Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of articles about the Pokagon community initiative to restore a system of native justice to its people.
The native justice initiative can be thought of like a braid: three strands woven together to make one stronger bond.
One component involves community education and awareness.
“We’re trying to slowly bring this back into the community so people can become more aware of peace circles,” said Stacey Gettig, assistant Court administrator for the Tribal Court and a member of the group working on the Native Justice Initiative. “We have information on our website, a video and we plan regular gatherings to educate the community about this initiative.”
One such gathering: elders have been meeting monthly since December to discuss each of the Seven Grandfather teachings. During these discussions, they break down the word in Potawatomi, talk about what that word means to them, and paint rocks depicting the teachings.
A second aspect is creating tools for the Court to implement native justice for all 36 different types of cases the court hears. The Court is developing systems that are culturally and community appropriate.
“For example, before any of our hearings we always have the parties talk first, to see if they can come to a resolution,” said Gettig. “They’re more likely to be satisfied and stick to the agreement if it’s reached this way. Approximately ninety percent of the time they’re able to reach an agreement.”
Gettig says the judges are inventive in their approaches to incorporating native justice tools for the Court. For garnishment matters, the Chief Judge may suggest services for job training or programs to assist the parties. For probation matters the Associate Judge might connect them to the traditional healer or other appropriate cultural opportunities.
“In probation matters, the idea is that you could rebuild yourself back into the community,” said Gettig. “After dealing with addictions or violence, these are ways you kind of restore yourself in your community’s eyes.” Juveniles on probation will be provided a learning opportunity connecting youth to the community, culture, and the Seven Grandfather teachings.
Eventually the Court hopes to refer some matters to the community based forum instead of resolving the issues in Court. This alleviates some painful situations for kids and family members.
The community peace circle forum is the final element to this Native Justice Initiative. Although, Stacey is the support staff person assisting to breathe life into this initiative, this is separate from the Tribal Court.
“What happens in the circle stays in the circle, unless there are concerns of abuse brought out during the process, then circle keepers are required by the Ethical Guidelines to report” said Gettig. “We’ve had two cases referred to the circle, and two that were brought to us by a potential participant. None actually went to the circle forum yet, but at least people are aware of it and recognizing it as an option; you can refer someone you know who could benefit from the circle forum.”
Circle Keepers go through ongoing training so it stays fresh. Delores “Dee” Green, who is a citizen, elder, and retired teacher, and Polly Mitchell, an educational associate with the Department of Education, recently completed their necessary state mediation observation hours and are now certified to conduct mediations in the State of Michigan.
Dee and Polly also completed 40 hours of general civil mediation training from the Southeastern Dispute Resolution Center in September of 2015 along with more than 20 other Pokagon community members.
Mitchell plans to become certified to mediate at individual education plan meetings to better represent Pokagon students and families in the educational setting and comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“I found that in a traditional court room setting there are limitations in the outcome for each participant,” said Mitchell. “In a peace keeping mediation setting, each party is able to have a voice and to collaborate together to resolve the conflict.”
There’s more to come, but the Native Justice Initiative has made significant strides in the Pokagon community.
“The point of a circle is to walk away with something more than you had when it began, in the adversarial court system there is always a winner and a loser. Through this initiative we are striving to create a system where everyone can have input on the outcome of their situation” said Gettig.