Center for Court Innovation Staff

NY court applies Native American traditions to modern justice

Red Hook is one of several jurisdictions training community leaders in peacemaking

NEW YORK — First they break bread together, join hands and say a short prayer. Then the peacemakers pass a talking stick around a healing circle so each of the participants can share updates on the criminal cases and community disputes they are trying to resolve.

The participants are all peacemakers trained in the ancient tribal art of conflict resolution, used in Native communities for millennia. But this is not a reservation, and none of the people present are tribal elders or even Native Americans.

They are community leaders from the multiethnic neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn. The bread they share is pizza; the prayer they say is nondenominational, and sometimes they forget to stay silent when they are not holding the talking stick. Yet even though these community peacemakers were not born into the practice, they are part of a new movement to take it where it hasn’t been before: the contemporary court system.  

“We want peace in our community,” said Wally Bazemore, one of the volunteer peacemakers. “But we’re not going to get that by sending more of our young people to prison.”

Peacemaking is used today in the tribal court system as a restorative practice that focuses on mending relationships and healing the community after an offense has been committed. When a case is referred to peacemakers, a circle is formed that includes the victim and the offender, any family or community members who have been affected by the crime or dispute and some tribal elders. Bread is broken, prayers are said, and then the issue is talked out until a resolution is reached.

A mural in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Bruce Bennett / AFP / Getty Images

Despite concerns that such a culturally specific and spiritual practice would not work in a multicultural urban environment with no particular spiritual tradition, peacemaking is flourishing at the Red Hood Community Court, and plans for expansion are already underway. Since the program was launched, the peacemakers have handled over 50 court cases and a number of conflicts referred directly from the community.

“We realized it was a fundamentally different approach to the one we were trained in,” said Aaron Arnold, the Center of Court Innovation (CCI) peacemaking program director. “The conventional justice system focuses generally on punishing offenders, often by removing them from society. Peacemaking does the opposite.”

Judge Alex Calabrese of the Red Hook Community Court said, “A huge amount of cases that end up in the court system involve friends or family members who have gotten into a fight. As a judge, all I can do is decide on the facts of the case and order the parties to stay apart. But with peacemaking, we can bring them together. This is tremendously important if a community is to thrive.”

Arnold, a former prosecutor, and his colleague Brett Taylor, a former public defender, were introduced to peacemaking in the course of meetings with mentors of the Navajo Nation as part of their work on the CCI’s Tribal Justice Exchange initiative, a program that provides assistance from state courts to tribal communities seeking to develop their justice systems and identifies best practices developed in tribal systems that could be incorporated into the state court setting.

Their Navajo mentors encouraged their interest in adopting the practice into the state court system and helped them recruit and train suitable volunteers to work as peacemakers, mostly local leaders like Bazemore who have been active community members for decades.

Click here for Al Jazeera’s in-depth coverage of Indian Country.

“The training was spiritually intense,” Bazemore says. “The concept wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard of, but we’re not in touch with Native Americans and their customs, so trying to feed into their healing energy took a little time.”

By late January of 2013, after four months of training, the Red Hook peacemakers were ready to start taking cases. Although many tribes use peacemaking to resolve all sorts of criminal matters — including child abuse, sexual assault and even domestic violence — the Red Hook program chose to focus on cases involving minor assault involving neighbors or family members.

“The U.S. justice system is not designed or equipped to handle certain cases where there are ongoing relationships between the parties,” Taylor said. “We’re finding that peacemaking can fill that void very well.”

One recent dispute that the peacemakers successfully resolved was between a local woman named Cherokee Morrison, who was arrested and jailed overnight after her aunt reported her to the police for allegedly threatening to burn down the aunt’s house. Morrison strenuously denies making those threats and said she was furious with her aunt (whom she declined to name). But both parties agreed to try peacemaking to resolve the issue.

In the course of the sessions some truths emerged that helped heal relations beyond the immediate dispute. Morrison says her aunt admitted during the session that the allegations she made were false but revealed that she had been upset because her mother had recently died and in her will left everything to Morrison, whom the elder woman raised. The Morrison and her aunt are now getting along again, and the charges were dropped. “I still wish it all hadn’t happened,” Morrison said, “but without peacemaking, it could have ended up so much worse.”

A primary goal of peacemaking, according to Erika Sasson, the Red Hook program director, is to strengthen family and community relations so disputes are less likely to arise or to stop them escalating to the point that criminal sanctions need to be imposed. “It’s all about forging connections,” she said. “That’s what the Navajo peacemakers taught us. When you’re connected to your family and your community, you feel a sense of accountability and a sense of strength that stops you acting out. Peacemaking helps create and strengthen those relationships with participants, while the traditional justice system often does the opposite.”

Since the pilot peacemaking program in Red Hook got off the ground, other court systems around the country have begun replicating it. Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, Michigan, launched its peacemaking court last October and has begun making referrals, mainly involving juvenile, family, elder law and business cases. Los Angeles County is considering a similar move. The CCI is expanding its initiative too, but rather than tackling more complex criminal cases, it is taking a different path — building what is believed to be the first ever peacemaking center outside a reservation, in a high-crime area of Syracuse, New York.

At the center, which is being funded by a Department of Justice grant, the peacemakers won’t be confined to taking cases referred by a court. They will be taking on cases from the local housing authority to help prevent unnecessary evictions, disciplinary cases from the local schools to help prevent suspensions and expulsions and cases from police for minor quality-of-life offenses like loitering and playing loud music, in the hope the situations can be resolved without going to court. The goal ultimately is to create a more peaceful community so the courts will have less work to do.

For Wendy Hill, who has been contracted by the CCI to train peacemakers for the new center, it’s a dream come true. Hill is a member of the Haudenosaunee Nation — to which the original peacemaker, who united the six nations thousands of years ago, also belonged. “If you think about when non-Native people came to this land, there were no police, no courts, no jails and no psychiatric facilities,” she said. “We only had peacemaking. To see those values being restored even in a small way is amazing.”

The Syracuse Peacemaking Center is expected to be up and running early next year, but the community is already being introduced to the concept through the design process. The designer, Deanna VanBuren, who is based in Oakland, California, and specializes in creating restorative justice spaces, helped develop a community engagement process that replicates the peacemaking experience. “We call it the peacemaking palette,” she said. “We ask everyone to bring a drawing or texture that means something to them, then we all sit in a circle with the talking stick and try to come to a consensus.” Through this process, they came up with a culturally specific design with which the community should feel a deep connection.

“We’ll have to wait and see how much the center will help this community,” Hill says, “but I know my ancestors are smiling.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter