Circles and Restorative Justice

Education for Liberation

What is the relationship between Circles and the practice of Restorative Justice? This is the subject of this essay.

Circles are a foundation mode of existence of the universe, for all phenomena in the universe, since time immemorial, and for all time.

The first human social organization/societies — emerging as we did from apes, who were in circles — was non-hierarchical, that is, it was a circle. The entire purport of indigenous society, what distinguishes it from class society, is that it is extended family — a circle. All species live in circles. Sociology and anthropology maintain that the difference between humans and other animal species is that we are conscious of our social structure. Western research claims that this consciousness is proven by the existence of the written word. However, indigenous peoples, some of whom did not write, were very conscious of their social structures, as proven by artifacts that can be studied today. These indigenous circle ways have been in existence for over one hundred thousand years.

Restorative Justice draws from the experience of indigenous society, the world over, in its approach to maintaining healthy order and discipline among the members of the circle. Indigenous societies did not have punishment as part of their identity and “discipline” way. There was no private property — and there is no private property in indigenous societies that exist today. If there is no private property, there are no classes. If there are no classes, there is no State (”government”) — the reason-to-be of all States is to protect private property. All “punishment” associated with crime in Western Civilization (class society, in other words, non-indigenous society) is connected to crimes against private property.

Restorative Justice — which has been around as a concept and program, reflecting indigenous practices regarding “discipline,” for approximately thirty-five years — is an adaptation of indigenous ways. Indigenous peoples do not have jails, police, courts and executions. They have community processes to address acting out by certain members of the circle who are not well. Restorative Justice originated from these circle practices. The person credited with formulating the specific terminology, that is, the concept “Restorative Justice,” is Albert Eglash in 1977. “A move towards a restorative model of justice is perhaps best understood as a return to the roots of justice.” (Jennifer J. Llewellyn, “Restorative Justice: A Conceptual Framework.”

The formulation, “Let the Circle be Unbroken,” comes from the ways of indigenous Africans who were forged together into one people by slavery in the Americas. This concept is a spiritual perspective reflecting their desire to include the ancestors in the family for all time. It also reflected their desire to include all living members of the family in the circle, no matter what they did. In this, it was also a way of discipline practice, many hundreds of year before Restorative Justice.

Black Elk Speaks

In the old days all our power came to us from the sacred hoop
of the nation and so long as the hoop was unbroken the people
flourished. The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop,
and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. The east gave peace
and light, the south gave warmth, the west gave rain and the north
with its cold and mighty wind gave strength and endurance. This
knowledge came to us from the outer world with our religion.

Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.
The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball
and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon
does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great
circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is
in everything where power moves. Our teepees were round like the
nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nation’s hoop,
a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.

Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux 1863–1950

Circles govern all healthy human interaction from time immemorial, for all peoples. Circles give birth to all other human social forms, including forms of discipline, and in the late 1970’s the Restorative Justice form of discipline. Circles do not merely give birth to “discipline” styles: They give birth to learning styles, such as Popular Education. They give birth to counseling styles such as “Emotional Literacy.” They give birth to recreational styles such as the non-competitive styles that educators are trying to teach young people, as they try to get them to unlearn the aggressive competition associated with Western recreation. They give birth to educational philosophies, such as Liberation Pedagogy, and spiritual systems, such as Liberation Theology. They give birth to political systems such as socialism, and to the ultimate eclipse of all politics in social organization — communism.

Circles are our beginning and end. Our discipline way (Restorative Justice), our teaching and learning way (Liberation Pedagogy), our way of addressing our health (Recovery), our liberation politics (Socialism) are each born of Circles. Circles are a way of being for all living things since time immemorial.

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