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Lessons Learned of Mediation in Indian Country: Exploring and comparing transformative mediation process and theory and American Indian values and processes

Background and Cultural Worldview

I have had the good fortune, along with my colleagues at the Conflict Resolution Center at the University of North Dakota, to work with Indian People for the past several years. This work (mediation, mediation training, conflict management training, group facilitation) has taken us to the remote Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the hills of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa in North Dakota, and from the western ND Three Affiliated Tribes and Standing Rock Reservation all the way into central Minnesota and the many Indian People living there and several stops in between. It has also taken us outside of our region into national committees on health and rural living. These experiences have taught us much about ourselves, our practice, and about the people with who became our teachers as much as we were theirs.

It is difficult to know where to start in this short discourse. However, the beginning for me, as a transformative mediator, is with the worldview. [1] American Indian people hold a relational worldview. Their spirituality, in most forms, identifies a strong connection to other human beings, or at least to all tribal members or Indians, and the life force of the earth.

Most American Indian cultures hold similar values: generosity, kinship, wisdom, respect, courage, and consensus. However, each Indian culture has defined for itself how these values are defined, reached, and carried out by its members. Today, most Indians describe culture as behaviors and beliefs that derive from particular historic cultural developments most evident in ceremonies and language. These traditional practices are what most Indians think about when they describe Indian cultures. It is vital to keep in mind that culture changes constantly and that practices differ Indian Nation by Nation and within various individuals depending upon their experiences.

In terms of connection to other, relationships, perhaps the most important in both a political and a social sense have been the kinship relationships among American Indians. A “good” Indian is a good relative and all decisions revolve around that identity. Many American Indians hold fast to that core value, where others have moved further into the dominant culture’s more individualistic values. Many Indian people neither work nor live immersed in their own traditional culture. This experience often creates internal conflict for the individual and interpersonal conflict with family and community members.

Tribal governments often have acted within this relational worldview as informal mediators and decision-makers in some sense, and look to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the community. The tribal judicial system is often seen as modeled after the dominant culture and holding inconsistent values or worldview, except in a few instances where a “restorative justice” model has been adopted. Tribal elders also act as mediators and often make non-binding decisions using input from members of the tribal community. Community -wide decisions affecting the community are made collectively with most influence accorded to the elders. Decisions are based both on the way things have been done since time immemorial, traditionally, and in consideration of current time practices.

The influence of the dominant culture on Indian culture and tradition has been catastrophic in many ways, too large to fully address here. Much of the language, tradition, spirituality, and culture have been lost, due largely to the genocide of Indian People. The resulting distrust has lasted and is apparent in Indian and majority culture relationships today. This distrust plays out as members of the dominant culture try to offer assistance, advice, and other services to American Indian groups, and it requires sensitivity to work together. [2]

Responses and reactions of this population to the transformative model:

We have worked with the transformative model of mediation and conflict resolution in three ways with American Indians. We have provided mediation training; we have provided transformative conflict management training; and we have also facilitated dialogue for national groups working on issues of importance for Indian Country. We have worked with many Indian Nations including Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Arikara, Lakota, Dakota, Chipewa, Ojibwe, and a few others primarily in North Dakota, South Dakota, and western Minnesota. Our collective experience over the past seven years is shared here.

Those who uphold traditional tribal values share a worldview similar to that espoused by the transformative mediation model. They recognize the needs of the individual but only in the context of the larger whole or the community. Thus, the premises and principles of the transformative model have not conflicted with their own worldview. In fact, some of their well-worn stories and parables illustrate this premise. Those who are more “acculturated” seem to also intuitively connect with the relational worldview but struggle more with the practice itself having developed habits more consistent with an individualistic worldview. Perhaps more so, they struggle with the linear, structured process they have become used to experiencing in majority culture, and struggle, as many in the majority culture do, with the non-linear processes transformative mediation offers, which is more descriptive of tribal ways of life. Tribal elders and traditional Indians we have worked with describe greater comfort with both the premises and the processes we have helped them to implement and design.

Cultural implications and/or barriers:

The most important implications have occurred in our approach to working with American Indian people. Due to the inherent distrust of the majority culture, one must not approach with an “I know best” attitude. This approach creates immediate animosity and reminds them of the historical treatment of their people by the majority culture.

The best approach is none at all in some regard. In other words, the best way is to be invited to work with them. An approach that has worked for us is to help raise awareness of the similarity in world view and the potential for conflict transformation in the work we do. We do this by offering opportunities for American Indians that we work with on and off campus to learn more about this process and eliciting their thoughts and feedback; by “word of mouth” which has high respect in Indian country; and through other highly interpersonal connections. The word of good work spreads quickly among Indian People.

We have experienced some challenges in mediation, training, and facilitation sessions particularly with understanding the role of the elder. We have learned much about “elder speak” such as the use of parables to make a point, and the authority and respect they hold by traditional and non-traditional Indians alike. For example, we have learned that, in most instances, we must not reflect back what an elder says but rather allow for the silence as each person grapples with his or her own understanding the parable or the story.

There have been a few signature needs to the process as we practice from a transformative orientation. As mentioned above, there is a need with some Indian people to have the involvement of a tribal elder or to have others make decisions that impact the community. There may be a greater number of people at the table in order to fulfill the relational worldview and insure that strength of self (empowerment) and connection to the community (other) take place. Because there are significant value and process differences among Indian people, supporting a dialogue around how this model best works for them can be valuable.

One friend and colleague who has had similar experiences with Indian culture and the transformative mediation model has begun work on a comparative diagram between various process and including that of American Indian People. Professor Maria Stalzer Wyant Cuzzo, Ph.D., J.D., from University of Wisconsin-Superior, has worked with Indian People and held space for dialogue about the differences in worldview, process, values, and mediation using this diagram. She will be presenting on these issues this fall at the 2nd International Conference on Transformative Mediation in St. Paul, Sept. 17-18, 2006 ( Keeping this dialogue alive and engaging Indian People in conversation is the best way to develop culturally sensitive theory and practice for conflict resolution in Indian Country.

Sensitivity of the Transformative Mediation model to different cultural views:

When working in this population with transformative conflict theory, we have learned that, even respectful forms of direct conversation, is not welcome in all American Indian communities. Eye to eye contact is sometimes considered disrespectful and challenging behavior. Challenging the decisions of any authority (parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, elder, etc.) is sometimes thought to be taboo. Therefore, the ability to create space for meaningful, productive, and often difficult conversations in the way that we (dominant culture) are used to is not always feasible, and seen as insensitive.

Indian people in some communities are expected to be introspective and to make peace with themselves and the decisions of their elders – practicing total acceptance. Conflict within a person or interpersonal conflict is often thought of as conflict or imbalance within the community and as affecting the whole. There is much written about the need for healing after the homeostasis of the community and the individual(s) has been disrupted. There is often tribal pressure on the individual to consider the relational needs of the community as greater than his/her own needs. Many of these dynamics and cultural sensitivities are difficult for the dominant culture to understand and even accept, and sometimes fly in the face of some of our defined ethics.

We have found that transformative mediation can fit well with these differing values and process needs. As we follow the parties rather than lead them; operate from a non-directive, non-expert base; and practice non-judgment toward the way that they work through their conflicts and their solutions, we are able of keeping an open mind and respecting the cultural and deeply held beliefs of those people who come to the table. I would like to be able to say, in some part of me, that it is our knowledge of the people and their cultures that made this work successful. Rather, I give great credit to the model we have learned, internalized, adopted, and employed that made the difference and allows us to return to Indian Country.

End Notes

1 Transformative mediation theory and process are built upon an articulated relational worldview as described in detail in The Promise of Mediation, Bush and Folger (1994; 2005, Jossey Bass).

2 An Indian Chapbook, Dr. Gregory Gagnon, UND Dept. of Indian Studies, ©2003.


Kristine Paranica

Kristine Paranica, J.D., Director of the UND Conflict Resolution Center , provides mediation, facilitation and training for CRC clients. She also serves as Adjunct Professor of Law in Alternative Dispute Resolution at UND. She is an Associate Member of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation, an Advanced Practitioner… MORE >

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