Redemption, reconciliation or restorative justice

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President Sirleaf addressing the 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

By Winona LaDuke

The world is undergoing an initiation. The ancient knowledge of our ancestors and elders is needed now more than ever as we navigate through times of illness, painful division and social disruption. It’s time to call on the world’s spiritual midwives- those who can bridge us to the new paradigm.” – Angaangaq

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the president of Liberia, from 2006-2018, after the Civil Wars. Now mind you, she was the first woman president of an African nation, and hers had just been through hell. That’s to say, that they butchered each other – 250,000 died, and under the leadership of war lords they committed heinous crimes of mutilation, rape and cannibalism. She said, “I have to believe in redemption”. As do I. And I believe in healing.

I used to have an Economist magazine saved. The cover photo portrayed a Liberian soldier, fully armed with a sling of bullets stepping on the beheaded body of a pregnant woman. The article was on small arms, and pretty much the toll on a world of the violence. Ellen built her legacy around redemption, including redemption hospitals and a redemption council, to heal the wounds. Similarly, the African National Congress, and subsequently, the South African government under Nelson Mandela mandated a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Somehow you have to heal.

Indigenous peoples have had long term strategies to resolve conflict. Lacrosse, the medicine game, was used to resolve conflicts. Sadly, we do not play the Medicine game enough. Nor do we practice enough of our healing circles as Indigenous peoples. In colonization, there’s a lot of brutality and collateral damage. Today, we live as if people are expendable, we will throw them away for their crimes, and we will all be better for it. But we will not.

There’s a big difference between a reconciliation or restorative justice system, and a punitive justice system. We all know that as Native people, because, like our black, brown and poor relatives, we are thrown into the criminal justice system for years of our lives; often never returning as whole people to our villages. America is punitive, that’s why it has the highest prison population in the world. Indigenous peoples are restorative. People who live in communities need resolution, so we can continue to live together. We need solutions. And, we need community.

I have an extended family which has perpetrators and victims. Yes, I can say that. We have big families, and a lot of things have happened to our families. We suffer from the intergenerational trauma of abuse and genocide. We have scars and we mess up. They are still my family. How do we find resolution?

Ellen Sharif Johnson urged people to forgive each other in the Christmas season. In Jewish tradition, I have always loved the Yom Ha-Kippurim, English Day of Atonement, most solemn of Jewish religious holidays. As Rabbi Mordechai Liebling explains to me, “In Judaism the repentance process is three steps – one ask for forgiveness, do restorative action,  and is complete when one is in the same situation and does not repeat the offense.  Yom Kippur is to repent for our relationship with Spirit and the ten days before – the 10 days of repentance – we are encouraged to ask people we have wronged for forgiveness.” You can also, I’m told, ask for forgiveness from anyone, including your parents during that time. I summoned it up once with my mother, who is Jewish, to be forgiven for a party I’d thrown decades before. She laughed.

Forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. That’s what we want. Our sweat lodge is where we have reconciliation with the Creator, the spirits see us there and in our ceremonies. We need, however, more. We have tools we need to use and we need to be proactive.

Instead of, clarity, and reconciliation, I see a lot of Facebook juries. Call Out Culture is like a machete, it’s effective and dangerous. Collateral damage is high. Former President Obama pointed out, “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was. I called you out.’ That’s not activism”. Indeed callout culture is powerful, it caused Minnesota Senator Al Franken to resign as a part of the Me Too Movement, unfortunately leaving Minnesota with a major political void, and most recently, Cancel Culture has brought a Minneapolis Palestinian restaurant empire, Holy Land deli to its knees. And, we still need reconciliation.

A frequently cited problem with call-outs is that it’s easy to get carried away and over-punish people, turning alleged perpetrators of upsetting acts into victims themselves. “What can often start out as well-intentioned and necessary criticism far too quickly devolves into brutish displays of virtual tar-and-feathering,” writes activist and writer Ruby Hamad. She asks: This leaves one question: how can we benefit from the social good call-out culture can help achieve, without succumbing to the toxicity and futility that has come to be associated with it?

Some advocate a softer path. By ganging up on an individual, “you’re taking this moral high ground, with a lot of righteous indignation, and inviting others to participate in a public shaming exercise”, which is rarely productive, says Anna Richards, a therapist specializing in conflict mediation. And what if the allegations are false? Well, they are out on the internet, so they must be true.

Here’s some of my most disturbing recent encounters. In the midst of summer, I had this bizarre expose done on me, “calling me out”. That’s to say, a quasi National Inquirer like podcast, suggested I was not Native, had a complex history with men including my father, and was affiliated with sexual predators. it even said that my father, Sun Bear, who has been dead for thirty years was a womanizer. Wow, not to give a lot more coverage to that story, but to say that’s a twisted tale. And it would have been nice to have been fact checked. And maybe, let the old guy Rest in Peace, he had a good run.

It reminded me of what the late Dakota philosopher John Trudell once told me, “There’s two ways to be recognized in the Indian movement, one is to do good work, and the second is to trash someone who does good work.” Some of us prefer the former.

Aside from the ridiculousness of the “expose”, full of crazy non-facts, it came to my attention that she’d embarked on a character assassination campaign against a number of prominent Native people, who live in communities, calling out their identities, sort of like the Birther Movement. The list is long. Now, without delving too far into the idea of “pretendians”, I will say she’s got some good points there, particularly in academia, where ethnic fraud is more prevalent.

We are not a university in my community, the White Earth reservation. Far from it. We’ve got some of the most gifted Ojibwe language historians and speakers around and they are not all enrolled members of tribes. That’s to say, that communities and nations define their membership and families themselves, and an outsider has no idea, nor right to determine tribal identity. And in this day and age, maybe check some facts. Then I’d humbly suggest, let us figure out how to heal, not how to hurt. As a double edged sword, the internet is an equalizer of power, and we need to use those powers well.

The internet augments Social Cannibalism. Some days it looks like a crazy feeding frenzy. I think this way of acting, is an indicator of what’s called late stage affluenza, the illness which impacts many Americans. Way too much time on our hands, lots of shopping, and a lack of boundaries. There’s even a legal case about it. Anthony Couch is a Texas youth who killed four people in a drunk driving case. His legal defense included “affluenza,” noting the disassociations, lack of boundaries, and privilege of those who live in a society which consumes a quarter of the world’s resources. Affluenza and social cannibalism are deadly. It’s obvious that there are a lot of people with too much time on their hands. That’s for sure, particularly during a pandemic. I keep thinking that we’ve got more to do, and I am also sure that there are a whole bunch of isolated , angry and fearful people out there.

I tell you what, in four months it is going to be minus twenty degrees where I live, and so I am going to focus on getting in wood and food for the winter. That’s the world I live in, and affluenza is not an option. Let us call upon each other for accountability, not destroy each other.

“… Don’t waste your hate, rather gather and create. Be of service, be a sensible person, use your words and don’t be nervous. You can do this, you’ve got purpose, find your medicine and use it.” – Nahko Bear.

In the end, I still come to the question of how we resolve these conflicts. I am sure it is through restorative justice. Perhaps it is the time to summon up our Society of Fearless Grandmothers to guide us. We are looking at a whole lot of hurt people, flawed, crazy worlds, locked up in a pandemic world. We need some redemption and peace. And we need some boundaries, there are none in a made up world of affluenza. And maybe, we need to get into the garden, and get those endorphins going, chop some wood, and think before we post or repost.

If peace can come to Liberia and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to South Africa, it seems that these battles of social cannibalism can find some resolution. Let us work towards that.