Robert Yazzie is a citizen of and Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation. He served as Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation from 1992 through 2003. During that time, he promoted the development of Navajo common law and helped articulate the Navajo "bill of rights." In an effort to further the Navajo – as opposed to the Western colonial – paradigm of law and justice, he looked to the teachings of the early Navajo Elders and, drawing upon their wisdom, promoted the use of Navajo peacemaking techniques, or hozhooji naat'aanii
, in a variety of settings (including, for example, domestic violence disputes). He refers to Navajo peacemaking – a circle practice that has been likened to contemporary restorative justice practices – as "original dispute resolution" or "ODR."
Justice Yazzie sees many differences between the Navajo peacemaking model
and the Western colonial model of law and justice. In the Western model, justice is rendered "vertically" by strangers holding power within hierarchies, and coercion is the driving force as they pursue their preeminent goal of "truth" – and the consequent assignment of fault. In the Navajo model, by contrast, the focus is on consensus-building rather than truth-seeking, and healing and solidarity (rather than punishment) are the driving forces of the process. The Navajo process calls for full participation of victims, offenders, relatives, and members of the community, and justice is conceived of in horizontal terms – that is to say, "no person is above the other." "In a circle, there is no right or left, no beginning or end. Every point (or person) on the line on a circle looks to the same center as the focus. The circle is a symbol of Navajo justice because it is perfect, unbroken, and a simile of unity and oneness."
Justice Yazzie says
"the Navajo understanding of 'solidarity' is difficult to translate into English, but it carries connotations that help the individual to reconcile self with family, community, nature, and the cosmos – all reality. . . . Most importantly, [Navajo peacemaking] restores good relations with self." Put otherwise, under the Navajo paradigm, people are equal in the law rather than equal before the law, and the focus is on promoting human flourishing rather than assigning fault.
Robert Yazzie grew up in a traditional area of the Navajo Nation and attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Following his graduation from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1982, he practiced law in the Navajo Nation courts
, acted as a Navajo-English interpreter in US District Court, and served as a consultant to law firms. After seven years as presiding judge of the district court in the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation in 1992.
Justice Yazzie has said of his Western education that while it provided him with some tools, it did not provide him with the vital knowledge that he was seeking. He said
, "I had to relearn my language and traditions and go back to a spiritual power base before I could begin to change [myself and the systems around me]."
In addition to writing about Navajo justice, Justice Yazzie writes
about the ongoing legacy of colonialism and Social Darwinism in the United States. While the Navajo may never achieve the political sovereignty that they desire, he says, the Navajo "can achieve internal sovereignty" by engaging in individual and collective healing processes, such as those embodied in Navajo peacemaking.
Justice Yazzie was formerly the Director of the Dine Policy Institute of Dine College (Navajo Nation), where he developed policy based on Navajo wisdom and applied traditional Navajo thinking to contemporary problems. He is the author of articles and book chapters on many subjects, including Navajo peacemaking, traditional Indian law, and international human rights law. He has taught at the University of New Mexico School of Law, Northern Arizona University, and Navajo Technical College. He has a global audience and has frequently visited foreign lands to share his wisdom about traditional indigenous justice and governance.