One of the first articles I read concerning Alternative Dispute Resolution was Robert Yazzie’s “Traditional Navajo Dispute Resolution in the Navajo Peacemaker Court.” In it, Yazzie explains the basic Navajo concepts of law and justice and outlines the process used in Navajo Peacemaker Courts.
Yazzie advocates for the Navajo Peacemaker Process (NPP) as a more effective model of justice than the United States judicial system. His advocacy is supported primarily by describing the more holistic and relationship-focused approach of the NPP.
This post summarizes the key concepts and NPP outline presented in Yazzie’s article, and it closes with a brief discussion of the merits of the peacemaker process as a means of both criminal justice and civil dispute resolution.
Prior to explaining the NPP, Yazzie explains several concepts related to the Navajo culture’s conception of justice.
- Beehaz’aanii: Typically translated as “law,” the word beehaz’aanii has a deeper meaning than common English usage suggests. Yazzie explains that beehaz’aanii is the foundational, timeless, and absolute essence of life. Beyond rules for living, it is the fundamental, shared sense of the “right path.”
- Hozho: Yazzie notes that hozho means “the perfect state,” and “that ‘there is a place for everything in reality, and there is hozho when everything is in its proper place, functioning well with everything else.’” This concept has a special focus on relationships expanding from family relationships to all things. The purpose of beehaz’aanii is to support hozho.
- Nalyeeh: The Navajo word that seeks compensation for a transgression, and “it is also a demand to do things in the proper way.” The amount of compensation needed to make amends is “enough ‘so there will be no hard feelings.’” Material retribution is not the central aim of nalyeeh, rather, the aim is healing and preserving relationships.
- The Scope of Conflict: If the scope of conflict in a legal dispute is measured by the number of parties and issues involved, then the scope of conflict in Navajo disputes is much broader than the scope of conflicts in the U.S. justice system. The NPP includes the disputant’s immediate and extended families and anyone else that is touched by the matter in dispute. This broad perspective also applies to the scope of the issues discussed, which can include the opinions, values, beliefs, and stories of all parties involved.
- Naat’aanii: The naat’aanii is a wise, respected, and well-spoken man or woman who leads the peacemaker ceremony. The naat’aanii differs from an American judge in that the naat’aanii’s role is to guide and facilitate the resolution process rather than make decisions for the parties. The naat’aanii is also expected to teach and provide guidance to the participants during the process, a role unfamiliar in the U.S. justice system.
These concepts point to the deep sense of community at the heart of the Navajo perspective, as well as the deep sense of the meaning of the law, the focus on relationships, and the broad scope of conflict all form the foundation of the NPP. The seven step peacemaker process follows:
- Opening Prayer: The process begins with a prayer, which is aimed at setting a constructive tone for the meeting and focusing the participants’ attitudes in a positive direction.
- Emotional Expression: Zazzie notes that “In Navajo ceremonial practice, you identify what is inside. You bring it out so you can deal with it; That is why we not only allow but encourage expressions of feelings – to bring them out.” This succinctly describes the second step in the peacemaking process in which all participants (not exclusively the parties in dispute) have an opportunity to discuss their perspective concerning the matter in conflict. This step is aimed at healing the wounded relationship between parties.
- Lecture: The third step in the process sees the Naat’aanii provide insight about how the dispute relates to Navajo values citing traditional Navajo prayers, folklore, and traditions. As Yazzie notes, “The lecture is information, wisdom, teaching. It gives the disputants the tools they need to go on to the next stage of the [process].”
- Discussion: During this step of the process participants work to objectify the problem and eliminate barriers to a solution like the primary participants’ attitudes, misunderstandings, denial, minimalization, and externalization. Yazzie points out that the presence of participants beyond the disputants – their families, neighbors, friends; etc. – helps to counteract some of these barriers. Acting in a spirit of solidarity, the participants, “come to agreement through discussion. They identify the problem and the solutions to it. They eliminate the problem by making certain that everyone is part of the solution.”
- Consensus: The result of the discussion phase of the process is consensus about how to proceed with the solution. It is important to note here that Yazzie does not mean consensus in terms of general agreement – he emphasizes that consensus in this context means everyone involved agrees with the solution. He notes that this is to ensure respect for the relationships existing amongst the participants.
- Reconciliation: The aim of the peacemaker process is not to distribute justice, but for individuals with interdependent relationships to be reconciled to one another and to the agreement they reached. Yazzie notes that commitments to agreement the disputants reached are general more reliable that judgements handed down to them.
- Closing Prayer: The process is concluded as it began with a prayer. The prayer acts as a “seal on the agreement,” which serves to remind and commit all participants to the agreement.
Yazzie closes his synopsis of the NPP by noting that peacemaking reconciles two often seeming opposed goals – the rights of individuals with the needs of the broader group they function within. This attitude of respect and balance, which is the spirit of the process offers insights into optimizing dispute resolution. A few thoughts on the merits of this concept follows:
- Emotional & Spiritual Dimensions of Conflict: I love that the Navajo Peacemaker process looks at conflict resolution with a more holistic view of the persons in dispute. The more aspects of the human being that are acknowledged and explored in the context of the conflict resolution process, the deeper the restorative and healing benefits will be. In the U.S. justice system, these dimensions of the human experience are not acknowledged, much less explored. However, if they were brought into the criminal justice side of our system, they may go a long way in efforts to rehabilitate the offenders and heal the victims, as has been exemplified by restorative justice work.
- Conflict Stakeholders: Another aspect of the NPP is the focus on the network of relationships that are affected by a dispute, not just those who are directly involved in the dispute. This seems like such a wise acknowledgement of the consequence that conflicts have on families, workplaces, religious communities; etc. Our justice system is lacking when it comes to representing the needs of individuals affected by, but not directly involved in, the dispute. Though this certainly makes the administration of justice simpler, it does not respect the deep strain that conflict puts on the affected groups that are not involved in the justice process, which has the effect of minimizing the scope of the offense that led to the conflict. This is especially true for criminal matters in which the state assumes the role that should be held by the victim and the community.
- Relationship Focused: The NPP is deeply focused on preserving relationships, though not to the extent that the process has an accommodating bias. As discussed, it holds both the individual and community’s needs in balance. This focus is the foundation of a solid community. When we recognize and respect the deeply interdependent nature of our being, then making all attempts to preserve and strengthen the relational ties that bind us together and facilitate our effectiveness as a community is paramount. This is, of course, another point of contrast to the U.S. justice system, which has a strict transactional focus and generally does not recognize the importance of deep, well-maintained, cross-cutting ties within community.
Yazzie’s piece offers an insight into a process that has much to offer. The NPP’s focus on the holistic human experience of conflict, the broad base of conflict stakeholders, and the deep importance of relationships in conflict resolution and prevention provides a solid perspective for considering our own means of dealing with conflict.
Robert Yazzie, “Traditional Navajo Dispute Resolution in the Navajo Peacemaker Court,” NIDR Forum, Spring 1995.