Decolonizing Restorative Justice

Dakota Commemorative March

The biannual Dakota Commemorative March retraces the 150-mile forced march imposed on about 1,700 Dakota people in 1862. The photographer, Reuben Kitto, marches with his family every time in memory of his ancestor Pazahiyayewin,who endured the march at age twenty-six with her four children and elderly mother, at the same time that her husband was sentenced by a military tribunal to death by hanging. Is restorative justice able to address harms on the scale of genocide and white supremacy? Credit: Reuben Wambdi Kitto Jr.

When I first heard about restorative justice, I remember feeling liberated and inspired by the idea of a movement that advocates responses to harm that do not inflict more harm. What a concept! It gave me hope that the untold harms in this world could be addressed in healing ways—ways that addressed why harms were happening in the first place. We could put our energies and resources into repairing whatever needed mending and changing whatever was generating hurt. Because there is no part of our lives where conflicts, hurts, and harms do not arise, restorative justice can be revolutionary to virtually everything we do. The concept seemed so simple yet so profound.

Restorative justice still gives me hope, but my experiences and conversations on the 2004 Dakota Commemorative March, and my reflections since then, have dramatically changed my orientation to the restorative justice movement. I still believe that it holds huge promise for helping us learn how to coexist, but I now think the very essence of restorative justice as a philosophy and way of life calls us to expand our focus to include more than person-to-person harms. What about our history—how we got to where we are as peoples? How did we end up with this “square pegs only” pegboard, and at what cost?

These are the more fundamental questions—those that make us look at the roots of harm. As we do, we are challenged to apply what restorative justice practitioners have learned about healing harms between individuals to healing harms between peoples. This is the direction restorative justice must go, I believe, or it will fall short of fulfilling its promise. Indeed, it will risk joining the other side and becoming part of the institutions that not only deny the greatest causes of suffering but also actively perpetuate harm.

The Dakota Commemorative March

Participating in the Dakota Commemorative March was like watching, all week long, a movie about the terrible ways the white colonizers have treated the indigenous people in my home state of Minnesota, only I was in the movie and living it. I still am. The march commemorates what happened at the end of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, when about 2,000 Dakota people surrendered to the U.S. army with the assumption they would be treated humanely as prisoners of war. The organizers of the march explain on their website ( what ensued:

The men were separated out and tried as war criminals by a five-man military tribunal. As many as forty cases were tried in a single day, some taking as little as five minutes. Upon completion of the trials, 307 men were condemned to death and sixteen were given prison sentences. The remaining Dakota people, primarily women, children, and elderly, were then forced to endure brutal conditions as they were forcibly marched to Fort Snelling and then imprisoned in Minnesota’s first concentration camp through a difficult winter.

As both groups were paraded through Minnesota towns on their way to the camps, white citizens of Minnesota lined the streets to taunt and assault the defenseless Dakota. Poignant and painful oral historical accounts detail the abuses suffered by Dakota people on these journeys. In addition to suffering cold, hunger, and sickness, the Dakota also endured having rotten food, rocks, sticks, and even boiling water thrown at them. An unknown number of men, women and children died along the way from beatings and other assaults perpetrated by both soldiery and citizens. Dakota people of today still do not know what became of their bodies.

This ethnic cleansing of Dakota people from Minnesota was one part of the fulfillment of a larger policy of genocide. Governor Alexander Ramsey had declared on September 9, 1862, that,“The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” The treatment of Dakota people, including the hanging [of thirty-eight Dakota political prisoners] in Mankato and the forced removal of Dakota people from Minnesota, were the first phases of Ramsey’s plan. His plan was further implemented when bounties were placed on the scalps of Dakota people, which eventually reached $200. Punitive expeditions were then sent out over the next few years to hunt down those Dakota who had not surrendered and to ensure they would not return. These actions cleared the way for white settlement of Minnesota.


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Denise Breton is the co-founder and executive director of Living Justice Press, a nonprofit publisher devoted to restorative justice. Coauthor of four books, she is now writing Colonizers No More: Who Are We—Winners, Losers, or Relatives? This article was adapted from an essay published in In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century, edited by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (2006,

Source Citation

Breton, Denise C. 2012. Decolonizing Restorative Justice. Tikkun 27(1): 45.

tags: Activism, Justice & Prisons, Race   
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One Response to Decolonizing Restorative Justice

  1. June 11, 2012 at 12:53 am

    As a member of the people of Israel by heritage relationship on my mother’s side of the family, I can empathize whole-heartedly with the Dakota people because they have endured a very similar road to us in regards to colonialism and racism and all the kinds of stuff that go along with it – this is why I’m so eager to see the emergence of the indigenous peoples’ movement worldwide as being a significant step forward in the right direction for the Jewish community as well. Considering our lands – our traditional tribal lands are back in Israel and there is much conflict of a politicocultural nature over these lands, so we must also be mindful of how the position of exile, forced removal – centuries of it has placed (or more rightly put – displaced) us from our native lands in such as way as to render us prey to acculturation on all fronts. It’s a great thing to be able to come to appreciate the lessons we can learn as another indigenous people group with so much in common with our Native American brothers and sisters. I really also appreciate the transparency of the author of the article who obviously stands in solidarity with both us and our Native American friends, as someone of the dominant white culture who has come to understand the deep-seated realities of the struggles us indigenous peoples have to endure.


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