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Robert Yazzie: Navajo Notion of Justice

Guest: Justice Robert Yazzie
Host: Preeta Bansal
Moderator: Sujatha Baliga


Preeta: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. My name is Preeta and I will be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome and thank you for joining us. The purpose of these calls is really to share stories and tell stories. Stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life. Speakers who inspires us through their actions to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.

Today our special guest speaker is the remarkable Robert Yazzie. Who is someone who has really invented in some ways today's theme of the Navajo Notion of Justice, or actually brought it to light. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let's start with a moment of silence to anchor ourselves.

Thank you.

So welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call. Today we're in conversation with Justice Robert Yazzie.


This week's theme, as I shared earlier is the Navajo Notion of Justice. Our guest this week has revived Navajo peacemaking practices with a focus on healing and solidarity within a community. He emphasizes healing and solidarity more than on punishment of offenders, and on consensus-building rather than on the assignment of fault.

The questions for our reflection is that whenever you have been involved in informal or formal dispute resolutions, what practices have contributed most to your sense of justice? Since we have the pleasure of a remarkable moderator, Sujatha Baliga, today, I thought we could start by asking her to kick off our circle.

To give you just a little bit of context about the remarkable Sujatha, Sujatha is a former victim advocate and public defender. She's a nationally recognized expert in restorative justice, criminal and juvenile justice reform, and forgiveness. Today Sujatha is the Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice , where she helps communities implement restorative justice alternatives to juvenile detention and zero-tolerance school discipline policies. She is also dedicated to restorative justice to end child sexual abuse and inter-familial and sexual violence. She speaks publicly and inside prisons about restorative justice, her personal experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse, and her path to forgiveness. So, Sujatha, it's so great to speak with you today and have you here in conversation with Justice Yazzie.

Sujatha: It's great to be here. Reflecting on the theme, Preeta, if that's what you would like me to start with, one of the things I think about the most and one of the things in my private time and in my spiritual time, in relationship to my work, one of the things that I'm most blessed for being in relationship with Justice Yazzie about is the way in which the sacred and the spiritual can be a part of our justice journeys.

For me personally, when I've done harm, when I think about methods of spiritual purification that I keep in my spiritual life. So let's say if I've done some wrong or some harm, in my own Buddhist path, there's spiritual purification methodologies that we have. And there's no way in which I bring that into my secular American justice work. And I think that's one of the things I've been sitting with the most lately. Once I've done harm and I've done things to make amends for that harm, I also need that additional spiritual level of cleansing, and I'm wondering about--one of the things that's been on my mind is what would it look like for us to find secular ways to have cleansing rituals? So I'm looking for the end of our time together, hearing from other folks, as well as Justice Yazzie about those things. But that's just something that's been on my mind about how do we cleanse ourselves after harm and wrong-doing that we've done.

Preeta: Great thoughts. We look forward to getting to that.

Sujatha: I had the incredible honor of meeting the honorable Justice Robert Yazzie many years ago at a national Restorative Justice conference. Justice Yazzie spoke beautifully about the relationship of Restorative Justice, which tends to be this secularized, Western notion in the way we think about it in the American and Western context. And his understanding of these words from the Diné worldview, the Navajo worldview and it was one of the most life-changing experiences that I had had.

I was sad to say I had known of him when I had lived in New Mexico years earlier, but because he's such an international rockstar, I was too shy to go to the Navajo Nation to reach out to him, to try to connect with him. It's a big regret on my part that I hadn't done it sooner because he was the most approachable person that I had ever met, and so humble and so willing to say yes, come and learn. And I hesitate to say that because I worry that every person on this call will then call him and say, can I come learn from you? And he'll say yes to everyone.

But I think what is amazing to me is his prodigious heart and mind, and his capacity to think about both his own spiritual tradition, his own people's way, and Western law. I could list out his entire resume for you and how he went to Oberlin college long before there were other people leaving the Navajo Nation to go do that. He went on to law school and studied Western law and then his thinking today around the nexus of learning Navajo legal thinking as well as Western legal thinking. And his dedication to teaching young Navajo lawyers how to manage both of those worlds necessity today.

But more than that I think I would want to say that Justice Yazzie is somebody who walks the talk, in his own ways being in the world, but also grapples with what is the right thing to do, both personally and collectively, in the face of colonialism, without negativity. With this constant--one of the greatest phrases I have heard from him is, "how are we going to move forward in a good way?" So for me, my connection to him is about that, "how are we going to move forward in a good way?" is the teaching that I repeatedly returned to for my relationship with Justice Yazzie.

So Justice Yazzie, I'm just going to ask you some questions, if that's the next step Preeta.

Preeta: Yes it is, and thank you for that beautiful introduction.


Sujatha: Great. So Justice Yazzie, I'd love to start with just some more basic questions about the Diné worldview and I get to maybe questions of what does justice look like, etc., but I think that many people on the call are not necessarily well-versed in the wisdom of your people. So I think it's helpful to start maybe with a little bit of what it is that when you think about the law, how you start with worldview.

Justice Yazzie: Thank you, Sujatha. It was good to hear from you again, and I've very happy to be here to share my knowledge and experience. So the question about what is the worldview of the Navajo people, as to the notion of Navajo justice. What I can recall at this moment is what the holy people, and our understanding of the holy ones, are the ones who say..., it means that their prayers and songs are what made it possible for them to put into place the Earth and the universe. And the holy people, with their songs and prayers, they managed to put the, what we call in they place the Earth and the universe in place. And thereafter they saw fit to put into place what the mind can do or what the mind should do. So what the holy people did is they put the...into the mountains, into the water, and then after that they saw fit to put the ...into the wind. Then the last way was to look at the end result of their creation, which is the word....It's very difficult to explain that, even in Navajo, but at best the word ...adds to the end result of the resilience. After you have done a challenge or task, the end result should be able to come out with some workable solution, some practical solution.

As we look at what the holy people did, we don't really talk about the circle as a lot of people do, but what we do talk about, without mentioning the circle, we talk about the cycle of what we experience everyday. The minute we get up we see the sunrise, even before the sun comes up the people would go and stand towards the East with their corn pollen and say..., "May the world be good to me." And so as they prayed to the East, it was the beginning of the day. And then as time goes, whatever you prayed for should come to pass. Whatever you prayed for should be your agenda for the day. And as such, at the end of the day you begin to reflect on what you have thought about and what you have accomplished, where you're at, and whether you're successful or not. So basically, that's the short summary of what the worldview is about.

And that idea of the circle goes hand in hand with the mountains that we have and the waters. As far as the mountains, we have names for some of the main mountains that contribute to our way of thinking, to our way of doing things, to the way we live. And the way we try to keep in mind as to what is important for the day and how do we resolve certain issues. So within the worldview, one of the most basic things to our way of thinking is when we talk about values and principles, it's very difficult to explain that in English, because the English philosophy and the Navajo philosophy are sometimes just opposite, there's a big difference. But it's not impossible to explain the Navajo philosophy to an English audience. When we look at the word good, the word Yá'át'ééh. And I think the word Yá'át'ééh is what gives the foundation to what a lot of people in America understand to be, which is restorative justice. So to us restorative justice is something that started right from the time of creation of the Earth, the Universe, the Moon, the Sun, the water, the air. Everything we see, everything that gives us sustainability.

At the same time, that concept of Yá'át'ééh, the good, there's always the opposite. I have a gentlemen whom I respect a lot, his name is Tom Sole. I call him my grandfather. He told me one time, whenever we think about philosophy we think about a pair in life. What he meant was there's an element of good and at the same time, there is an element of just the opposite, the bad, which we call.... So when we look at those two elements, we use in the stories and the songs and the prayers, in order to achieve union, we relate to the word... which is used a lot in the ceremonies, in the songs and prayers.

When we live our life daily, when we walk within the circle, we must walk clockwise. As we do, we always think of that one word that is an aspiration constantly, which is the word good. Even at the end of our prayers we say.... As the elders would say, that is what you need to sustain yourself. And that is basic to our worldview.

So as I said, when somebody gets sick, everybody wants to live a good life, or ..... But there comes a time when there is a force of disruption that interferes with your state of goodness, or state of Yá'át'ééh. And the way that that disruption causes a disharmony to your Yá'át'ééh way of life. So the medicine people would say if you're beginning to experience a life of disharmony, then the best thing to do is to reflect on it, think about it. And when you do, you'll find someone who has the ability to diagnose the problem, to diagnose what is causing the disruption in your life, and are you living with a sad state of mind and disharmony.

Sujatha: Justice Yazzie, sorry to interrupt, but I'm curious if you could tell us a little bit about who it is that--when you say that there's that someone to intervene at that point, to help diagnose it. Can you tell us a little bit more about who that person is and how that person operates in relationship to the person who's experiencing that disruption in the force of goodness?

[Technical Difficulties]


Justice Yazzie: Well, let me just give my own personal experience. I'm a very busy person, and I like it that way. So I'm most happy when I am accomplishing a lot for the benefit of the people. And there are times when I would come up on something that would cause me to feel ill to the point that I would need to see somebody. And in Navajo we would say someone--that there are people who are trained to diagnose your sickness, your illness, and they can do it with smoke, they can gaze at the stars, or they can see things in the fireplace. They would ask you some questions about whatever problem you may be having. And once they are done asking questions, they would look to see what's causing the problem. After a while they would pause and think about it and then tell you that whatever you are experiencing is from these particular forces.

And this is where the person who is diagnosing the problem has managed to identify the cause of the disharmony. So sometimes it could be mental. Sometimes it could be spiritual, or sometimes your body is experiencing aches and pains. And I've gone through those types of experiences. So after that I feel relieved that at least I know the cause of my problem. And then the medicine person, man or woman, would say, well I have some options. The way in which the cause of your illness can be neutralized or eliminated.

So once he or she tells me that, they will give me a recommendation that I should have an overnight ceremony. And before that, what they would recommend is before you get a ceremony, the best thing to do is to take care of whatever problem is causing a disruption to your life. And sometimes the person would do what we call a...where whatever was put into your mind and your body is taken out. And after that, then you are ready for an all-night ceremony. Once you go through that process, then at some point you will begin to feel better. And this is where I usually say...., which means I have been restored back to harmony. Sometimes when I reach that state of restoration, I'm reminded that it's very important that I have to take care of myself and that I must work at maintaining my sense of resilience.

Sujatha: So Justice Yazzie, when I think about this, what always comes up for me when you're describing these ceremonies and these experiences is that there's not this bright line that I see drawn between different types of good. There's a way in which I think, in the Western world, we can think of wellness in terms of medicine and then satisfaction in terms of an outcome in a courtroom. What I find interesting in the way in which I think you think of things is something that is something we're moving towards in all aspects of our lives.

For some of us, I think, when our minds stay separated somehow there's a medical area and a legal area, in the way in which we draw these categories. How is it that you draw these principles and these ideas that I hear you speaking about in an all-night ceremony, for example, into a courtroom on the Navajo Nation?

Justice Yazzie: Right now, we're working toward changing the American model of jury system. As Navajo people we have probably eleven courts located throughout our land base, which covers twenty-seven thousand acres. And we have eleven court systems located throughout our nation. So we have managed to use the American model of court system to address the social problems that we have. Social problems meaning that we have a number of cases pending with our court system involving domestic violence, involving alcohol abuse, drug abuse, sexual abuse, child neglect, abandonment, and suicide. And those are just some of the examples.

So we're having a difficult time trying to operate our court system. And sometimes it takes a lot of resources, a lot of money. It's something that we come short of. We don't have all the money. When people ask for a jury trial, normally we don't have the resources. But people are told, yes you do have a right to a jury trial, but you have to pay for the jury trial. So a jury trial in a civil or criminal case costs, what one lawyer said, maybe as much as $17,000 a case.

Now, we have a problem with our jury system. People who have been charged with serious crimes request a jury trial, but end up not getting the benefit of a jury trial. So what we have said now is that we should--since we don't have the means to pay for it, we have to resort to our own Navajo liberal mind.

And I think this is where we can look at the circle for solutions. We look at the past, the stories that have been told to us by our ancestors. And if you get into a bind there are certain things that can be done to overcome these problems. So what we have done is that in the Navajo court system, the person is entitled to a jury of no less than 6 jury panel. And the thought is to put the Diné way into the jury system. By that I mean that instead of having the jury system that usually functions like a regular jury in the State or Federal court, where the juries are told that if you have the ability to listen to the evidence, and to come up with a decision, then you are qualified.

So our thought is that we don't need to have a regular jury system that is drawn from the American model. We can rework that model to fit our own value system. By that I mean that instead of having the jurors be called the jurors, we call them naatʼáanii. This means leadership, being leaders. So if we have the ability to redo the jury system with leaders to preside over the jury session in a traditional way, we could allow for relatives to come in. If the offender chooses to participate in the Diné jury system, then he must wave his right to remain silent. But anything that he says in this Diné jury system would be protected. Anything that he says will not be used against him in time to come.

So you asked me the question, how does that ceremony work into the jury model. Well, I think that the way in which we're thinking about how our value system, how our traditional principles, our customs and our traditions, can we help fix things up? And in the regular jury system, people always talk about in the American system you're always looking for fault and blaming somebody for the wrong done. In the Diné jury system we don't look for that. What we do is--the aim is to look at the whole situation holistically, meaning that if you have a person who is charged with battery or domestic violence, that person would come before the six sitting naatʼáaniis and be able to participate in the process along with the victim, if that is possible.

So what is unique about this arrangement is to allow the victim to come with his or her relatives for support. And likewise the defenders would do the same thing, would come into the circle with his or her relatives. In this way, the people are encouraged by the court to talk things out and also to allow the six sitting naatʼáaniis to help the parties to define the problem.

If the person who was charged for assault and battery, and the prosecutor has pending charges, but now the offender says I don't want to go through the regular American model-type system. I want to go through the Diné system. When that happens, the leaders would have to get to the bottom of the problem. As a judge, I always stick to the box. Meaning that if a person is charged with a crime, I will follow the procedures of the court to the letter, and then I choose justice in that respect. But after a while I began to question my role as a judge. And using the American law, is that really doing something good for the people?


Sujatha: Justice Yazzie, can you tell me a little about what it was that caused you to start to question it? So for you, what was that experience like when you were following the letter of the law, and how did you make this transition?

Justice Yazzie: When I graduated from law school--I graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. When I graduated, I used to always think that lawyers and judges is an answer to everything, to all the problems that we have. After I was appointed, I took the job as a judge in the Window Rock District Court in Arizona, within the Navajo Nation. And then I began to analyze all the cases that came before me. I had all kinds of cases because our court is a court of general jurisdiction. Even though we have a model that we follow, that of the state and federal courts. We have our own process, we allow the people to speak the Navajo language, rather than English. When English-speaking attorneys come in, they are entitled to have a Navajo interpreter.

But anyway, one day I started with a criminal case, and when the witnesses were being called an elderly man raised his hand in the audience. And right away I told him, you are interrupting the judicial proceedings. In Navajo, I said that if you do that one more time, I have no choice but to hold you in contempt of court.

So, what I said bothered me for days. I didn't feel good having to tell an elderly man the consequences of his actions. To this day, I clearly understand what was wrong with what I gave him. Then I said to myself, if I had given the opportunity to listen to his wisdom, he would have some options as to the solution to the problem. His wisdom would have been a very helpful angle in terms of defining the problem or in terms of what should be done to restore harmony. And I imagine he had a lot of information in his head, thinking about the stories that are very relevant to most of the cases that we hear.

So I think from then on I began to think differently. It was pretty difficult because I was very accustomed to, as a judge, to running the court like a state court or federal court. It's always intriguing to have someone who is well-prepared coming in and arguing the fine points of law. But what I enjoyed listening to had nothing to do with the victim. I mean you forget about--you begin to think about the procedures so much that you tend to forget the real purpose of a case and what the outcome should be.

Sujatha: Yes, so Justice Yazzie, in thinking about this, what a powerful story, right? And so here are the rules of the court that would tell you to tell this elderly man that he will be in contempt of court, but he's an elder with some wisdom. I think there's this way in which sometimes the rules get in the way, in a sense.

And I'm hearing from you that you felt--it didn't sit well with your soul that you had done this. And I think one of the things that is a struggle, I think in the way we walk through the world with these rules and categories, right: this is the way we should and shouldn't do things. That there's a way in which that necessarily misses the notion of the way in which things are connected, when we draw these lines and have to have these boxes and rules.

And I wanted to know a little bit more about--one of the things you talk about is this notion of how we reconcile ourselves with, not just our family and our community, but with nature and the entire universe, in a sense, when we're making things right, to restore good relations, not just with the self, but there's a way in which that relationship to the self is also connected to all things. And I was wondering if I could ask you to share a little bit more about that.

Justice Yazzie: If I understand your question--I want to go back to your prior question. I can see the potential of our future Navajo courts, once we are able to--instead of using the rules of law, which we will in certain cases, but for the most part we like to make the Navajo restorative justice circle as the dominant process for the Navajo courts. And I see a real benefit in doing that.

So an example would be if there are cases pending for child abuse, child neglect, suicide, domestic violence. In those types of cases, when the people are given the opportunity to tell the story--and we do have judges now who have taken their black robes off and who no longer sit above the parties. What one judge says, "When I enter the court, I change the whole atmosphere."

I make sure that I'm not running a formal court, that I'm running an informal court that fits the spirit of the people. When people come in, some of them are angry, or very lost, or very afraid. So my job is to greet them as though they are my relatives. My job is to tell the people that their problems are very important to me. So I sit with them like sitting with the family at a dinner table. And people are very surprised when I take that style of court hearing. But when I do that, I notice a change in those people right away. If a person comes in very hostile, being uncooperative, and you tell them in a very nice way that I want to listen to your story. What is going on? Can you tell me?

Along the way when I hear the people talk, then it gives me the opportunity to share those important Navajo creation stories. For example, if I need to talk about the responsibility, accountability in a situation where I sense in listening to the people telling their story--they will be telling stories that there is poor communication in their family. There's no respect. The reason why we're in court now started from the husband being jealous against the wife, so that there's a lot of misunderstanding. As the judge hears those stories, the concerns of the people, that gives the judge the opportunity to say, let's go back. Let's see what the story about...means, the beauty way.

And sometimes I heard a judge say that, if you are a very violent person, and that's the kind of lifestyle you live, but now you're saying that you want to change things. The best thing for you to do is to really address your problem. Come to terms with your problem. Then, at some point, you can switch from your regular way of life to a more good way of life.

And the judge was saying, this is the opportunity, as a judge to work with the people that way is really meaningful. But if I switched to applying the law, the black letter of the law, I'm working with a box. And I'm working with someone who's charged with battery. Then I have to look at the elements of law. The prosecution would say, our job is done. We've proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt. So they get prosecuted and people get sent to jail. And nothing is done to discuss the underlying cause that created--that the family has become very dysfunctional. And there's nothing done.


Sujatha: So what I'm thinking is that there have been times when I've been in court where I've seen judges try to do what it is that you're describing, which is, even if they're technically in a Western court, right? That they're following the letter of the law, but they also make some effort to speak to, "I hope you turn your life around. You need to look at the underlying issue."

And what I notice is that because there is no relationship between that judge and that individual, those words don't really seem to do anything in court most often. Maybe sometimes in a rare circumstance, somebody who's standing in court would have the experience that that judge cared and that judge wanted something better for them. But there's no process by which that person can engage in what the judge has requested or what the judge is suggesting.

So I'm wondering what it is that you feel makes it such a powerful thing, that conversation that you have with that person, where you're letting them know or you see judges doing it in a way that's truly effective? What is that that helps that person see what it is that is going on with them?

Justice Yazzie: I think what the people who participate in this restorative justice process and pretty soon would like to see that as a common practice in the court system. I think what really makes a difference for the parties that come in, people who are victims, people who are defendants, even the judges, even the bailiffs would see that there is a force of our...meaning that there's respect. There's a recognition that we are human beings. And as human beings, we know definitely--we have a good idea of what it means to be good, we have a definite idea of what it means to be bad. If consequences are to be dealt with, we know what to do, because we have little concepts in our own way by tradition and custom.

For example, we have a word called...which means--which goes to explaining the kinship unity, the...the good value. The good way of recognizing your duties and responsibilities. I think that what the top thing that we really aspire to is that we are all related one way or another. And we are related one way or another.

And I think what is missing in the adversarial court system is we tend to be very formal, and sometimes people say, "Your Honor." And sometimes I say, "don't call me 'Your Honor.' I am Your Honor, yes. But I have a name. I am your relative. I'm your brother. I'm your father. I'm your grandfather." That kind of relationship makes a big difference.

And I think when you talk about these values, we like to give people in our course of this conversation the victims and their families, the defendants and their families is to talk about some type of values that make a lot of sense. For example, what is the meaning of reciprocity? And how can that help to allow the dysfunctional family to become functional again. And I think those core values mean a lot. And I think--I mean if we are allowed to have a session with the family, talking about traditional stories, talking about core values, that will change things as to the lives of the people.

And I think what is important here, too, is that the change would also say that we need to get better at our communication. Even as a judge, I need to improve my communication with my fellow people. Whether I'm in public or with my family, good communication with respect is very important so you have a strong sense of what it means to live a good life. And you also have a strong sense of what it means to live a bad life.

And I think if you are able to teach the parties in court about choices--you can choose to do bad, you can choose to do good. But whatever you do, the responsibility is in your hands. The consequences are in your hands. So you make the choice. And I think if you are able to talk to people, and people have come around. People who come in seeking a protection order, at the end of a session such as the one I'm describing here, we don't mind the restraining order. They let go of it because they see that they really sense something as a result of this talk of dynamic in the core process.

Preeta: Thank you Justice Yazzie.

[Short break for Justice Yazzie}


Preeta: In the meanwhile, Sujatha, I thought while the Justice is taking a break I would ask you. You've been both in the system as a public defender and as a prosecutor. And you've also been pursuing alternative strategies in parallel to the system. I thought I'd ask you the question you asked Justice Yazzie about forming relationships. How can a judge do that when there's not really a deep relationship?

From your experience, how is it possible to bring some of these values into the system or, what I like to call, can we circle the square? If you view these alternative practices--the notion of the circle and interdependence--and our traditional systems as more linear, hierarchical, kind of square-like. Is there a way, effectively, to bring these thoughts and principals into the square, or do you feel there needs to be kind of a parallel system in order to really effectuate this?

Sujatha: That's a tough question. I think it's sort of the perennial question that I struggle with. I look to Justice Yazzie to see what it means to "circle the square" and I wonder--I don't have a particularly positive answer to this question, unfortunately. When I think about it from the perspective of the Western court system, I wonder--I have more belief and hope, obviously, that this could happen at the Navajo Nation where this notion that you would walk into court and see a judge as your father, your brother, your aunt, your grandmother, your grandfather. This is an understanding that I think we had a breakdown in in Western community. And I feel this as an immigrant in a sense, right? That there were stronger feelings of family and community during those three-four months a year I would spend in India as a child, as I do here, where my biologically family is scattered across the nation and we rarely see one another.

So without that embedded notion or that lived experience of your neighbors are your family, they are these words that we hear are all my relations from the wisdom of American-Indian people, First Nations people. I think it's harder for us to have that in our bones in Western society in a lot of ways. Particularly as an immigrant I feel this. And so when I interact with the Western court systems I have trouble figuring out how to do that. I can figure out how to do that in an individual relationship with a client. When I was a public defender I saw those men in prison, in jail, as my brothers, as my closest person. I tried to do that in my individual practice.

But then when it came to how to wrote the brief or made the argument in court, it was harder to do that. It was harder to feel that same sense of interconnectedness with the judge, with my opponent, especially when I was doing death penalty work, to imagine my opposing council as my beloved brother who is seeking the execution of my client. That is a challenge and maybe more about my own personal journey and what I need to do personally to open that up.

Preeta: As you were speaking something was coming up for me, which is this notion that this judge is your father or your uncle or your grandfather or your grandmother. That's beautiful, but I think from the Western perspective that's obviously a double-edged sword. You have worked a lot with children of sexual abuse. What would happen in those situations where the principals of authority, the people of authority are the ones that--if they have not been actively involved with some of these abuses they have certainly been aware of, condoned them, looked the other way. I'm thinking of certain communities where they have their own systems of justice and there are instances where abuse within communities is not fully addressed because of that and I just wonder if you have thoughts on that.

Sujatha: Sure. I think a part of it is coming to a better understanding of what it is that we say when we say, "I am your mother. I am your sister." Right? Certainly there are abusive mothers and sisters and fathers and uncles out there. I think a big part of the work is calling us back to the meaning of these words. So if we're going to be operating in a process as a relative, what does it mean to be a relative? What does it mean to be in relation in that way with others? So I think we need to come back to the meaning of those words. Not just think of them as statuses in a sense that we automatically get because of biology or circumstance, right? So I think that's an important piece of the work, is to re-embed the values of those positions and into the meaning of those things. It's not just simply because I birthed a child that I get to be a mother, right? I have to behave as what a mother is.

Preeta: I guess what I'm saying is, is the harm occurring because someone didn't have that sense of the relationship?

Sujatha: Yes. So then a part of the work is helping the person return to an understanding of what that is. Right? So if the harm occurred because of an unhealthy use of a power differential, a part of the work is working with the person who did that harm in relationship to that power differential to return to their understanding of what it truly is to be a mother. Right?

And so there have to be safety mechanisms put into place in order to allow that conversation to happen. Right? So it's not like an individualistic view. It's got to be a collective view. So for example, in the restorative justice processes that I facilitate, I don't believe that we can just have like a dialogue between the two people, because the preexisting problem is still there between them. We need to call in all those who help those two people be their best selves, and people who have been witness to this dynamic, people who have been a part of it so that they can help call these people back to their best selves. Who is it in their lives that helps them be their best selves and wants to see this thing move forward in a positive way? That needs to be attended to in the restorative justice process.

Preeta: Justice Yazzie do we have you back?


Justice Yazzie: Yes, I'm back.

Preeta: Wonderful....You mentioned earlier that you had always thought that being a lawyer was an ultimate form of doing good, of bringing powerful good into the world. I guess I'm curious as to what inspired you to attend Western law school and then what in your personal journey inspired you to come back to Navajo notions of justice. And I guess related to that, did you grow up with strong sense of Navajo notions of justices or did you have to rediscover that later in life?

Justice Yazzie: I think it's a long story. I could sit here all day and tell you all about the challenges that I went through, but I was born on the Navajo land, the Navajo reservation. And my mother was the sole parent and there were about four siblings, and she couldn't afford to keep all of us. And also she lived with her other sister and her children. So all our life we spent herding sheep. Sometimes we had to take care of 300 heads of sheep, or even more. And that was an all-day job. My mother spent her life doing rug weaving, and we lived way out in the middle of nowhere--no electricity, no running water.

And my experience of that as a childhood was I had some of my best moments back then. But people say, "but you didn't have running water, no electricity. You had no transportation. You must have been--I feel very sorry for you." And I said, there's no need to be sorry, because I had everything in life at my disposal to enjoy. But anyway, what inspired me was the hardship I went through, sometimes not having any food to eat--but you know, sometimes some spirit is speaking to you, but life goes on.

And so I went to boarding school. At boarding school we were told do not speak your language. Do not practice your culture. Do not see medicine people. You are to go to church. You are to forget about your traditional lifestyle. So I did that. I graduated from a Christian high school in New Mexico. And thereafter I thought about being a minister. Literally, I thought about becoming a part of an all-white community with an all-white family.

So my path started--when I graduated from high school I went to Calvin College. It's a Christian college in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I thought there, I'm going to do the four years there and then go into Seminary. But I could only take one semester at Calvin College. And from there I woke up to some of the things that I had to consider in my life. Who am I? Where do I come from?

So I left after one semester. When...the Indians in the Bay Area took over Alcatraz. And I went over there and I became part of the Alcatraz take-over for a short time. And later on at Wounded Knee, I wanted to see what was going on there. At that time I was going to Oberlin College and there were no other Indians on campus. I was the only one attending College with a number of Jewish students, most of which were from the East Coast. But anyway, I think just being by myself, spending a lot of time traveling myself. And sometimes I had to hitchhike from one end of the country to the other end.

So I think in that process I began to become more conscious of how my people were--our state of being. I needed to know more about who I am in relation to my relatives, in relation to my culture, in relation to the songs and prayers and ceremonies. And I did that for a time, and I think I'm at a point where I feel very satisfied that I have gone through all these experiences and challenges within my own circle of restorative justice.

So I think I'm at a point where I'm about to write a textbook on the fundamental law of the Diné to explain more to my people and to the world about what does the natural law mean? What does a custom and traditional law mean? And what does the common law mean? What is it and how does it apply to our lives today? So in the book I hope to put in all the issues and the perspectives that we discussed today.

So what was my inspiration? I think the hardship, you know, the sense of resilience that I had since I was a child. The sense that I can do things--and there are a lot of times when people say, there is no such thing as, "I can't, I can't." So my uncle, he went to the World War II and he used to always sit at the dinner table and my brother, my oldest brother and I would listen to him. One of the things he said was, "when you walk in life, if you fall on your face, get up again and go at it until you finish whatever you started."

And I think that's so true to our Navajo way of thinking. So one of the things--what a Navajo mind does best is when there is a trauma at hand, what is it that we can do? I think this is where people say, having more than one mind, in terms of seeking out the problem, seeking out the solution really has a lot of tremendous power, tremendous potential. And I think as I talk about putting--the example of putting the Diné way back into the jury system, I think that's a sign that we are on our way to change things here in the Navajo Nation.

It's a big job. I mean, not everyone talks and thinks like the way I'm talking today. I think some of our people are very content with the life they live. They want to be 8 to 5, and they want to drive their car, and the want to live in a beautiful home. But I like to be out traveling, meeting people, learning things, learning some differences. And sometimes I think the people in America, mainly Diné Indians have to do much better with the quality of education.

At one time I met a Dutch man up in Amsterdam because I saved up money to travel in Europe on my own. So he asked me what caused me to become a lawyer. I think that shows us the desire and when the mind says I want to do this, there's no way to say no to your own mind. And I think I have that drive and that kind of spirit and I want to use that energy to teach our Navajo young people, our young minds.

Preeta: What a remarkable story. What a beautiful story. You know it's interesting, you say your mind had the drive to become a lawyer and then at some point your spirit kind of led you to recover and go back to rediscover your spiritual heritage. Just out of curiosity, how did your people, the Navajo Nation, welcome you back after you had such a completely Western orientation and Christian orientation? How was that transition back and how did they accept the notions you had of bringing some indigenous teaching back into the judicial system of the Navajo Nation?


Justice Yazzie: I think that acceptance is always there. It's just a natural part of the way we live. We are very generous people, so the relatives who welcomed me back were able to see, were able to tell the type of person I was to be. What they did was that they had learned a lot of good tools, but there's one thing that we need you to do, is to have to relearn the Navajo way of education. We need to have a ceremony over you.

Preeta: I'm going to turn to some of the questions we have.

Justice Yazzie: Yes yes because I have developed a lot of negativity, building up resentment in my whole well-being. But it was true that I didn't understand sometimes myself when I get angry. But I think the more I went to ceremonies, the more I would sit in the ceremonies all night and be able to learn something one time--learn one thing at a time. So I think now I am at a point where--I'm not perfect. I don't know all there is to know. But I think I've learned enough to say I'm very proud of myself in a good way. And it's something that I want to share with my young relatives, including my grandchildren, including my own children.

Preeta: That's great. I'm going to turn to one of the questions that's been submitted via our live webcast. It's a question from Rhode Island and it's a series of questions around the power of circle when there's difficult domestic issues. The question is the children of sexual abuse by family members could be harmed by giving those family members so much power over them in the circle. How do you resolve this? And then the same person also asks that disorganized personalities like sociopaths often use self-serving stories to spin a web of lies and may bribe or manipulate others into supporting them. How would the Navajo circle protect against that?

Justice Yazzie: Well, that question was asked of me last week at a continuing legal session down in Phoenix. And a Navajo woman attorney asked me the question. The question was, does the Navajo peacemaking circle have the capability to address a very serious crime? Another white woman lawyer asked the question, I think she said, "this circular notion of justice--to talk about resolving serious crimes in the circle, I think is a serious misconception."

So that didn't bother me. My response to the Navajo woman attorney was that, you know, what would our relatives do one hundred years ago, two hundred years ago? How did they resolve these serious crimes then, before the white people came to this country? Before our system of justice, the imposition of that system on us took place? What did they do? That's all I needed to say. That was my response. And I think what I need to say is that there's too much imposition.

So one of the things that I'm doing with the students here--I teach law classes here at the Navajo Technical University; we're soon to turn our program into a four-year law degree. But anyway, I tell my students that this is the way the American system of justice works. These are the rules of law. This is the system. This is the process. And then you look at, on the other hand we have our own system of justice and our own system of justice takes on the model of the outside world. I said, it is time that we look at our own system. Sometimes people say, well, we have nothing. Well, let's start with nothing. Let's put something in there.

And I think in that way people are beginning to realize--I want people to realize that Navajo would have a framework--we always have a framework to deal with any types of issues. And that respect is our young people learn the law. It should be grounded in the American legal system as well as to really know the roots of our own legal system. And not to assume that the American legal system is a means to solve our problem.

I think the question about, you know, what about these child abuse--how do you deal with them? You know, I mean, I don't have an answer for you. But what I can say that's definitely the case, is if you allow the people to be with those issues in a circle, once they have spent time learning about the problem, what's causing the problem, the underlying issues to that sexual abuse, then the people can come to together and have the say. The relatives can come in. They have the solution. If you leave them to come up with the solution that means that they are able to heal themselves. They know what to do.

I mean, I'm here, as a judge I might be here just to facilitate the process. And I think that's probably one of the best means of dealing with those types of issues.


Preeta: Great. We have another question from a caller in New York City. She says, "I am full of questions. Where geographically is the Navajo Nation? Is the Navajo judicial system independent of the Western judicial system? And does the Western judicial system honor and recognize the Navajo justice system?"

Justice Yazzie: Yes. In America, I tell my students we are very different from the whole world, other countries. In this country we have the American government, we have the state government, we have the tribal government. And there is a relationship between all those three. And what we have with these governments and the people is we have a political relationship that the government has recognized our status as a nation, our sovereign--we are a sovereign and we have been recognized as such as far back as 1832, pursuant to the earliest U.S. Supreme Court cases. Where Chief Justice John Marshall back then in 1832 has said that the American Indians are to be recognized as a quasi-community. They have the right to make their own law and to be governed by that.

So we still have this pleasure to resort to our internal, our inherent power. And I think that our roots are still there. When you talk about the circle, that's part of our inherent power and so meanwhile, whenever we have to deal with the district government, the federal government I think there's a--especially with the state government--the only type of relationship we have is when we go to court. And the issue's always--does the Navajo Nation have jurisdiction over this case involving non-Indians? And I think--the Supreme Court has decided that Navajo Nation, as well as other Indian nations, do not have criminal jurisdiction to try non-Indians for the crimes they commit in Indian country. And it doesn't make sense to me. I mean, every sovereign, every jurisdiction should have the authority to punish people who do wrong in their jurisdiction.

I'll give you an example, if a non-Indian committed sexual abuse here, we do not have the power to prosecute that person. And the state may have jurisdiction over that. The federal government, if Congress allows for it, they may have the jurisdiction to prosecute that person. And there's one thing that I should mention, that every year up in Minnesota--and I just heard this at a discussion session--that every year a number of Indian women get raped during hunting season. And the tribe up there had no jurisdiction whatsoever. The state has no jurisdiction. The feds have no means to prosecute that, those incidences.

At best now, Congress has said, yes we'll give criminal jurisdiction to Indian nations to handle crimes related to domestic violence, involving non-Indians. So to do that, to say yes to that type of arrangement is to allow the federal government to move in and the federal government would like to have the applicability of the U.S. constitutional procedural safeguards used in these manners. And I think that imposition shouldn't be. If there was to be a true recognition of our own sovereign, we should be the one to handle those cases, based upon our own inherent powers.

Preeta: Wonderful. We're coming up on the close of the call. Sujatha, I'll pass it on to you if you have some closing comments or remarks.

Sujatha: Sure. So just briefly going back to the question around sexual harm, one of the things that has been most moving to me in what I have learned from the indigenous people of this continent can be seen in a film that's out out by the Canadian Film Review Board called "Hollow Water”. And it speaks powerfully about the ways in which indigenous peacemaking methodologies, and the circle in particular, was used to root out transgenerational sexual trauma that was caused by the boarding school crisis there in Canada. Something that's been unearthed by the Truth and Reconciliation processes there, and so this very powerful film for those interested in learning more about how circle has been powerfully used to address things in Canada in ways that our jurisdiction here in the United States does not allow, but Canada has had the wisdom to allow. But their first-nation people to do this. So a film called "Hollow Water." I would see it to learn a little bit more about what I think it is that we should be allowing our tribes to do here.

And just in closing, Justice Yazzie, I want to thank you so much. Every time I hear you speak I feel that you have brought be closer the good, and to looking for that in myself. In these values and principals that I know are so difficult to translate into English, but somehow you managed to do so for us. So I just want to thank you so much from the bottom of my heart for your continued sharing of your wisdom, for having come out into the Western world so you have this amazing capacity to see both sides of how the world operates, and to find some way to help us find our way to the middle.

So thank you all very much. And thanks for the wonderful questions from the callers. And thanks to ServiceSpace and to Awakin for making these calls possible.

Preeta: And thank you Justice Yazzie as well. I'd like to especially thank you for your heartfelt sharing about your personal journey and your story, which was really quite remarkable. We always like to end these calls with one final question, which is how can we as a larger ServiceSpace community support your work?

Justice Yazzie: I think that what I really like about what I'm doing these days is the opportunity to share what I've experienced and to share the concerns that I have. I was asked a question by the Awakin organization, what is on your bucket list? So the response I gave is to publish a treatise on Navajo common law. And I think this project is a very unique project, one of its kind, I like to say because it just--everything is aimed at explaining the Navajo, the indigenous legal.... And I think the more I share my knowledge on the topic--there are some good questions that I get from the larger audience, including the non-Indians as well as the Indian people. And I think if I'm able to--I aim to publish this treatise and use it to benefit our community, to benefit the whole Navajo Nation, as well as other Indian nations, as well as America. And I think the more we share, the more we give meaning to the type of life we live here, here in America.

So the end result--I mentioned earlier the phrase..., which means resilience, and I always tell people that the Navajo legal concept of... means despite all the negative comments or negative impacts, achieving a result that's most positive and, in our case, consistent with our elements of Navajo thinking, is a main thing that we have. And I can say that of course we always miss something when we talk about this resilience, the way we understand it. There are pluses and minuses, meaning when you're not achieving resilience 100% all the time. That nothing's perfect our elders would say. But at least making the effort to think about, to plan for, to make a living possible, and to go after the restorative justice efforts. We can see that there is an end result that means something. Something that, in our case, is based on the traditional notions of restorative justice.

Thank you. I enjoyed talking with all of you.

Preeta: Wonderful. Thank you to Justice Yazzie. Thank you to our remarkable Sujatha Baliga. And thanks to all of our listeners and callers. We look forward to speaking with you on another Awakin call.

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