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Wicazo Sa Review 21.1 (2006) 29-41

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The Web of Justice

Restorative Justice Has Presented Only Part of the Story


For centuries, American Indian socialization practices worked to maintain balance within American Indian societies.1 Colonization and imposed Western structures, values, and beliefs, however, have displaced major indigenous political and spiritual structures, creating disharmony within American Indian communities.2 Mandatory boarding schools, laws to prevent spiritual practices, and imposed political structures have resulted in stripping some American Indians of their cultural identity, their languages, their sacred ceremonies, and other cultural values and practices needed to maintain healthy societies.3 With displacement of traditional indigenous practices have come fractionalization and an increase in crime, arrest, and incarceration rates in American Indian communities.

The Bureau of Justice and Statistics has concluded that additional external controls in the form of stricter laws, more law enforcement officers, and increased funding is needed to decrease crime.4 Although increased funding is a necessity; the imposition of stricter Western laws and forms of law enforcement are not the answer to the prevention of crime, nor will it heal and protect the unique character of American Indian societies. Instead, funding could be used by American Indians to restore a multidimensional "web of justice" by identifying, understanding  and, [End Page 29] where possible, re-creating traditional cultural social practices and structures to maintain social balance, diversity, and harmony within their societies.5

In this paper, we suggest that one can view American Indian justice historically as a multidimensional web that contains preventative as well as restorative mechanisms that together function to maintain justice, at least justice as fairness. Today, implementation of many crime-reduction programs within Indian country focuses primarily on the restorative aspects of justice. However, restorative justice, which usually is set within imposed Eurocentric-driven judicial systems, is only part of the solution to creating and/or fostering justice within American Indian communities. The time may have come to rediscover and implement the preventative mechanism, as well as the restorative, so that the web of justice can be restored and true healing may take place.

Restorative Justice: Only a Part of the Web of Justice

Many American Indian nations have created restorative justice programs. These programs are generally reactionary. In other words, they focus on trying to heal the offender, victim, and community only after a criminal act has occurred.6 Although these alternative justice programs are important components to restoring justice within American Indian communities, they are hampered by Western-imposed structures and Eurocentric concepts concerning crime and punishment that not only compartmentalize offenders but also use prisons and the threat of incarceration as a means of social control.7 In the United States today, approximately two million people are in jails or prisons. Unfortunately, American Indians are becoming swept up in the expanding criminal law, and today American Indians within the United States are reported as having some of the highest rates of incarceration and arrest.8

Many American Indians challenge the legitimacy of these Western-imposed structures, and often advocate for reclamation of power over their cultural and traditional indigenous forms of social control. As Taiaiake Alfred writes:

No one can deny that our cultures have been eroded and our languages lost, that most of our communities subsist in a state of abject economic dependency, that our governments are weak, and that white encroachment on our lands continues. We can, of course, choose to ignore these realities and simply accede to the dissolution of our cultures and nations. Or we can commit ourselves to a different path, one that honours the memory of those who sacrificed, fought, and died to preserve the integrity of [End Page 30] our nations. This path, the opposite of the one we are on now, leads to renewed political and social life based on our traditional values.9

We think that Alfred's words may be prophetic. American Indian nations need not succumb to the Western-imposed practices and structures that are...