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Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice
Marianne O. Nielsan and James W. Zion, Eds.
Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2005
240 pp., $35, paperback
ISBN: 9780816524716

Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice is a compilation of numerous articles on the traditional Navajo way of resolving disputes called peacemaking. The peacemaking process is invoked when there is a dispute between individuals or, rarely, between individuals and entities such as corporations. Rather than having a resolution imposed on them by a “disinterested” third party, i.e., a judge, the disputants and often their families and other community members will sit down and talk through their dispute with the help of a peacemaker. The peacemaker is most often a community member respected for his or her wisdom and powers of persuasion. The peacemaker will use traditional Navajo stories, creation narratives, parables and cultural touchstones to help the disputants restore hózhó, or harmony, back to their relationship with each other and the society as a whole.

The articles presented in Navajo Nation Peacemaking range from historical accounts of the genesis of the peacemaker court of the Navajo court system in James Zion’s article "The Navajo Peacemaker Court: Deference to the Old and Accommodation to the New," to studies of the efficacy of peacemaker courts as in Eric Kenneth Gross’ "Perceptions of Justice: The Effect of Procedural Justice in Navajo Peacemaking," to the theoretical underpinnings and cultural anchors for peacemaking as enumerated in Chief Justice emeritus Robert Yazzie’s article "Life Comes from It: Navajo Justice Concepts."

At their best, the articles are thought-provoking and informative. For example, in "Perceptions of Justice," Eric Kenneth Gross summarizes the findings of a study he conducted of disputant satisfaction with outcomes from peacemaking versus those of traditional family court. Gross found that disputants were significantly more satisfied with the outcomes of peacemaking than with family court. Gross concluded that satisfaction with peacemaking outcomes arose from a sense that justice was served; that is, the disputants felt as though peacemaking was fairer and gave them an opportunity, lacking in the Anglo-American style hierarchical courts, to tell their personal story. Gross’s conclusions make intuitive sense, given that the peacemaking process seems to give a better opportunity for ownership of the disputes’ resolution, absent in Anglo-American style court adjudications.

Particularly interesting was Philmer Bluehouse’s and James Zion’s piece,
": The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony." In that piece, Bluehouse and Zion use a traditional Navajo cultural and spiritual framework to characterize the peacemaking process as a “justice ceremony," similar to more familiar Navajo ceremonies such as the Blessing Way ceremony. As with other traditional ceremonies, the goal of the “justice ceremony” is to restore hózhó to the relationship of the disputants and society. The peacemaker uses traditional Navajo concepts rooted in Navajo culture and religion to help the disputants restore hózhó. The overlying theme of this chapter, as with many of the chapters in the book, is the Navajo’s use of their traditional cultural concepts to assert their tribal identity and sovereignty and resist the justice system imposed upon them by the colonial society.

": The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony" also raises some questions that are not adequately addressed, if they are addressed at all, in any of the book’s chapters. For example, given that the peacemaking process is so interwoven with Navajo culture, how effective would it be when one of the disputants is non-Navajo? Further, because peacemaking is grounded in interpersonal relationships, can peacemaking be effective when one of the disputants is a corporation – a legal entity concerned only with maximizing profit for its shareholders? Could peacemaking be used for disputes between corporations? Raising and answering these questions would have made this otherwise thorough chapter complete.

In contrast to the aforementioned chapters, some of the articles are so misinformed that one wonders why they were included in the book. For example, James Zion’s piece, "When People Act as if They Have No Relatives: Domestic Abuse Cases in the Crownpoint Family Court," Mr. Zion demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence dynamics and advocates a position that contradicts the goals of peacemaking as he himself defines them. The basic tenet of Zion’s article is that peacemaking is an appropriate process for many, if not most, cases of domestic violence, especially those that involve “low-level” violence such as slapping, kicking, shoving, insulting, coercion or emotional abuse where medical treatment or hospitalization is not required. However, Zion seems to forget that the goal of peacemaking is to restore hózhó, and that the dynamics of domestic violence are not easily broken by either party. The fundamental goal of the abuser is to exercise power and control over his victim. This can be subtly accomplished in a peacemaking session without the peacemaker’s or any other participant’s knowledge. It is also well documented that domestic violence generally escalates over time as the abuser feels the need to exercise greater power and control over his or her victim. It should also be noted that many victims can be effectively controlled without resorting to severe violence. There is no hózhó in a family that is plagued by domestic violence, and subjecting the victim to further control in peacemaking sessions increases the family’s dysfunction.

Finally, the editors made the strange choice of including a speech by U.S. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The piece, entitled "Lessons from the Third Sovereign: Indian Tribal Courts," ostensibly praises the development of tribal courts throughout Indian Country and trumpets tribal courts’ adaptation of traditional dispute resolution processes to contemporary tribal societies. However, Justice O’Connor’s praise is belied by her numerous votes as a Supreme Court Justice to divest sovereignty from Indian Tribes. Never, in carrying out the overtly assimilationist agenda of the Rehnquist Court, has Sandra Day O’Connor been a dissenting voice in defense of tribal sovereignty or Native cultural integrity. Moreover, Justice O’Connor’s admonition to tribal court systems that they must be perceived as “both fair and principled” by both tribal and non-tribal members, smacks of hypocrisy, as demonstrated by her own vote in Bush v. Gore – a case that is perhaps the most clumsy and transparent display of political partisanship in the history of American jurisprudence.

On balance, Navajo Nation Peacemaking provides a good primer for anyone interested in the genesis and development of Navajo peacemaking and peacemaker court.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. Prior to joining the NMELC, Eric worked as an attorney at DNA-People’s Legal Services, Inc. in Crownpoint and as a staff attorney for the Navajo Nation District Court, Crownpoint District.

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