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.


Photo of Gov. Alexander Ramsey

Gov. Alexander Ramsey

During the commemorative march, I saw a look on the faces of the Dakota, especially the elders, when they saw me—blond as can be, clearly white and not raised among them. Many had endured lifetimes of suffering at the hands of white colonizers—nearly boiling water poured on children’s hands in boarding schools as punishment for speaking their own language, beatings and sexual abuse in schools, rapes and murders never even investigated much less brought to justice, children stolen from their parents, continually dehumanizing stereotypes and messages about them in colonizer society, exclusion from economic opportunities, and complete denial that injustices had ever been done. Though not ungracious, the Dakota elders did not come up to me, shake my hand, and say how glad they were to see me there. How could they?

Restorative justice does involve bringing together victims and offenders, but only after considerable preparation has been done on both sides. Forcing those harmed to come together with those who have benefited from those harms prematurely could inflict greater damage, especially during times when the victims of harms want nothing more than to be left alone to grieve their losses. As for us colonizers, we are far from doing our preparation for such a meeting.

When I identify myself as a “colonizer,” it is not a label I take on with pride. Rather, with a heavy heart I apply this term to myself to reflect my realization that no matter how deeply I seek to align myself with anti-colonial struggle in the present, the reality of my white skin, the family into which I was born, and the subtle ideologies I was raised with place me on the wrong side of history. I apply the colonizer label to myself and to other white people in the United States to remind us to expand our awareness of how we have been programmed to be racist and of how we now function as colonizers, not only by benefiting from past harms but also by justifying them, so that the status quo that secures our advantage remains unchanged.

Most of us have not seen this movie of catastrophic harm to “others.” We live oblivious to the immensity of harms done, so we are not even considering what preparation on our part would be necessary for a restorative justice meeting with Native peoples.

Minnesota’s colonizer society has responded to this history and its effects mainly through social service programs or, if those fail, through the criminal justice system—in other words, by imprisoning Native people. Yet neither of these responses addresses the roots of harm. Quite the opposite, they keep the movie’s plot going in its original genocidal direction, because the aim of both institutions—social services and criminal justice—is forced assimilation into colonizer society. They are not designed to honor the Dakota People or to rectify longstanding harms against them. As Waziyatawin, Ph.D.—author of What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook, and more—so clearly explains, a social service mindset further blames the victims of genocide, racism, and colonization; it does not promote decolonization by challenging these realities as the roots of harm.

Restorative justice could offer a more appropriate response, because it requires acknowledging that at the root of these harms lie criminal acts—indeed, immense crimes against humanity. The issue between Minnesota’s colonizer population and the Dakota People is a criminal issue first. All the social, economic, and political issues that Native people face today follow from this central truth: crimes have occurred that have never been rectified or brought to justice.

How Restorative Justice Is Losing Credibility With First Nations

As with any victim-offender situation, restorative justice processes begin when the perpetrators of harm acknowledge what they did and take responsibility for the harms they caused. Acknowledging the crime and rectifying its effects are central to helping both the victim and the offender recover and be able to live good lives. Only when the crime is addressed to the victim’s satisfaction can the victim and the offender begin to explore whether or not they are able to be in a good relationship with each other.

If, however, the crime is not even acknowledged, much less repaired, victims are continually revictimized. In fact, they are often blamed for the harm, as if they deserved to suffer or as if it were their fault; they are blamed for failing to “bounce back”; or they are blamed for the dismal condition that the crime left them in. The assumption is always that something is wrong with the victim. In the meantime, the offenders not only go scot-free with the booty but also continue to harm their victims by not holding themselves accountable for the ongoing suffering they are causing.

Photo of Native American woman

Credit: Reuben Wambdi Kitto Jr.

If the restorative justice movement fails to address the colonial crimes embedded in our history, it will risk losing credibility in this country, as it seems to have already done in Canada. Many First Nations now reject restorative justice, and precisely on these grounds. The core vision of going to the roots of harm and doing what it takes to put things right is experienced as empty rhetoric, invoked only when colonial power structures deem it advantageous to do so. Instead of working toward wholeness for colonized peoples, restorative justice functions as another tool of colonizer institutions, whose goal is not healing but for one group to justify and reinforce their domination of another. Restorative justice is simply used to make the violence of the criminal justice system—the colonizers’ control-by-fear fist—seem more humane. Instead of addressing the wider contexts that generate harm, the focus stays on trying to fix person-to-person conflicts. Individuals, families, or communities are viewed as “the problem,” while the larger reasons that individuals, families, or communities have problems remain invisible. Restorative justice is used to serve the needs of the colonizer state, not to empower communities and liberate peoples.

This does not mean that we as individuals—colonizers or Original People—should not be held accountable for the harm we do. Yet here in Minnesota, we colonizers have not been held accountable at all for state-sanctioned, citizen-supported crimes against humanity—and yet we describe ourselves as international leaders in restorative justice. How could Dakota people—or anyone else who knows the history—take restorative justice seriously if we diligently hold this or that offender accountable for drug possession or stealing a car or even doing graffiti while we fail to hold ourselves accountable for genocide that we committed so we could steal an entire state’s worth of land and bequeath it to our own, generation after generation? If we were to apply our own laws about murder and stolen property to this case, we would have to rule that every time we sell a house in Minnesota, we commit a felony, and every Minnesota realtor should be imprisoned for dealing in stolen property gained through murder.

What White People Can Do

Restorative justice does not have to be hijacked into being an accomplice to colonization, for its roots are not there. If restorative justice embarks on large-scale healing between entire peoples, the systemic issues causing suffering to Native peoples will begin to be addressed and rectified. Together we can acknowledge the massive harms done, name racism as it operates to hurt Native peoples, arrange substantive land return, honor the inherent sovereignty and self-determination of Native peoples, make restitution and reparations, return the billions of dollars missing from trust funds that have been accumulating from the white use of Native resources (the 2010 Cobell settlement did not begin to repay what was stolen), respectfully cease behaviors that denigrate Native peoples (such as using them as sports mascots), and teach everyone the full history of this land.

These steps of healing justice give us an agenda to work on, yet we do not have to wait for local, state, or federal governments to begin this work. White people who are committed to seeking restorative justice between peoples can also do a great deal as individuals. We can talk to other white people and find ways to educate each other about our history and our internalized programming. These are things we can all do. Our history and our programming are not personal; virtually all whites have been subjected to it—but it hurts persons, ourselves included. Parents in particular can work on exposing the racist and colonizer programming and one-sided histories presented in children’s books and school curricula.

And we can take action. For example, many white people who have no children, such as myself, might consider returning the stolen land we live on to the Dakota people in our wills. My mother and I have made such land-return arrangements for the home we now live in, and my sisters, both of whom do have children, agree and support us in this personal step of land return. Many religious congregations are finding their numbers dwindling and are deciding to fold and sell their church property. This land could be returned as well. These individual and group actions by no means reduce the necessity of people-to-people, nation-to-nation rectification of harms; quite the contrary, they contribute to building the public and collective will to do so.

All such efforts contribute to healing our relationships by grounding them in economic, social, political, and basic human justice. It may take decades or even centuries to rectify harms of this magnitude. Yet the enormity of the harms and scope of righting them should not stop us from taking the first steps. Native people affirm how much we can do right now to change our relations as peoples. No Native person I know advocates doing to whites what we did and still do to their ancestors and relatives. We can begin the journey today to be in a good way with those to whom we owe everything: our lives on this continent.

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.) Also, don’t miss the seven freely accessible online exclusives associated with this special issue on restorative justice — to read them, click here.

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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