Magazine article Dispute Resolution Journal

The Navajo Nation's Peacemaker Division: An Integrated, Community-Based Dispute Resolution Forum

Magazine article Dispute Resolution Journal

The Navajo Nation's Peacemaker Division: An Integrated, Community-Based Dispute Resolution Forum

Article excerpt

The Navajo Nation is a sovereign Indian nation with reserved territories of over 25,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Their peacemaking traditions are grounded in the custom of hozhooji naat aanii. In this article, Howard Brown outlines the principles of these peacemaking traditions and hsows how they are more effective than "Anglo-american" methods in resolving conflicts that arise among the Navajo people.

For hundreds of years, the Dine', or Navajo people, have used a community-based dispute resolution ceremony to resolve conflicts.1 The ceremony integrates the wisdom, skills and perspectives of a variety of participants in order to reach noncoercive settlements that return the disputants and the community at large to a state of harmony. Because the contemporary Navajo Peacemaker Division relies on a customary dispute resolution method, experts argue that the Division is better considered a forum for "traditional" dispute resolution than "alternative" dispute resolution.2 Although the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch includes a well-developed court system based on the Anglo-- American model, Navajo judges, legislators and citizens assert that traditional dispute resolution mechanisms more fully comport with Navajo customs and thus are more effective in resolving the conflicts that arise among Navajo people and within the Navajo Nation.3

In order to understand the Peacemaker Division and the role it plays in resolving disputes, some familiarity with the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch is necessary. The Navajo Nation is a sovereign Indian nation, with reserved territories of over 25,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.4 It has a population in excess of 220,000 people.5 The Nation's government has three independent and separate branches, including the judicial branch.6 The judicial branch consists of a district court (with seven judicial districts located throughout the Navajo Nation, and including a family court division) and a supreme court (located in the Navajo Nation's capital, Window Rock).7 The district courts assert original jurisdiction to adjudicate disputes involving persons who reside within the Navajo Nation or who have caused an action or Navajo Nation crime to occur within the Navajo Nation.8 Navajo common law and statutory law are the laws of preference, although judges may apply federal and state law if a matter is not addressed by Navajo law.9

Navajo Common Law

Navajo common law, or traditional law, "reflects the customs, usages and traditions of the Navajo People, formed by Navajo values in action."10 Navajo judges fashion accepted customs and practices into a contemporary, working common law in a similar manner as do judges in other cultures and legal systems.11 For example, in a 1996 supreme court decision, the justices analyzed due process in "light of the customs and traditions, or common law, of the Navajo people."12 The court stated:

The Navajo principle of k'e is important to understanding Navajo due process. K'e frames the Navajo perception of moral right, and therefore this court's interpretation of due process rights. K'e contemplates one's unique, reciprocal relationships to the community and the universe. It promotes respect, solidarity, compassion and cooperation so that people may live in hozho, or harmony. K'e stresses the duties and obligations of individuals relative to their community.13

The court concluded, "In Navajo law, k'e would be the mutual understanding and normative practice that defines a person's legitimate claim to fair procedures."14

The Navajo judiciary's application of Navajo common law is significant for a numher of reasons.15 First, in using familiar cultural norms to resolve disputes, the courts are a more familiar and less hostile forum for individual Navajo people to use. Thus, individuals implicitly are encouraged to utilize their court system, which in turn strengthens the legitimacy of the Nation's judicial branch and the sovereignty of the Nation's government. …

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