Ho-Chunk community leaders gather for indigenous solutions in the justice system

By Ken Luchterhand

Peacemaking is never an easy task.
Usually there are a lot of emotions involved, a lot of anger, hurt feelings, and bitter resentment. That why it’s important to mend those bridges between the two parties before it’s too late.
Community leaders took part in a two-day “Introduction to Peace Circles,” part of an international Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative, on July 30-31 at the District 1 Community Center.
Ho-Chunk Nation Chief Judge JoDeen Lowe and Associate Judge Joanne Jones were responsible for organizing the sessions.
“It’s a effort to find a resolution other than court, to sit with them and community members and work through a solution that is sustainable,” said Shawn Watts, associate director of the Edson Queiroz Foundation Mediation Program at Columbia Law School. He is responsible for developing and teaching the Native American Peacemaking course.
“There isn’t a lot of trust in the present justice system. A solution is to bring in extended families and community members to make it work,” he said. “Lots of tribes do it – each differently.”
Cheryl Demmert Fairbanks is an Indian Law Attorney and Nevada Intertribal Court of Appeals Associate Justice. She helped provide the session to the Ho-Chunk community.
“Indigenous peacemaking is nothing new. Our nations have ways of dealing with disputes since time immemorial,” Fairbanks said. “But recently, as western-model court systems have not been able to handle all the disputes in our communities, tribal nations are reviving their own traditional ways of dealing with disputes.
“Since these models almost always involve healing relationships rather than just punishing wrongdoing, the result is that we also are healing our communities by reviving our peacemaking traditions. The Indigenous Peacemaking is doing what it can to support these efforts,” she said.
The mission of the Indigenous Peacemaking Initiative is to support Native peoples in restoring sustainable peacemaking practices by promoting and raising awareness, according to literature provided at the sessions.
“The justice system in this country is failing,” said Ho-Chunk Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek. “What are they learning by going to jail? What they need to do is learn how to live within the community.”
Winneshiek said that before the Western world came to their society, they didn’t have jails. Instead, people who did wrong were taught to regain respect toward other people. They might be sent out in the woods for some insight, some introspection of what they did wrong and how they need to fit in with society. After a time in the woods, they were allowed to return to the community, given they had learned something.
 “The sessions on Peacemaking is a way to get back to the old ways of life,” Winneshiek said. It’s been very intense, reaffirming customs and language, getting back to how it once was.”
Things are different now from what they used to be, especially respecting the elders who lead the community, he said.
“A person is named an elder is not based on age, but based on wisdom,” Winneshiek said.
Winneshiek is enthusiastic about developing a legal system that incorporates the older ways of rehabilitating, rather than punishing people.
“It’s not a native problem, but a native solution,” Winneshiek said. “It’s very empowering, strengthening our judiciary.”