Visiting Akwesasne, Thoughts on Restorative Justice

Yesterday I got to visit Akwesasne and learn from brilliant leaders who are working to share their perspective on restorative justice.


It’s encouraging me to think about the drastic energy that comes from isolation and how it can be compelled into a force of strength that seeks, and finds hope with a power unlike anything else. It’s a power ignited by a full understanding of what it feels like when elements like identity, credibility and connection are lost. That sense of lacking also shows us the empowerment that grows when we give freely, and find trust through forgiveness. This is a process that involves deeply layered acknowledgement.


When we acknowledge that harm has been done, we are recognizing the truth in a way that goes beyond simply saying “sorry”—a word that might actually add to pain. With acknowledgement, we are saying: a problem existed, and its results, its legacy, continue to exist. The pain is heard, and it is felt. And, hopefully, it incites healing. In this way, acknowledgement is often put to use at the core of our human search for stability.

Canadian theatremaker Yvette Nolan explores this in her book Medicine Shows: “Indigenous theatre artists make medicine by reconnecting through ceremony, through the act of remembering, through building community, and by negotiating solidarities across communities. The act of staging these things reconnects who we are as Indigenous people with where we have come from, with our stories, with our ancestors. The things we know and the values we hold that are manifest in the contemporary work that we put upon the stage make the Indigenous artist a conduit between the past and the future.”


In Yvette’s description of “medicine”, I was reminded that forms of Indigenous legal tradition are closely linked with Indigenous theatre practice, as both are grounded in a ceremonial search for progress. Many forms of Indigenous legal traditions are fueled by the search for a sense of harmony. In this tradition, emphasis is often on the process rather than the outcome–and this may differentiate it from Western legal practice, where the emphasis is too often upon the search for an appropriate punishment for substantive infractions rather than a process of reconciliation or acknowledgment. Traditional Indigenous legal tradition is founded on righting the harm felt by those who were wronged, and this goal is sought through re-establishing an overall connection or relationship between all parties involved through ceremony. This ceremony allows acknowledgment in a way that is positive and progressive for the community.

We see this core search for stability in the structuring of all legal systems. When we search for justice, even in the highest sense and dealings, it often all comes back to the very simplest form of reconciliation. When our pain is heard and acknowledged, we can begin healing. This concept is integral to our human understanding of law. This fact is reflected in the original creation of Indigenous Covenant Chain Treaties. Founded upon Indigenous beliefs, these treaties were intended to invoke vocal and visual condolence that brought amends to dispute. European forms of colonial decision-making would later overlook the agreements made through treaty practice; there was no acknowledgement of human or land rights. And now, the only way to address immeasurable amounts of resulting pain is to look back to the core that founded those Indigenous treaties that were broken, and this is, again, through a process of acknowledgement itself. A large element of the physical regulations laid out in the reconciliation act is that we must consult Indigenous practice in regards to the treatment of their lands when developing or making changes to the uses of those lands. This seems to circle in core to our idea-based approach to the ideal of reconciliation. When Canada sought amends by asking what was needed, it was recognized that in order to move forward progressively, we must look back to the original attitudes that created the treaty relationships in the first place, and use those ideals to recognize that, in breaking the treaty relationships, Canada caused suffering.


Many forms of Indigenous legal traditions are fueled by the search for a sense of harmony. In this tradition, emphasis is often on the process rather than the outcome–and this may differentiate it from Western legal practice, where the emphasis is too often upon the search for an appropriate punishment for substantive infractions rather than a process of reconciliation or acknowledgment. Because traditional Indigenous legal tradition is founded on righting the harm felt by those who were wronged and this goal is sought through re-establishing an overall connection or relationship between all parties involved, this is done through ceremony. This ceremony allows acknowledgment in a way that is positive and progressive to the community.


This brings a powerful opportunity to helps when there is lasting pain that has resulted from past actions that cannot be undone. For, similarly to the harm that it hopes to heal, there is also nothing tangible about acknowledgement’s existence. When we apply acknowledgement to these places of pain where the cause is not physically accessible, like with mental illness or the chronic effects of trauma, we are working to create a sense of understanding, connection, and kinship, hopefully offering comfort to those who have been harmed. It is here, through the purposefully created, mental space of consideration that we establish a new and valuable essence. This new essence of space is physically inaccessible, but it is a human creation that is powerful enough to ease the inaccessible pain of the past.



Sken:nen (peace), kasatstensera (strength) and kanikonii:io (good mind)💓🌄


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