When working with youth, American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities often incorporate traditional tools unique to a tribe’s culture and traditions. The power of one approach to conflict resolution, the Peacemaking Circle, comes from a central tenet: equality.
"We have been sitting in Circles since the dawn of community, solving conflicts in a good way with everyone involved, with nobody left out of the discussion," explained Eva Gregg, Community Technical Assistance Coordinator for The Resource Basket. A program of the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, The Resource Basket provides training and technical assistance to OJJDP tribal grantees. Although a Circle Keeper guides the conversation, no one is in charge. "Every person's voice has equal weight," Ms. Gregg stressed. "No kings. No presidents. Equals, with equal say in everything."
The Resource Basket holds annual Circle trainings for tribal staff who work with youth, whether in tribal youth programs or healing to wellness courts. Although they focus on the Circle as a tool for peacemaking, its principles apply in many circumstances, explained Curt Shuey, who owns Circle Alaska Consulting and led The Resource Basket trainings.
"'Circle' or 'Talking Circle' are the general terms used for the ancient approach to consulting with others in a good way about meaningful or difficult things," Mr. Shuey said. A Justice Circle would take place after someone was wronged, for example, while a Grieving Circle responds to loss. The Circle presents a space where people with different perspectives can exchange views respectfully and reach solutions acceptable to everyone present.
"[In a Peacemaking Circle], retribution is not the goal. Restitution is the goal, as well as righting the wrong, to bring healing to those who were hurt while holding the person of interest accountable for their actions."
—Eva Gregg, Community Technical Assistance Coordinator for The Resource Basket
Circle trainings offered by The Resource Basket typically occur in person, but the most recent—a workshop held August 3–5 and 10–12 on Circle Peacemaking and Circle Keeping—was virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The workshop's online format enabled participants to connect across the state: from Fairbanks, a city in central Alaska, to Kipnuk, a village along the Bering Sea.
"The Circle allows youth—possibly for the first time—to take responsibility for their choices and to play an active role in how that is done," Mr. Shuey said. "This is a natural path to self-awareness and self-control. Many discover that self-discipline is actually the key to the freedom from control by others that they long for."
Mr. Shuey has applied the Circle in juvenile healing to wellness courts. That requires some adaptation, he said, because courts follow a westernized system of judicial authority, including external oversight by probation officers. In that setting, the Circle helps participants build a support network and find mutually agreeable responses to offenses. Ultimately, however, a judge decides whether to accept Circle recommendations.
While the Circle is a powerful traditional tool for promoting respect and understanding, it is novel to many Native youth and, thus, underutilized, Mr. Shuey said. He referred to "several hundred" Circles he facilitated on behalf of an Indigenous tribe whose population now represents just 5 to 10 percent of their traditional village. Native youth were more likely to become involved than non-Native youth, but even they were sometimes reluctant, in part because the Circle's traditional system of justice is unfamiliar to many. Trainings underscore the Circle's timeless value.
In addition to The Resource Basket, entities that provide training and technical assistance to tribal grantees include the OJJDP-sponsored Tribal Youth Resource Center and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Native Children's Trauma Center.