The Ancient Wisdom of Restorative Way

 In Navajo Peacemaking, Trauma-Responsive Practices, Trauma-Responsive Schools, Trauma-Responsive Training, Waldorf Whole School Restorative Practices, Whole-School Restoration, Whole-School Restorative Discipline, Whole-School Restorative Justice, Whole-School Restorative Program

© 2018 William A. Bledsoe, Ph.D.

I believe that to really understand how and why a restorative approach to misconduct works, we have to go back to its origins. If we don’t, we will continue to only scratch the surface of its potential in schools. As I’ve written in other articles, the restorative way is more than just a discipline response. It’s a way of being in relationship when we experience any type of conflict. In Part One of this article I’ll explore these deeper aspects of the restorative way. In Part Two, I’ll illustrate how one Waldorf school in Carbondale Colorado is embracing what’s possible.

Tribal Roots

Western practices of restorative justice (courts) and restorative discipline (schools) all have one place of emergence – Indigenous Wisdom Traditions and Worldviews. The restorative approach comes from these traditions which predate Christianity, and western institutionalized philosophies of “eye for an eye” punishment and retribution.[1] When human beings lived primarily in small clan units and/or tribes, the survival of the tribe depended on the contribution and interdependence of each member. Restoring relationship harmony between its members was a matter of survival.

Retribution was not an effective response. In fact, quite the opposite. Retribution and punishment (a type of “consequence”) promoted exclusion, further disassociation, and widened the tear in the social fabric. Retribution drove any resentment deeper into the individual(s) and the community. Survival depended on being able to heal the individual and mend the rupture to relationships.

It wasn’t until western criminologists began to ask Indigenous people in the 1980s how they “did justice” that we began to learn about a restorative way.[2] The Navajo, Cree-Ojibwa and other First Nations’ People of Canada, and the Maori of New Zealand shared their wisdoms and continue to do so.[3] But western adaptations of these ancient wisdoms about the restorative approach (like restorative justice and school discipline) are inevitably constrained by the secular contexts in which they are performed.

There’s more at Stake

Indigenous approaches to restoration provide a much deeper experience of reconciliation. In addition to restoring relationships with each other, and social relationships within the tribe, restoration involves healing the individual. Healing in this context means returning the troubled person to an experience of “right relationship” with themselves and “all that is.” Tribal ways of justice and reconciliation are ceremonies.[4]

This ceremonial aspect means that tribal restorative practices (justice and peacemaking) are sacred ritual processes.[5] Ritual healing ceremonies of restoration invoke the presence of culturally specific sacred or holy being(s) that were present at the beginning of time as related in origin myths. The presence of such personae are what give ceremony its numinous power of restoration. The ritual not only restores an individual’s relationship with themselves and social connection to other members of the tribal community, but also restores that individual’s connection to a sacred source.

The Restoration of Moral Principles

Because of this invocation of sacred mythology and wisdom, each ritual performance of restoration also restores cultural beliefs and norms about what constitutes moral, ethical and proper conduct between its members and the natural world. These moral precepts exist in the language, stories, and cultural teachings that have sustained the people for thousands of years. Restoring such moral values is to restore a timeless orientation.

For example, Navajo Peacemaking (Hózhóji Naat’aah) invokes moral obligations built on Navajo social structures constituted by a complex system of clanship. Thus, there are cultural meanings and contexts of personal responsibility for social relationships expressed in peacemaking sessions that reflect a shared social knowledge about what constitutes moral behavior.

The instructional manual for Navajo Peacemaking (2004) identifies the organizing principle of peacemaking as the Navajo concept of k’e, loosely translated as “working together through relations”.[6] K’e, according to Witherspoon (1977), is a “preverbal element that refers to affective action and solidarity, encompassing such concepts as love, compassion, kindness, friendliness, generosity, and peacefulness”.[7] Honorable Navajo Chief Justice Robert Yazzie (2005) noted that “Navajo justice uses k’e to achieve restorative justice”.[8]

“K’é imposes a duty on us to instruct and guide one another. It emphasizes restorative justice, ensuring that individuals living in disharmony are brought back into right relationships and into the community to re-establish order.”

As a moral imperative, k’e preexists in cultural knowledge and experience that are informed by tribal narratives, and that precondition the proceedings of peacemaking sessions. As a cultural precept k’e invokes (a) personal responsibility for one’s clan and all relationships that constitute the Dine’ People (b) a commitment to work problems out through communication, or “talking things out” and (c) an individual’s right to make decisions for him or herself, but within a context of personal responsibility for one’s actions when it concerns the welfare of others.

In my experience facilitating restorative conferences, a “shared cultural narrative reminding participants of moral conduct” does not exist in western restorative justice and discipline practices. Goldberg (1997) states “In non-Indian America there are real obstacles to achieving the kind of social accountability that Navajo communities experience”.[9] Central among those obstacles is a populist predilection for retaliation and scapegoating. However, Goldberg acknowledges that “non-Indian communities might be able to embrace the moral principles of restorative peacemaking if community members agree on a shared set of values that define a quality of social life within the community.”[10]

Therefore, although participants in restorative justice and restorative school discipline conferences do not typically share a singular cultural narrative that defines moral behavior – and must often confront amoral cultural dispositions – consensus about what constitutes moral behavior in their community is possible. When people gather together in a circle to discuss a troubling incident, understand how it negatively impacted individuals and relationships, explore why it happened, make amends and create a reparative agreement – the principles of ‘right relationship’ emerge.

This is what I’ve witnessed happening at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork where we’re implementing a whole-school restorative discipline program. They are growing a communal ethic of right relationship. Though I’ll explain this in more detail in Part Two of this article, the contexts in which this shared recognition of right relationship is emerging through:

  • A Conduct Policy which articulates Positive Behavioral Expectations of all members of the school community that enact the principles of “right relationship”
  • Pedagogical stories which illustrate those values and principles in action
  • A whole-school restorative program with responses and practices that remind members/students of their inherent value to the school community, while holding them responsible for the well-being of themselves and others.


Western adaptations of restorative justice and restorative discipline borrowed some of the processual components of tribal restorative peacemaking. People gather in a circle, discuss what happened and how people were impacted, and put a plan in place (restorative agreement) to repair the harm and move forward. Repair typically includes making amends, and asking for and receiving forgiveness. When the person who caused the harm makes amends and forgiveness is granted, that person is often considered reintegrated or “redeemed.”

Some scholars of restorative justice claim that these components of amends, forgiveness and redemption are what make it “spiritual” and “healing.”[11] While these characteristics reflect spiritual ideals and moral principles found in Judeo-Christian traditions, I hesitate to interpret western restorative justice/discipline practices as “healing” when considering the context of healing proscribed by Indigenous restorative practices.[12]

“Healing” in western restorative practices (courts/schools) potentially occurs during circle conferences when: (a) offenders take responsibility for the harms they have caused victims and apologize to victims and to their community, (b) victims have opportunities to share their experience of being harmed and (c) offenders and victims are “reintegrated” back into the school/community after resolution of the incident.

“Healing” in this context refers mainly to the restoration of social/interpersonal relationships, and does not specifically apply to individual psychological issues from which offenders or victims may be suffering. Hence, attempts to resolve offenders’ psychological or behavioral issues that may have compelled violations in the first place (e.g., unresolved relational trauma) are not a formal part of the typical circle conference processes. Unfortunately, in my experience, if these underlying issues are not addressed and “healed”, reintegration will remain incomplete. The behavior will continue.

While we can never fully understand (let alone experience) the sacred cultural traditions within which the transformational power of Indigenous restorative healing resides (unless we were born into those traditions), we can learn from and perhaps incorporate some those aspects of healing into restorative justice and restorative discipline in schools. Doing so will help us “deepen” restorative practices in both settings.

The Waldorf School in Carbondale is realizing both potentials: manifesting cultural norms of respect-based conduct, and using the restorative process as a method of uncovering underlying issues that are compelling anti-social behavior and that require healing.

Naming the Monster

One of the primary objectives of Navajo restorative peacemaking is to restore individuals’ relationship with themselves by addressing underlying personal issues. In this regard, the thinking and beliefs of both the person who has harmed, and the person harmed are explored to facilitate intrapersonal healing and reintegration with the self. As Yazzie (2005) explained:

Navajo concepts of justice are related to healing because many of the principles are the same. Navajo healing works through two processes: First, it drives away or removes the cause of illness; and second, it restores the person to good relations in solidarity with his or her surroundings and self.[13]

Scholars have explicated the process whereby psychological and behavioral issues are addressed in Navajo peacemaking sessions. Nielsen (2005), for instance, explained that “one of the primary purposes of peacemaking is precisely to identify the underlying problems that are leading to disharmony.”[14] In peacemaking, the process of identifying underlying causes is termed “naming the monster.”[15]

According to Zion (2005), monsters are those psychological, behavioral, and dysfunctional social conditions that cause distress in offenders and compel them to commit acts of violation against other persons. Zion is referring mainly to criminal behavior and the justice system. Alcohol and other drug abuse and addiction, anxiety, child and sexual abuse, depression, domestic violence, and physical illness, for instance, are examples of monsters that “get in the way of a person living his life,” and are primary motivators of antisocial behavior.[16]

As a process, when peacemakers or other participants in peacemaking sessions hear accounts given by the people involved in an incident, they ask questions and identify and confront underlying issues. Zion (2005) translated the process of naming the monster for western practitioners of restorative justice by employing social–psychological terms. Zion’s work signifies a profound “change moment” in helping western practitioners to begin implementing this ancient restorative wisdom in justice and school settings, and on a much deeper level.

Here’s the key as it relates to restorative practices in k-12 schools.

In those incidences where disruptive behavior has become a pattern or is recognizably harmful to other students and the learning environment, we have to “look beneath the surface of the behavior.”

Doing so helps us “name the monster” that exists in a child’s or teen’s life. If unresolved trauma or neglect is the monster, trauma responsive restorative communication equips teachers and administrators with tools and skills to not only identify the monsters, but slay them with a sword of professional empathy.

In Part Two of this article, I illustrate how this is happening at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork.


[1] Daniel W. Van Ness and Karen Heetderks Strong, Restoring Justice (2nd Ed, 2002), Anderson Publishing, Cincinnati OH

[2] *See Rupert Ross, Dancing with a Ghost: Exploring Aboriginal Reality (1992), Penguin Press

[3] *See Raymond D. Austin, Navajo Courts and Navajo Common Law – A Tradition of Tribal Self-Governance (2009). University of Minnesota Press

[4] Philmer Bluehouse and James W. Zion, “Hózhóóji Naat’aanii: The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony” in Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005). Marianne O. Nelson and James W. Zion (Ed), University of Arizona Press

[5] Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Ed). Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005). University of Arizona Press

[6] Navajo Nation Peacemaking Manual, Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation (2004, P.2), retrieved from October 20, 2007.

[7] Gary Witherspoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Universe (1977, P.84), University of Michigan Press

[8] Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Eds.), Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005, P.48), University of Arizona Press.

[9] Carole E. Goldberg (1997), “Overextended Borrowing: Tribal Peacemaking Applied in Non-Indian Disputes.” Washington Law Review 72 (October): 1003-1019)

[10] Ibid, (p. 1003)

[11] Michael Hadley (Ed), The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice (2001), State University of New York Press (SUNY)

[12] For example, see Leland C. Wyman, Blessingway (1970), University of Arizona Press

[13] Robert Yazzie, “Life Comes From It”: Navajo Justice Concepts”, Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Eds.), Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005, P.47), University of Arizona Press.

[14] Marianne O. Nielsen, “Navajo Nation Courts and Peacemaking: Restorative Justice Issues”, Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005, Pg.147-155), Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Eds.), University of Arizona Press.

[15] James W. Zion, “The Dynamics of Navajo Peacemaking: Social Psychology of an American Indian Method of Dispute Resolution”, Navajo Nation Peacemaking: Living Traditional Justice (2005, Pg.85-99), Marianne O. Nielsen and James W. Zion (Eds.), University of Arizona Press.

[16] Ibid

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