felt this way because the March lifted me out of my everyday routine and gave me at weeklong look at how we got to where we are. Holding a space for considering our course as Peoples is bound to be intense, and even when the conversations were light and joking, the deeper issues were always there.

My participation turned out to be a balance between being present and not being present, not at least in the sense of actually walking. I drove a support car and, as the week went along, I was able to play Lakota music for the marchers through a speaker horn propped outside my car’s sunroof. Marchers threw their coats and bottles of water in the car as the days warmed, and sometimes those whose feet hurt too much or who had developed an injury would ride a few miles. I was grateful that it worked out this way. I could bear witness to the history and support the marchers without intruding on their experience. It is ironic that, as much as I love to walk and walk an hour everyday when I’m at home, I went on a 150-mile march and ended up walking no more than two or three miles.

Though I live within driving distance of the March route, staying overnight in the church basements, gymnasiums, and community centers was a very important part of the process. Sometimes the organizers arranged evening sessions when people were invited to share their thoughts and reflections about the day. Other times, we just had dinner and hung out. Different families and communities prepared feasts for us. The evenings gave us a chance to get to know each other and to reflect on the March. These times moved us to deeper places, so that by the next morning, something had shifted. The comments people made the night before stayed with me the next day, and I could tell from others’ comments that they were experiencing the same.

Because I was driving behind the marchers and listening to Lakota music (on top volume, so the marchers could hear it), I had plenty of time to think about the people in front of me—to wonder what they were feeling as we went along and what their ancestors felt 150 years earlier as they walked this route. I came to know everyone’s walk, their hats and coats, and their back views very well. I could see relationships forming and friendships growing. I noticed which Marchers enjoyed visiting with others and which preferred to walk in silence.

Though I had to keep my concentration sharp because so many children were around, my experience was nonetheless very meditative. I was largely alone with my thoughts from sun up to sun down for the week. I have so many memories. For example, I remember all of us waiting along the shoulder of a busy highway for the police to come and help us cross the road. We were stopped a long time. The Lakota music was going, and traffic was speeding by on my left, so fast that my car shook. When I looked out into the trees in a marshy area to my right, though, it was as if I went back in time and could feel those who walked there before us—starving, sick, cold, wet, afraid, exhausted, grieving, yet persevering to save their children. I felt as if we were in two worlds at once, and somehow the world on our right seemed more real, more compelling. I didn’t want to look to the left, and it felt jarring to do so.

I also remember a night in a parking lot. We were carrying our things into a church basement for the night. My friend, Lakota, stopped and began singing “Kola Weksuye,” “I remember my friend.” It was a clear, cold November night. He couldn’t finish the song.

This parking lot was in New Ulm—perhaps the most terrible town for the original Marchers to pass through. Settlers had been killed by the Dakota warriors whose families were starving, and the surviving townspeople were full of revenge. It was here that white women grabbed Dakota babies and killed them before their mothers’ eyes. It was also here that settlers poured boiling water on the Dakota women and children, until their skin peeled off.

During our evening meeting, Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, his daughter Dr. Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, her daughter, Autumn Wilson, Leo Omani, and Dr. Edward C. Valandra spoke about the history and what had happened in New Ulm. Some townspeople had been invited to this meeting. After the speakers, Dr. Mato Nunpa opened the microphone, and a white townswoman came forward. She invited the marchers to engage in reconciliation by agreeing to listen to some of the colonizers’ stories and their accounts of settler losses during that time.

I did not sleep well that night. What the woman said made me angry, and I was mad at myself as well for not speaking up. It sounded as if she said, “We suffered too, you know, so that makes it all equal.” Yes, the loss of loved ones is always profound, but there is nothing remotely equal about what the Dakota experienced and what white settlers experienced, evidenced by the enormous differences in the lives of the two Peoples today. Whereas the settlers invaded someone else’s territory and knew full well the risks of living here, the Dakota suffered invasion and occupation, theft of their homelands, fraud of every ilk, violations of treaties, betrayals, sadistic and genocidal cruelty from soldiers and civilians alike, Governor Alexander Ramsey’s statewide official policy of extermination, a harsh Minnesota winter in a concentration camp, and forced removal from their ancestral home. Yet this white-privileged colonizer had the gall to say what she did to the Dakota Marchers in the church basement.

I don’t know the woman or her character, but her words provided a clear case of colonizer thinking, cloaked in the rhetoric of “reconciliation.” Not once did she speak to the injustices that the Dakota speakers had raised. Not once did she acknowledge the crimes that enabled her to stand there on Dakota homeland. She came across to me—and, I later learned, to other Marchers as well—as condescending, self-justifying, self-righteous, self-servingly selective in the telling of history, unremorseful of the harms that her forebears had committed, and entirely unwilling to acknowledge the settlers’ dishonest and downright inhuman conduct, which is what caused the 1862 War in the first place. If anyone, her own forebears are to blame for the settlers’ deaths in New Ulm and Henderson, yet she failed to connect these dots. In her view, reconciliation evidently meant exchanging isolated stories of personal pain without regard to the actual context of historical events, not to mention their multigenerational consequences. I felt ashamed, and as I said, ashamed of myself for not speaking up.

As in this case, being with the Dakota during the week inevitably made me see white colonizers differently, including myself. I was aware of my legacy as a colonizer, and I could observe in myself how this has shaped me much more starkly than when I am among other whites. Being in situations that make my programming more visible to me helps me, because I know that racist, colonizer programming is lethal stuff, and that I have been conditioned by it since birth. Among other things, the March was a weeklong meditation on this programming: what it has done, what it continues to do, and how I personally figure in all of this.

Stopping every mile to put stakes in the ground to honor those who died during the 1862 Death March was inevitably powerful. When a marcher realized that a stake being put into the ground bore the name of an ancestor, history ceased to be abstract or remote. I will always remember the moment when Waziyatawin Angela Wilson realized that her ancestor’s name was written on a stake—her great, great, great grandmother who had been killed by a soldier. She could not speak for her tears, so her father stepped in to continue telling their ancestor’s story for her. I remember every detail of that stop—her face, her voice, her father’s face and words, her children coming to comfort her, the place where we were, the time of day, where people were standing, and the deep silence that followed her father’s words, because so many people were weeping. I also remember how hard it was to leave that place, how slowly we moved away.

Spending much of the week on dirt roads and along rivers gave me a different sense of the land as well. I gradually stopped seeing the land the way it is now with houses, telephone poles, roads, and SUVs scattered all over it, and I began to reflect on how it was before the white settlers came.

I also began to sense something about the relationship that the Dakota People have with their homeland and realized that their relationship is not diminished by white occupancy, which felt increasingly transient and ephemeral to me. The reason, as far as I could tell, is that the Dakota continue to have an intimate relationship with their homeland. In spite of dislocation and genocide, this has not changed.

Observing the depth and quality of this relationship, I also realized how profoundly we colonizers lack anything comparable with the land on which we live. Pondering this during the week, it seemed to me that, because we have not sought to “be good relatives” to either the Dakota People or the land, we continue here as intruders, false notes, no matter how long we’ve been here. It is not that we could not be here in a good way in principle. Rather, what makes our presence false is how we came here—that it was and remains so wrong. Those in restorative justice often repeat a saying that they have heard from Native practitioners: “You cannot get to a good place in a bad way.” Given our history in Minnesota, how can we be here in a good way now? How could such profound violations of both the Dakota People and the land give us a sense of place or belonging? I imagined another movie:

A large and closely-knit family lives in a beautiful home that has been in the family for generations, in fact, as long as anyone can remember. The home is well loved, tended, and cared for, and the people are happy. They also take care of the land around the home and have worked out respectful relations with plants and animals. Then one day, some gangsters arrive and gun everyone down. After the gangsters throw the dead bodies of the family members into a ditch, they move in, as they continue their violent way of life. They cut down all the trees around and kill the animals, and when they still need wood for fire, they pull off a piece of floor or the mantle. They don’t honor the land or take care of the house; they just use things, consuming them as they go.

As colonizers, we would naturally say this movie image is overdrawn, since we don’t like seeing ourselves as rapacious gangsters, but I doubt the Dakota would agree. Aside from the question of whose home it is in this scenario, who has a relationship to the place? Could the gangsters claim to have the same relationship to the home that the family had? If the gangsters wanted to have that same kind of relationship, what would they have to do to get it? What process would they have to go through in order to change their way of being there?

As I pondered such things on the March, I realized that being deeply connected to a place develops over generations. Moreover, it develops as people live in a place “in a good way,” that is, with integrity and respect in every direction of their lives. “Being a good relative” to all beings is evidently how we come to belong in a place. We belong because we honor our relationships to all the beings there—we respect “all our relations.” If we fail to do this, we will always be occupiers—people who do not belong.

I saw this depth of relatedness communicated by the Marchers not only in words but also in movements, gestures, tones of voice, and ways of interacting. Being respectful of place, land, and “all our relations” seemed a natural way to be. Indeed, the March itself is an example of this. The March has to do with healing a terrible trauma that affected both the land and those who lived there. Planning the event and taking the time to do it respect the land by maintaining a relationship of integrity. If a people and their homeland share a deep wound, it is respectful to acknowledge that wound and work to heal it, just as it would be disrespectful to ignore that wound, causing it to continue unhealed. Among the Indigenous Peoples of the world, the Dakota would not be alone in saying that the land remembers. My Celtic ancestors said the same, as do many other Indigenous Peoples of Europe.

For those of us who are colonizers now, though, such values have not guided our relationship with this land or how we came here. We do not think in terms of having a relationship with the land that needs time and tending, neither would it occur to us to respect the land as we would our own mothers. We do not think that committing crimes on the land will damage our relationship to the place. For us, land is a commodity, an object of ownership, an inert thing that we possess, dominate, and exploit for profit. Indeed, our Bible tells us to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion…over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Clearly, land falls in the “not me,” “not us (not human)” category, so it would never occur to us to regard the land as our relative. To use theological terms, we would not consider having an “I–Thou” relationship with the land of Minnesota.

The Dakota, by contrast, refer to their homeland as Kunsi Maka, Grandmother Earth, one who has personality and who gives life. The desire to be in good relationship with her is as natural and important as being in a good way with our own mothers, and acting badly in her presence is like acting shamefully in front of our mothers. To be driven from their homeland is to be forcibly separated from family—from their most beloved relative who gives them life as a People—and to return to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors on the body of Kunsi Maka is a profoundly spiritual and emotional experience. To begin to appreciate the power and depth of this relationship in even the smallest way and then to juxtapose this awareness with a knowledge of the history—that all the horrific things done to the Dakota were done precisely to separate them from their beloved relative, their homeland—this is what I as a colonizer experienced on the March.

Obviously, writing this article brings the March experience back to me in spades, yet I have to say that not all of it is profound or wrenching. I also remember the foot rubs, the joking around, the morning meetings in the ladies room, the speculations about various sounds in the night, the eternal quest for coffee, the moments of rest before and after meals, the stories about blisters and aching feet and muscles, the evening rituals of setting up camp and the morning rituals dismantling it—rituals such as hauling mattresses, sleeping bags, and luggage—and the feeling of being so tired at the end of the day in a way that felt so good.

I am grateful beyond words that the March is now a part of my life. Through that experience, I have become grateful to know who I am as a colonizer, because only then can I begin my life as a decolonizer. From a sense of despair, I once said to my friend, “This being white will be the death of me.” Without missing a beat, he replied, “No, it will be your renewal.”

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3 responses to “Decolonizing Restorative Justice

  1. Thank you so so much for this.

  2. Thank you for the “word,” the courage to speak out and share, in the hopes of being heard. I heard you!

  3. Sadly, these are the issues and discussions we should be having in high school and college classrooms in the U.S. Lots of insights and hard earned truths are found here.

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