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Decolonizing conflict resolution: addressing the ontological violence of Westernization.

The discipline of conflict resolution perpetuates ontological violence, the suppression and silencing of Indigenous ways of conceptualizing and experiencing the world. In most practice, research, and training, Western problem-solving models of conflict resolution are promoted as appropriate for all cultures, including Indigenous peoples. Indigenous worldviews are marginalized through Westernization, which includes any process used to shape things in a Western mode (Galtung 1990, 313). Westernization involves issues of both power and difference as members of Western cultures often forcefully impose their worldview. Currently, "the West has the power and inclination to institutionalize and implement its conceptions" regarding conflict resolution (Galtung 1990, 314). Utilizing the power of the dominant culture, Western methods have assumed hegemony in the fields of conflict resolution and mediation (Kraybill 1996, 22-23; Lederach 1995).

In response to concerns regarding Western methodologies, researchers within the discipline of conflict studies recommend further research in developing effective communication between individuals from differing cultures (Bendana 1996; Camilleri 1994; Clements 1994; Cohen 1991; Lederach 1991; Nudler 1990; Szalay 1981). However, very little research has been completed on conflict transformation methodology that is designed to acknowledge and accommodate deep cultural differences or worldviews (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991; Galtung 1990, 1996).

Western models of conflict resolution have been criticized as culturally inappropriate for Indigenous peoples due to differences in the worldview underlying the techniques (Beattie 1997; Behrendt 1995; Bluehouse and Zion 1993; Grose 1995; Yazzie 1995). Concerns have been expressed regarding the practice of imposing inappropriate conflict resolution methodologies on Indigenous peoples (Galtung 1996; Huber 1993; Ross 1996; Yazzie 1995).

The worldviews that underlie Western and Indigenous cultures are starkly different from one another. For example, Indigenous approaches to addressing conflict are more accurately described as conflict transformation in that they seek to address the conflict in ways that heal relationships and restore harmony to the group. In contrast, Western conflict resolution methods prioritize reaching an agreement between individual parties over mending relationships that have been damaged by the conflict.

In this article I explore the impact of worldview on a people's approach to dealing with conflict and compare the worldviews underlying specific Western and Indigenous approaches to dealing with conflict. I suggest that power imbalances in conflict resolution research and practice perpetuate colonization through ontological violence, marginalizing Indigenous worldviews and ways of transforming conflict.


All human endeavors are shaped by the culture within which they are enacted. Deep culture or worldview shapes people's ways of dealing with conflict (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991; Galtung 1990, 1996). However, the dominant Western models of conflict resolution neither acknowledge nor accommodate differences in culture, claiming that their techniques "cut across culture" (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991). This hegemony of Western conflict resolution limits Indigenous peoples' opportunities to function within their own worldviews and to implement their own methods of processing conflict.

Worldview represents the deeper levels of culture, the beliefs and values that shape all behavior. Edward T. Hall defines worldview as "the underlying, hidden level of culture ... a set of unspoken, implicit rules of behavior and thought that controls everything we do" (1983, 7). Hall clearly articulates the ontological violence that results when societies ignore differences in worldviews: "as long as human beings and the societies they form continue to recognize only surface culture and avoid the underlying primary culture, nothing but unpredictable explosions and violence can result" (1983, 8).

The following comparison of Western and Indigenous worldviews highlights differences that impact upon conflict transformation. Central characteristics of the dominant Western worldview include:
   a unilinear, present-centered conception of time
   an analytic rather than holistic conception of epistemology
   a human-over-human conception of human relations
   a human-over-nature conception of relations to nature (Galtung
   1990, 313)

Central characteristics of many American Indian and Native Hawaiian worldviews include:
   circular (or spiral) conception of time (Bopp et al. 1989; Meyer
   a holistic conception of epistemology (Bopp et al. 1989; Cajete
   2000, 2; Meyer 1998)
   nonhierarchical, shared-power conception of human relations
   (Bopp et al. 1989; Meyer 1998)
   humans in relationship of care and responsibility with nature
   (Bopp et al. 1989; Cajete 2000, 3; Meyer 1998)

The characteristics of these worldviews differ in significant ways, impacting people's conceptualization of conflict and how it might be addressed. A meaningful analysis of conflict and conflict transformation must take into account the differences in these worldviews (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991; Folger and Bush 1994, 7-15; Galtung 1996), yet this is seldom the case within the Western discipline of conflict resolution.

Developing ways to respect and acknowledge the worldviews of Indigenous peoples is made more difficult in that many aspects of worldview are often "hidden," operating at the subconscious level, and therefore not easily interpreted during intercultural interactions (Hall 1977, 1983, 6-9). However, worldview can be brought to conscious reflection through a comparison with and awareness of our own and others' beliefs and behaviors (Hall 1977, 1983; Galtung 1990, 1996). Failure to bring these differences in worldview into conscious awareness when conducting research and practice in conflict resolution continues the ontological violence that characterizes the colonization of Indigenous peoples.

The previously described differences in worldview shape conflict processing in significant ways. Communal societies, such as those found in Indigenous cultures, exhibit a collectivist approach to conflict and conflict resolution in which members keep each other informed on conflict situations (Barnes 1994). In collectivist cultures the primary purpose of resolving conflict is to bring harmony to the group. Thus, conflict is viewed holistically, not analytically or broken into parts; it is embedded in the networks of the community (Beattie 1997; LeBaron 1995). In collectivist cultures processing of conflict emphasizes the restoration of relationships within the network of interconnections that defines the community.

In contrast to communal societies, the dominant Western societies tend to be individualistic (Hofstede 1984, 167). These noncommunal societies tend to approach conflict analytically and require linear, deterministic explanations of existing conflicts. Thus, their processing of conflict is more likely to emphasize analytical problem solving of discrete situations (Barnes 1994). The analytical, linear style of the dominant Western models of conflict resolution contrasts starkly with the cyclical and interconnected networks that characterize Indigenous conflict transformation.

Avruch and Black (1991) maintain that lack of attention to deep culture or worldview has been the basis of justifiable criticism aimed at scholars of conflict studies. If culture is defined as stylistic behavior that easily can be understood and accommodated, then conflict resolution methodology could possibly be developed in such a way as to be universally applicable to all cultures (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991). As discussed above, however, a richer definition of culture includes worldview, the deep "assumptions that individuals and groups hold about the world: shared common sense" (Avruch and Black 1991, 28). These deeper worldview aspects of culture (Hall 1977) are less amenable to being laid aside during negotiations or of being "cut through" by skillfully crafted methodologies (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991). Worldview is the reality from within which individuals operate, and differences in worldview must be understood and taken into account when processing conflict between people from different cultures (Galtung 1990, 1996). To act otherwise is to marginalize people's abilities to function within their worldviews, an act of ontological violence.

The hegemony of Western epistemologies, one of the major processes of colonization, has largely silenced Indigenous people's worldviews in regard to conflict resolution. This situation is not an unfortunate by-product of colonization; rather it is one of the key tenets for subjugating a people: "the invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latter's potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression" (Friere 1974, 150).

Silencing Indigenous worldviews has been and continues to be one of the major tools of colonization. During European colonization Indigenous worldviews were considered to be heathen and primitive and were violently suppressed (Peat 1994; Reynolds 1999). Currently, when Indigenous worldviews are recognized by Western scientists and practitioners, they are still frequently considered to be primitive or superstitious and in need of development through Western scientific approaches (Cajete 2000; Deloria Jr. 1995, 19; Begay and Maryboy 1998; Myer 1998; Peat 1994). "Today one might say that cognitive imperialism has been added to the goals of conversion and assimilation of the dominant governing society" (Begay and Maryboy 1998, 30).

A decolonizing approach within the discipline of conflict resolution would involve (a) respect and understanding of Indigenous worldviews that have been marginalized through colonization and (b) acknowledgement of Indigenous approaches to conflict resolution as a body of knowledge that predates Western conflict resolution (Walker 2001). Developing appropriate approaches to conflict transformation in colonized countries involves a conceptualization of how the processes of colonization have privileged Western worldview, as well as acknowledgement and accommodation of the worldviews of Indigenous peoples.

Recognizing and respecting differences in worldview involves more than academic consideration of exotic curiosities; worldview represents the lived realities of a people (Hall 1977, 1983). To deny Indigenous peoples the right to function within their worldviews is to deny the reality of their experience. Therefore, to disengage from the processes of colonization it is mandatory for researchers and practitioners to acknowledge, respect, and accommodate differences in worldview.

The worldviews underlying Indigenous and Western approaches to conflict are radically different. Stark contrasts exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous concepts of what it means to be human, how human relationships are construed, and how conflicts between humans are to be processed (LeBaron 1995; LeResche 1993; Walker 1998; Walker 1999, 17-18, 24). These differences in worldview impact conceptualizations of conflict as well as appropriate ways of dealing with conflict (Avruch and Black 1990, 1991; Galtung 1996).

Indigenous approaches to conflict tend to be holistic, interconnected, and cyclical in nature (Walker 1998, 199-204). Dominant Western approaches to conflict tend to be atomistic, individualistic, and linear in nature (Avruch and Black 1990). For example, American Indian approaches involve families, Elders, ancestors, and the natural world, following the rhythms and cycles of right time. Western problem-solving approaches focus on reaching an agreement, emphasize needs of individuals, and follow a tightly prescribed linear sequence. Despite these differences Western models of conflict resolution continue to be implemented in many Indigenous communities (Beattie 1997; Grose 1995; Yazzie 1995). Many Indigenous communities resist this intrusion, protesting that Western techniques are not culturally appropriate in many Indigenous settings (Beattie 1997; Grose 1995; Ross 1996; Yazzie 1995).

Disregarding the response of Indigenous peoples, practitioners of the dominant Western methodologies of conflict resolution continue to promote Western problem-solving approaches as acultural--transcending considerations of culture. However, supposedly acultural problem-solving models merely privilege Western culture (Avruch 1998; Avruch and Black 1990, 1991; Galtung 1990). In critiquing the hegemony of Western approaches to conflict resolution, Avruch and Black remark that, "It is amazing how often the 'universal' mode of conflict resolution turns out to be one which most perfectly expresses the theorist's values" (1991, 39). In the discipline of conflict resolution the majority of the theorists are powerfully situated within Western structures.

One aspect of decolonizing the research and practice of transforming conflict is acknowledgement and respect for traditional Indigenous methods of resolving conflict. Indigenous conflict transformation models precede the Western discipline of conflict resolution by centuries, yet their contributions are scarcely recognized within the discipline of conflict studies (Beattie 1997, 63-64). In the next section of this article I will contrast an analysis of two dominant Western models of conflict resolution with four American Indian and Native Hawaiian approaches. This comparison illuminates the deep differences in the worldviews that underlie the approaches.

The four Indigenous approaches I analyze represent the smallest fraction of existing Indigenous methods of conflict transformation, or peacemaking, as there are 517 forms of American Indian conflict transformation in the United States alone (LeResche 1993, 321). These Indigenous models were selected based on the availability of data in research literature. The models of conflict transformation that I analyze in the following section are drawn from the Tsalagi (Cherokee) Talking Circle, the Native Hawaiian Ho'oponopono, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Great Law of Peace, and the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony.

The Western approaches analyzed include Fisher and Ury's (1981) "principled negotiation" and Button's "conflict resolution" (1996), two of the most widely practiced problem-solving conflict resolution models. The theoretical underpinnings of Fisher and Ury's (1997) and Burton's (1987) models reflect significant differences when compared to Indigenous worldviews. The worldview underlying these dominant Western problem-solving models reflects:
   an atomistic paradigm
   emphasis on technique
   emphasis on intellectual experience
   bounded, linear conceptualizations of time

In contrast, the worldviews underlying many Indigenous approaches to transforming conflict reflect:
   paradigms of interconnectedness
   emphasis on process and relationships
   holistic experience
   expanded conceptualizations of time

Many Indigenous peoples in North America and Hawaii practice forms of conflict transformation that have continued for centuries. For example, the Haudenosaunee, the people of the Long House, known as the Iroquois Confederacy, continue to practice their consensual approach to processing conflict (Kickingbird and Kickingbird 1987). Their approach to dealing with conflict is embedded within the Great Law of Peace. The purpose of their peacemaking methodology expressed through the Grand Council is the restoration of harmony through the balance of righteousness, health, and power (Great Law of Peace 1999).

Likewise, Cherokees practice a traditional form of conflict transformation through the Talking Circle (Garrett 1998, 80-83). The Cherokee word for the transformation of conflict is tohigesesdi, most accurately translated as "making peace" (Awiakta 1993, 288). In gadugi (community meetings) members practice conflict transformation in sessions designed to heal relationships as well as solve problems (Awiakta 1993, 289; Garrett 1998, 80-83).

Ho'oponopono is a traditional Native Hawaiian approach to processing conflict. Ho'oponopono is a holistic approach that includes mental, physical, spiritual, and natural aspects of the participants' lives (Boggs and Chun 1990; Shook and Kwan 1987). Ho'oponopono means "setting to right," and its purpose is to restore harmony to the family group as well as to prevent more serious conflict from occurring (Boggs and Chun 1990, 123). Ho'oponopono has been practiced for centuries, although there was a period during colonization when it was restricted due to the influence of Christian missionaries (Boggs and Chun 1990, 125).

The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony (Hozhooji Naat'aanii) is a traditional form of peacemaking practiced today (Yazzie 1995; Bluehouse and Zion 1993). The ceremony is structured in ways that heal conflict by restoring balance to the community through prayer, expression of emotions, traditional teachings, discussion, consensus, and reconciliation (Yazzie 1995, 10). The entire process of the Harmony Ceremony is designed to balance individual rights and group needs, which are seen as interconnected (Yazzie 1995, 16).


"Traditionally, Native people approached the world from a cosmocentric perspective which emphasized the interrelatedness of everything in the world" (LeBaron 1995, 1). The Indigenous models of conflict transformation analyzed in this article are all based on a paradigm of interconnectedness. In the Tsalagi Talking Circle the participants are conceptualized as being connected to each other and to all things. The physical circle in which they are seated depicts their worldview of reality as a web of interconnections (Garrett 1998). Within the circle all the participants sit in positions of equality, thus no hierarchy is established and the connections are circular rather than linear.

Likewise, the Native Hawaiian peacemaking process of Ho'oponopono is based on concepts of interconnectedness. The metaphors that Native Hawaiians use in this process reflect a worldview that emphasizes interconnections. For example, Native Hawaiians use the metaphor "all jam up" when speaking informally about conflict (Shook and Kwan 1987, 10). Shook and Kwan (1987, 10-12) explain that the process of Ho'oponopono straightens the way by restoring relationships and correcting behavior. These metaphors of entanglement and disentanglement address the flow of interconnections that form the web of Pacific societies' worldviews (Watson-Gegeo and White 1990).

Similarly, in Haudenosaunee worldview an individual is defined as part of a network of relationships. For example, in the Haudenosaunee Grand Council there is no hierarchy. Each child, woman, and man is allowed to speak until consensus is reached. Then the consensus is relayed to the clan mother, who shares it with their chief. In the Grand Council the chief speaks the consensual message. In Haudenosaunee worldview interconnectedness is reflected in this group power acquired through the unity of heart, mind, and spirit of all of the members (How Does the Grand Council Work? 1999).

In the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony interconnectedness may be seen in the unified conceptualization of religious and secular aspects of the conflict (Bluehouse and Zion 1993, 331-34). "At the conclusion of the ... ceremony, individuals are again in their proper place, functioning harmoniously and in beauty with everything else" (Bluehouse and Zion 1993, 332).

In contrast, Western models of conflict resolution are based on "an analytical rather than holistic epistemology" in which effective solutions are reached by breaking down the conflict into its component parts (Galtung 1990, 316-17). Western problem-solving models reflect an atomistic paradigm (Avruch and Black 1990) that focuses on individuals as discrete, autonomous units rather than as selves-in-relationship (Folger and Bush 1994, 3-25). For example, Burton's basic human needs approach is individualistic rather than communally based in that it defines needs of individuals in contrast to needs of societies (Galtung 1990, 31719). As discussed previously in this article, most Indigenous cultures define human beings in relation rather than in isolation. These differences in conceptualizations of human beings influence the appropriateness of Western methodologies in conflicts involving Indigenous peoples (Walker 1999).

The atomistic conceptualizations on which these Western models are based also depict relationships as being separable from conflict processing. Although problem-solving methods are considered to be more beneficial to relationships than the more adversarial court-based processes of adjudication and arbitration, reaching an agreement is prioritized over healing relationships.

Furthermore, Western problem-solving approaches reflect a worldview based on "a man-over-nature conceptualisation of relations to nature," separating humans from the natural world (Galtung 1990, 319). As such, Western conflict resolution contrasts sharply with Indigenous approaches, which honor interconnections within the natural world, acknowledging animals, plants, and the animate natural world as an integral part of the process (Huber 1993; Bluehouse and Zion 1993, 332-33).

The role of facilitator as an impartial, unbiased observer in Western problem-solving models also reflects an atomistic paradigm in which the participants are considered as discrete units rather than in relation to their interconnections. For example, the role of third-party facilitator is not that of a well-known and respected community leader as is the case in many Indigenous methods. In Western problem-solving models facilitators are selected based on beliefs about their ability to separate themselves from the conflict. Facilitators are expected to stand apart from the conflict, and facilitators with little knowledge about the conflict are generally considered to be more desirable than ones with extensive knowledge of the conflict (Burton 1996, 60-61).


Indigenous approaches to transforming conflict emphasize process and relationship above technique. Native science as a whole is characterized by an ever-changing flux of process and relationship (Cajete 2000) in which "A[n American Indian] peacemaking process tends to be viewed as a 'guiding process,' a relationship healing journey to assist people in returning to harmony" (LeResche 1993, 321).

The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony emphasizes cocreative processes as evidenced by the language used within the ceremony. Specific words within the peacemaking ceremony denote process as movement toward a state of balance. For example, the leader of the ceremony asks if the process is moving toward harmony (hozhooji) or toward disharmony (hashkeeji) (Bluehouse and Zion 1993, 330). These expressions illuminate a worldview founded on processes of movement and flux rather than linear cause and effect.

The Indigenous conflict transformation approaches discussed in this article emphasize relationships by involving many family and community members, including extended family members, friends, and ancestors who are no longer present in bodily form. American Indian peacemaking "includes the widest circle of people concerned, each having a voice if they wish, not just the immediate 'parties' and their representatives" (LeResche 1993, 321). Furthermore, relationships with processes and beings of the natural world are also integrated within Indigenous conflict transformation (Huber 1993; Shook and Kwan 1987).

Indigenous choice of facilitators also reflects an emphasis on relationships. Rather than selecting facilitators based on perceived impartiality, which is the dominant consideration in most Western conflict resolution, the Indigenous processes analyzed in this article involve facilitators who are well known to the participants and who are well versed in community beliefs, values, and history. The following discussion of these processes reflects an emphasis on relationship as an important factor in Indigenous conflict transformation.

In Hawaiian Ho'oponopono the leader of the session is a respected elder chosen because of mana, or personal power (Shook and Kwan 1987, 126-31). The facilitators may be family elders (hanau mua), specialists (kahuna), or healers (ho'ola). The leader uses rituals such as prayer to establish connections between family members.

In the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony the process is facilitated by a wise Elder (naat'aani) (Bluehouse and Zion 1993; Yazzie 1995, 10). The naat'aani reinforces the traditional values and teachings of the Navajo people. During the ceremony the naat'aani, sometimes referred to as the peacemaker, teaches and guides participants to traditional Navajo values. The leader uses stories, prayers, and ceremonies that educate participants as to how to proceed in harmony with traditional values (Yazzie 1995, 16).

The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace reflects the importance of maintaining balance in relationships. Both women and men hold positions of power to ensure balance and equality among the people (Awiakta 1993, 169-273). In the Grand Council the clan mothers are present to ensure that the decisions of the clan chiefs correspond to the Great Law of Peace and continue to support the traditional belief system (Lyons, cited in Awiakta 1983, 269-73).

The Indigenous models of conflict transformation discussed in this chapter all privilege restoring relationships above solving specific problems. For example, the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony is designed to enable the participants to discover the underlying causes of the conflict in ways that maintain and restore relationships. This process contrasts sharply with Western problem-solving methods in which improving relationships is considered as secondary to the primary purpose of reaching an agreement. The Justice and Harmony Ceremony process solves problems through consensus and heals alienation by making the offender feel part of the group again (Bluehouse and Zion 1993; Yazzie 1995). "The relationship is central ... The method is effective because it focuses on the parties with goodwill to reintegrate them into their community" (Bluehouse and Zion 1993, 334).

In the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony maintaining and developing harmonious relationships is considered more important than solving the particular problems between people (Yazzie 1995; Bluehouse and Zion 1993). A consideration of some of the major Navajo terminology reflects their emphasis on relationships. For example, Chief Justice Robert Yazzie translates the term k'e as meaning "that the most important thing in life is to be yourself in good relation to others" (1995, 8). Bluehouse and Zion (1993, 328-34) explain the meaning of k'e as encompassing both the respect and the solidarity needed to develop consensus among the parties in conflict. In the Justice and Harmony Ceremony verbal expression is conducted in a respectful manner designed to restore relationships or build new ones.

Likewise, Native Hawaiian Ho'oponopono privileges harmonious relationships above problem solving. Ho'oponopono is based on a relational worldview in which a human is defined as "a self embedded in family relationships that include manifestations and relationships in the spiritual and natural world" (Shook and Kwan 1987, 9). This metaphor of embeddedness illustrates the principle of reciprocity represented as a web of mutual obligations. In a web metaphor, conflict has implications not only for the individuals directly involved in the dispute but for the community as a whole (Shook and Kwan 1987, 6-11).

The Indigenous models of conflict resolution discussed here focus on relationship through shaping participants' speech in ways that enhance and maintain relationships. Rather than an uncontrolled emotive, purging style of speech, participants are reminded that their words are powerful and that they affect relationships. Participants are reminded to speak respectfully after a full consideration of their words. For example, Haudenosaunee conflict transformation reminds participants to speak respectfully, mindful of their obligations to their relations (How Does the Grand Council Work? 1999).

In many forms of Indigenous conflict transformation, silence is considered to be an effective way of responding to conflict in a way that maintains relationships. For example, reflective silence is encouraged in the Tsalagi Talking Circle (Garrett 1998). This contrasts with Western conflict processing during which silence is often regarded as refusal to cooperate (Eades 1991). In many Indigenous cultures silence is seen to lessen conflict, and participants do not consider it obligatory to answer direct questions (Ross 1996, 109-10). Silence is seen to lessen conflict because answers and solutions may arise naturally when people have time to reflect. During silent reflection participants consider what they might have to say about a matter as well as the most respectful way to express their point of view (Garrett 1998; Huber 1993).

In Ho'oponopono silence is also considered a natural and necessary part of reflecting and coming to understanding. Participants are encouraged to engage in silence while considering their responses in regard to traditional teachings and relationship obligations (Shook and Kwan 1987, 363).

Within the Tsalagi Talking Circle expression is much more varied than that found within Western models of conflict resolution. Responses range from silence to songs, prayers, stories, and dialogues. Respectful choices of expression are encouraged, and responses are shaped by the use of a talking stick, which indicates who is allowed to speak at a particular time (Garrett 1998, 80-83). The talking stick also encourages the participants to speak from and listen from the heart rather than from the mind alone (Garrett 1998; Huber 1993).

American Indians involved in the use of the talking stick state that the time spent in waiting for one's turn to speak may bring about new understanding as listeners have time to reflect on others' points of view. They maintain that individuals' reflections during periods of silence often assist in transformation of the conflict and healing of the alienation brought about by the conflict (Garrett 1998; Huber 1993).

In contrast, the dominant Western models of conflict resolution emphasize specific techniques rather than flexible processes. Although Burtons (1996) elaboration of the problem-solving model proposes stricter levels of control than does Fisher and Ury's (1981) model, both emphasize a discrete set of techniques to move the participants toward an agreement. For instance, Burton's (1996, 45-82) process of conflict resolution is based around fifty-six very specific techniques or "rules." He emphasizes the importance of strict adherence to these rules, stating that, "In analytical facilitated conflict resolution, where tight control of discussion is required, it is most important that the rules are clearly understood, consistently observed by the facilitators, and respected by all concerned" (Burton 1996, 45).

Burton's human needs approach has been criticized for its conceptualization of needs as "present centered" rather than changing through ongoing processes (Galtung 1990, 315-16). This concept contrasts starkly with the Indigenous worldviews discussed previously in this article, in which Indigenous conflict processing involves conceptualizations of needs as extending generations into both the past and the future.

Likewise, Fisher and Ury's (1981, 1997) problem-solving model is based on a series of techniques with a narrow purpose: the satisfaction of individual interests. Although Fisher and Ury allow more flexibility in regard to participants, their model is also constrained by techniques designed to lead to a mutually agreeable settlement rather than employing a more flexible process. Both of these Western problem-solving models contrast with Indigenous approaches that privilege process over technique.


The Indigenous approaches to conflict transformation that are analyzed in this article reflect holistic conceptualizations of human experience in that they integrate intellectual, emotional, and spiritual experience. In writing of Indigenous approaches to conflict resolution, Diane LeResche explains the holistic approach of American Indians:
   Sacred justice is going beyond the techniques for handling
   conflicts; it involves going to the heart. It includes speaking
   from the heart, from one's feelings. It is giving advice, reminding
   people of their responsibilities to one another. It is helping them
   reconnect with the higher spirits, or seeing the conflict in
   relation to the higher purposes. It is helping people ease, move
   beyond, transform the intense hurtful emotions like anger into
   reorienting and reuniting with that which is more important than
   the issues of the conflict. Sacred justice is found when the
   importance of restoring understanding and balance to relationships
   has been acknowledged. It almost always includes apologies and
   forgiveness. It is people working together, looking for mutual
   benefits for all in their widest circle. (LeResche 1993, 322)

Within the Indigenous conflict transformations analyzed in this article, emotional expression is encouraged as an integral part of the process. For example, in the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony emotional expression is a central characteristic. The ceremony emphasizes the central role of emotion in bringing balance to the process (Yazzie 1995). Appropriate responses during Ho'oponopono are also holistic, stressing both emotion and intellect. The processes of Ho'oponopono include sincerity, "talking from the guts," a willingness to express emotional truth as well as the facts regarding the conflict (Boggs and Chun 1990, 132). Under the Great Law of Peace each individual is encouraged to treat others as equals, with respect. Thus, in Haudenosaunee conflict transformation each person is expected to express emotions, yet to do so in ways that do not foster resentment or hatred. Participants are to use health of body, mind, and spirit to promote well-being between people and nations (Great Law of Peace 1999). "At its core, American Indian peacemaking is inherently spiritual; it speaks to the connectedness of all things; it focuses on unity, on harmony, on balancing the spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical dimensions of a community of people" (LeResche 1993, 321). Haudenosaunee conflict transformation openly addresses the spiritual aspects of human experience. For example, Haudenosaunee processes involve the development of individual power called orenda, the basic spiritual power of each person. The Haudenosaunee state that the Great Law of Peace depends on the individual development of each person's orenda as it relates to the well-being of the community, the nation, and the confederacy (Great Law of Peace 1999).

The Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony also involves spiritual aspects of transforming conflict. The process involves prayer, ceremony, and ritual that honor Navajo spiritual beliefs and thus increase the receptiveness of the people involved. In describing the importance of the spiritual aspects of the ceremony, Chief Justice Yazzie explains: "The Indian world is not solely a material world. There is a spiritual dimension to life. Many Indian groups are not secular societies; they do not separate spirituality from everyday life. In general Indian belief, the people of the spirit world are very much a part of daily life; they actively participate in it" (Yazzie 1995, 10). Likewise, the Cherokee describe their traditional processing of conflict as holistic, integrating both civic and spiritual aspects of participants' experience (Awiakta 1993, Garrett 1998).

In Hawaiian Ho'oponopono, conceptualizations of relationships include those relatives who have died and may participate in spirit form. For example, in Native Hawaiian worldview the concept of family includes amakua, spirit relations who remain senior members of clans (Shook and Kwan 1987, 7). Likewise, ancestors are often invoked in the Tslagi Talking Circle (Garrett 1998), the Navajo Justice and Harmony Ceremony (Bluehouse and Zion 1993; Yazzie 1995), and the Haudenosaunee Grand Council (How Does the Grand Council Work? 1999).

In contrast, the Western problem-solving models explored in this article privilege intellectual analysis over emotional expression, spiritual experience, and experience of the natural world. Western problem-solving models consider emotions to be an inevitable part of the conflict resolution proceedings; however, they are considered to be an aspect that has to be "worked through" in order to get to the real business of analyzing the problem in ways that lead to solutions (Avruch 1998, 78). In most cases emotional expression is allowed only for the purpose of "venting" the emotions so that the participants can move on to the more important issues underlying the conflict (Folger and Bush 1994, 271). Unrestrained venting of emotions without adequate safeguards may lead to further deterioration of the relationships involved.

Spirituality is neither mentioned nor integrated into either of the Western problem-solving models under discussion here. Indeed, many Indigenous researchers comment on the problematic lack of spirituality within Western models of processing conflict (Huber 1993; Shook and Kwan 1987; Yazzie 1995). Neither of the Western problem-solving models mention relationship with the natural world as an integral part of the conflict resolution procedures. Johann Galtung (1990, 318-19) expressly criticizes the way in which nature is "desouled" within Western conflict resolution, raising the possibility that "animals, plants and other forms of nature" might be conceptualized as possessing needs. Furthermore, he raises the possibility of challenges to current conflict resolution theory in regard to relationship with the natural world.


The Indigenous approaches to processing conflict discussed in this article reflect a worldview of time that is more expansive than the dominant Western linear conceptualization of time. First, in many Indigenous worldviews time is conceived of as cyclical rather than linear. Second, time is measured according to the meaning that is held within the web of interconnections that make up the Indigenous worldview. Last, meaningful measures of time extend to include members of previous and future generations. Within these conceptualizations of time, conflict processing is designed to implement long-term sustainable change.

In Haudenosaunee conflict methodology time is viewed holistically as it relates to all the people, the natural world, and the social processes of the community. Consideration is taken of what needs to be done to restore harmony to the individuals involved and to the community as a whole. Rather than terminating sessions based on clock or calendar time, sufficient time is allowed to reach consensus (How Does the Grand Council Work? 1999). Likewise, participants in the Tsalagi Talking Circle seek to resolve problems in ways that restore long-term harmony and balance within relationships and the community at large (Garrett 1998).

The Justice and Harmony Ceremony is designed to develop understanding of the underlying causes of the conflict under consideration. In Navajo worldview to get rid of disharmony one must identify it, bring it out into the open, and examine it (Yazzie 1995, 14). This process may involve consideration of many generations: "Sometimes people will go back for generations to describe some ancient wrongdoing and a history of relationships. It is proper, because it gets to the bottom of things" (Yazzie 1995, 11-12). Thus, the processes of the Justice and Harmony Ceremony enable the participants to address conflict in ways that sustain long-term change (Bluehouse and Zion 1993; Yazzie 1995).

The Haudenosaunee approach to transforming conflict is designed to develop consensual agreements that both address the conflict and restore relationships that extend throughout time (Great Law of Peace 1999). Their procedures seek to make explicit the underlying causes of disharmony and allow the people involved to make the necessary changes to restore balance to the web of community for seven generations.

Within these Indigenous processes the language used in the ceremonies reflects the emphasis on sustaining harmony over long periods of time. For example, in Ho'oponopono once the conflict has been transformed the participants are instructed to avoid future discussion of the problem. This process of formally closing the conflict off from discussion is named oki and signifies a cutting off, sealing up, and healing of the conflict (Boggs and Chun 1990, 132; Shook and Kwan 1987, 16).

In the Tsalagi Talking Circle the formal closing of the circle also represents the closing of the conflict, designed to sustain harmony over long periods of time. The problems discussed within the circle are not to be mentioned outside the circle. Cherokees explain this process as one that develops respect for the participants and the sacredness of the ceremony, thus enhancing the long-term sustainability of the decisions reached (Garrett 1998).

The Mi'kmaq and Ojibway peoples have ancient verb tenses that are utilized to allow lessons to be learned from previous conflicts that have been healed and closed. Using the forgiveness tense holds the message that "this event has been concluded to the satisfaction of all" (Ross 1996, 188). The forgiveness tense establishes a framework of meaning that indicates the conflict, the victims, the aggressors, and the community have been healed, while allowing the power of the stories involved to help others facing similar conflicts. In this way the conflict is revisited in a safe manner, maintaining closure on the original conflict while serving as a healing process that assists in current conflict transformation (Ross 1996, 188-89).

In Indigenous conflict transformation time is often measured within its context of "right time," considering the moment in relation to what is happening with other members of the community and within the natural world (Ross 1996, 73-75). Conflict transformation scholar John Paul Lederach defines right time as "placing oneself in the stream of time and space and determining at any given moment what things mean and therefore what should be done" (1995, 96). In their working paper on Ho'oponopono, Shook and Kwan (1987,11) give an example of right time in their practice. They explain that disrupted schedules are often indicators that the time is not right to implement a particular action. They explain that right time is indicated when things fall into place and the "way is clear."

A further example of right time may be found in Haudenosaunee conflict transformation, in which quality of time is an important consideration. For example, sessions are never held at night when the participants might be tired and their responses affected by fatigue (What Is the Great Law of Peace? 1999). Value is not placed on completing the sessions in relation to clock time or deadlines based on the calendar but on completing the process when all aspects of the conflict have been dealt with in the proper manner (Ross 1996).

In contrast, Western problem-solving approaches schedule sessions based on linear, finite definitions of time (Burton 1996, 82). For example, in Burton's problem-solving model of conflict resolution facilitators are instructed to complete the sessions within the shortest possible time frames. These approaches contrast with Indigenous conflict processing in which time is viewed as cyclical and appropriate time is measured both in relation to many generations and to the interconnections between the conflict, the participants, society, and the natural world.


In this article I have argued that Western problem-solving models of conflict resolution are not culturally universal as some authors claim. Rather, they reflect unacknowledged cultural underpinnings of Western worldview. I further maintain that assertions of cultural universality of Western models represent a form of ontological violence by marginalizing Indigenous ways of conflict transformation. A number of scholars argue that Western problem-solving models of conflict resolution, rather than being acultural, merely fail to make explicit the cultural basis of their own approach (Avruch and Black 1991). For example, the cultural parameters of Western conflict resolution often remain at an "out-of-awareness" level:
   We think of the practice of mediation as the application of
   techniques ... yet these techniques are embedded within a
   surrounding cultural framework of unrecognized and taken for granted
   conceptions of the social world. This cultural framework consists of
   ideas about when to fight and when to compromise, notions of the
   self in relation to others, and theories about which third parties
   are entitled to intervene in problems and in what ways. To those who
   share this implicit framework, it is simply the natural and sensible
   way of doing things. (Merry 1987, 1)

Indigenous peoples who do not share this implicit framework may find their worldviews and ways of transforming conflict marginalized or suppressed. Current literature on culture and conflict resolution criticizes the application of Western paradigms to conflicts involving Indigenous peoples (Grose 1995; Beattie 1997; Yazzie 1995) and urges further research to determine the conflict resolution methods of other cultures (Avruch and Black 1991, 31-37). In the last ten years a growing number of researchers have addressed Indigenous processing of conflict, including Beattie (1997), Garrett (1998), Grose (1995), Huber (1993), LaResche (1993), LeBaron (1995), Walker (2001), and Yazzie (1995). Nevertheless, the majority of formal research on processing conflict continues to focus on Western methodologies.

Western problem-solving models are frequently imported into Indigenous communities with few modifications (Beattie 1997; Grose 1995; Lederach 1995). Ron Kraybill describes this proselytization of Western conflict resolution stating that, "Where religions send missionaries, conflict resolution organisations send trainers" (1996, 22). Elements of ontological violence are evidenced in the marginalization of Indigenous approaches to conflict transformation through the promotion of Western approaches. These differences in worldview are more than cultural points of interest. They are the sites of political contestation of power.

Indigenous methods of conflict transformation are marginalized within the Western discipline of conflict resolution. The Western methods of resolving conflict that are often imported into Indigenous communities are based on an extremely different worldview. Western societies' power and willingness to implement their models without consideration of Indigenous worldviews perpetuates ontological violence, the forceful introduction of one worldview to the extent that it marginalizes or suppresses another worldview. Decolonizing the discipline of conflict resolution involves developing a deeper understanding of, respect for, and acknowledgement of Indigenous worldviews. The decolonizing process also involves creating support for Indigenous people to be able to access conflict transformation processes that are in alignment with Indigenous worldviews.


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Author:Walker, Polly O.
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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