Skip to main content

Bluehouse: Our objective is to restore harmony

Editors' Note: There are still many tribal ways that can be applied to the resolution of conflict and the bringing of justice to a difficult situation. The Navajo peacemaking system started in 1982. The Navajo Nation incorporated the peacemaking manual into its Supreme Court rules. By the early 1990s they had 56 chapters that were certified and 140 peacemakers trained and in place to implement the peacemaking court system. In Shiprock Agency alone in 1994, with seven judicial districts and some 400 per judicial district, nearly 2,800 cases passed through the peacemaking system. Philmer Bluehouse is a member of the Red House Clan and was born to the To Walk Around You Clan. As coordinator of the Navajo Nation judicial branch of the Navajo Peacemaker Court, responsible for seven judicial districts throughout the Nation, Bluehouse granted this interview in 1993 - 1994. This excerpt is from an extended article published in Dagmar Thorpe's book "People of the Seventh Fire," and Native Americas journal. We offer it because it presents a Native culture-based way of thinking about law and human society.

Our objective is to restore harmony

The process starts with a prayer. We try to keep the rules very simple with establishing respect. We say there is no yelling, shouting, or posturing as far as body language, giving each other the eye. We have to respect one another. We are in here on common ground and we need to have these things understood. We say: "If we don't abide by these rules, then we will refer this back to the adversarial system and you can tell them your problems there. If you cannot allow yourself to be humble, understand, learn about yourself, and your fellow human being, this is not the place for you." The rules are established and the prayers are offered.

After the prayer is offered, we go to the investigation and questioning phrase. The objective is to discover the root of the problem. A lot of times we start with denial. Let's take a domestic violence situation. The husband will intellectualize and rationalize. "No, I never beat my wife, I don't do those kinds of things. I am a very humble person." All that comes to the table. The woman is over there shriveling up, sitting in the corner and trying to say her piece. Why is she responding the way she is? Why is this guy denying he does those things? You start uncovering and unraveling the mystery. Everybody is pulling at the cords of this mystery to get down to the problem.

When we as Navajos ask something from nature, we have to give something in return. That is respect. The precious jewel offering to ask an herb, "I know I am going to have to take your life in order for you to sustain me, but I have something to give in return. Therefore, I offer this prayer." It is a petitioning process. You petition and you get a response. This whole process in itself can be applied to the peacemaking process. Na-y?e means bringing things together where people can share and give, take and receive. At the point when these two things contact, that is called na-y?e. The way it was described to me was, "When there was a problem, people would bring their best horses with full saddle and bridle, and with full packages of food. Both sides would have that to offer to begin their conference of peacemaking. That in essence is the bottom line of na-y?e - bring things together.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

In the egalitarian system everything is considered equal. People say, "We cannot allow domestic violence to go into peacemaking because there is imbalance of power. The woman is powerless and the man is flexing his muscles." I say: "That is all the more reason why you should bring domestic violence into peacemaking because it balances things between people. You are empowering the woman by saying, we know you are fearful of this individual. Let's talk about ways to build yourself back up to the proper level of who you should be. We are here to help, offer advice, to give you information and support in the peacemaking session. Man, come back down to earth. Who do you think you are? Why are you injuring our own people? Why are you acting as if you don't have relatives and the ability to support them? We are all related. Why are you doing this? Why are you hurting us?"

We don't point the finger in peacemaking. We put the problem on the table. We acknowledge that there are problems, but this is not the place to point fingers and have shouting matches. We talk about the problem. It is like peeling an onion. You take it layer by layer and finally get down to the sweet little green center of that onion. After you discover that, then we close it back up and repair the individual with good information, knowledge, and empowerment. The objective in peacemaking is to do just that. Biblically speaking, it is re-dressing oneself in the armor of God for the purpose of peace.

When we are teaching peacemakers the Navajo justice system, we talk about the vertical system of justice. The vertical system of justice was imported with the European people when they first came to this country. Their experience and their way of surviving was adversarial because they believed in a class structure. They believed in things that egalitarian societies did not believe in. The vertical system of justice can be bought. The more money you have the better chance you have of winning in a court of law. That is true 99 percent of the time. I am stating a generality - but look around you.

The adversarial system uses force with force. Our jails are full. People are hurting one another. Brothers and sisters, families are fighting with one another. People don't know who their relatives are anymore. "That is my cousin but he lives on the other side of the world. I don't care what happens to him."

The adversarial system uses aggression, force, and coercion. It uses things that are conducted in the "way of war," as we perceive it. My brother, Justice Bluehouse with the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, was on the bench for a long time and retired two years ago. "The adversarial system," he said, "is not fair. I have had people come into my courtroom, come before me on the bench, and at the end we find that it is not fair. I see my own relatives walking out the door. One group is dancing around with their tails up in the air. The other group is moping and walking out with their tails dragging on the carpet." The adversarial system is a win-lose situation.

We are not looking at the broad picture anymore. We are only looking at specific aspects of human life and the event. What about emotions? What about the physical comfort that all human beings desire? When you go into an adversarial court, you don't address those things.