Waŋbli Wapȟáha Hokšila/Edward Charles Valandra, Ph.D.
Síčáŋǧu Thitȟuŋwaŋ/Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte
Síčáŋǧu Thitȟuŋwaŋ/Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte
In this series of essays, multiple experts discuss the root causes of Native injustice and highlight possible frameworks to move forward toward Native justice.
The first installment is an essay by Waŋbli Wapȟáha Hokšila/Dr. Edward Charles Valandra, senior editor at Living Justice Press (LJP). LJP publishes books on restorative justice principles and practices. In this essay, Valandra reflects upon the differences between tribal and settler perspectives on justice. Specifically, he explores the meaning of justice among his own people, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte. He warns that colonization has distorted current understandings of justice in tribal society and emphasizes the importance of adopting a “responsibility-based” rather than a “rights-based” approach to Native justice.
About Dr. Edward Charles Valandra
Edward Charles Valandra/Waŋbli Wapȟáha Hokšila (Síčáŋǧu Thitȟuŋwaŋ) was born and raised in his homeland, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Minnesota State University-Mankato, a Master of Arts from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a Ph.D. from SUNY-Buffalo. Dr. Valandra has been actively involved in Native affairs, having served one four-year term as a legislator in his nation’s governing body; he also served on his nation’s seven-member Constitutional Task Force.
Dr. Valandra is the founder of the Community for the Advancement of Native Studies (CANS). His organization promotes the application of research and study for all aspects of liberation and sovereignty with respect to Native Country. His research focuses are: the revitalization of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte, the disciplinary development of Native Studies, and the development and use of community-based participatory research in Native communities. Dr. Valandra’s current role is senior editor at Living Justice Press, a renowned, nonprofit publisher specializing in restorative justice/practices and harms between peoples. He is the editor of the recent book “Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities.”
By Waŋblí Wapȟáha Hokšíla/Dr. Edward Charles Valandra
Five decades ago, in 1973, Vine Deloria, Jr., a Húŋkpapȟa/Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte citizen, observed that Indigenous protests pivoted away from parroting mainstream protest movements, such as the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and early 1970s.
For Deloria, this Indigenous pivot had a theological dimension. He contrasted the 1969 Alcatraz takeover with the 1973 Wounded Knee (Wounded Knee II) takeover to explain this dimension. Both takeovers invoked the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty (Treaty). Alcatraz’s Indigenous activists argued, mistakenly, that the treaty required that any abandoned federal property be transferred to Indigenous people. The Wounded Knee II activists also invoked the treaty, but not for abandoned federal property. Instead, they sought Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Oyáte (Oyáte) revitalization as a self-determining people. In doing so, Deloria claimed, they introduced a theological dimension—that of a moral universe—into their activism. Indeed, the 2016 Mni Wičhóni Movement at Standing Rock reveals that this dimension grows only more intense with each Oyáte generation.
Deloria, with his ever-critical insight into the settler psyche, framed for Indigenous peoples what is at stake in a post-Wounded Knee II world. For one, the cognitive dissonance that Wounded Knee II caused had so profoundly untethered the settlers’ moral universe from justice that Deloria himself pondered whether Indigenous peoples can “call upon a more universal sense of justice than the world can presently sustain or fulfill?”
The years since Wounded Knee II tell Native Country that settler society will not hear calls for justice, even when morality, let alone law, demands it. We bear witness to the settlers’ ongoing deafness to justice today. On one hand, schools and other public spaces have become shooting galleries, and they will remain so until a child’s life is valued more than the Second Amendment’s right-to-bear-arms. On the other hand, the settlers’ high court ruled on female reproductive matters on right-to-life principles. Depending on which state a woman lives in, women, their doctors, and their supporters face harsh retribution should she decide to end a pregnancy.
Instituting draconian measures to protect the not-yet born, while doing virtually nothing for the born, i.e., small children, escapes my Oyáte sensibilities. From my perch, Deloria has been prophetic. We Indigenous peoples find ourselves inhabiting a world where more daylight than ever exists between a moral universe and what settlers call “justice.”
However, this discussion is neither about settlers’ moral shortcomings nor their misapplications of justice. Deloria made clear that Indigenous people who engage such discussions are engaging in pure folly.
Experienced Indians regard this desire to show up the bankruptcy of whites’ values as suicidal. Of course, practically every Indian is convinced that the white man is corrupt at the core, but many Indians reject the attempts to demonstrate as much because—and they point to Vietnam and to the [Indian] massacres of the 1880s—they believe that the white man will kill his opposition rather than win it over by example or reasoning.
Because I count myself among the “experienced Indians” who do not wish to commit suicide-by-settler, I prefer to address Deloria’s theological dimension: how we Oyáte and other Indigenous peoples traditionally experience justice.
Searching the D/L/Nakȟóta language for the English word “justice” poses another challenge. Ella Deloria, an Iháŋktȟunwaŋ/Oyáte citizen and linguist, illustrated this challenge. A white physician wanted his Dakȟóta patient, Ms. Lamont, to “relax” and asked Ms. Lamont’s friend, Emma, to “tell Ms. Lamont to relax.”
The young woman [Emma] frowned, groping for a way to convey that request, for there is no specific word that exactly expresses “relax.” But almost immediately she came up with a word,… T’a-t’a-ic’i-ya! she told the sick woman [Ms. Lamont]. It analyzes thus: t’a mean to be dead; doubled t’a-t’a mean to be continually dead, dead-in-process like an old melon or flabbily dead like a withered member; ic’i- is the reflexive; and ya means to cause. What she really said was, “Cause-yourself-to-be-paralyzed.” I needn’t add that the sick woman relaxed instantly.
Most non-Oyáte are satisfied to know a D/L/Nakȟóta word for an English one, yet the challenge to find the former’s full meaning remains. A translation (e.g., white person = wasicu) is no substitute for its interpretation (e.g., wasicu = glib, takers, unpredictable, etc.).
Likewise, when I talk about Oyáte justice, what am I really talking about? Because I have become involved with settlers’ notion of restorative justice in recent years, this question has percolated within me. Put another way, “What does Oyáte justice look like?”
We could answer this philosophical question comparatively. For example, compared to settlers’ justice, ours is definitely not adversarial, not carceral, not hierarchical, not retributive, and so forth. But such comparisons remind me of how white people respond to the question, “Who or what are you?” Westernized comparisons are often binary in nature, contrasting whiteness to colorized or marginal others.
For example, whites may say they are not people of color or Indigenous peoples. Other whites may say they are European, albeit hyphenated to distinguish themselves from, you know, real Europeans. Or whites may differentiate themselves via religion: They are not Muslim or Hindu. Yet explaining Oyáte justice by what it is not fails to tell us, “What is Oyáte justice?” Not having an English-D/L/Nakȟóta translation for “justice” does not mean my people are without justice or do not know what it is—far from it. For both Deloria and others of my nation, justice exists in every direction that comprises our—the Oyáte’s—moral universe.
My people understand that the moral universe we inhabit is animate, which simply means we recognize this universe as having agency—an energy with much greater power and personality than we possess or know. In our D/L/Nakȟóta language, we describe this aspect of our moral universe in various ways: Wakȟáŋ (to be sacred); Wakȟáŋ Tȟaŋka (a cosmic or universal spiritual power); Táku-Wakȟáŋ (something sacred, spiritual entities); or Táku Škaŋškaŋ (spiritual power that causes movement of everything).
These aspects, and all that flows from them, come from that part of our origin story—which is before we appeared—called Otȟókahe Káǧapi (First Beginnings). In this telling, Íŋyaŋ possesses Wakȟáŋ energy and unselfishly gave of this energy to create the reality we now know and experience. The late Albert White Hat, Sr., Sičhánǧu Thítȟuŋwaŋ and a beloved cultural knowledge-keeper among our people, told how Íŋyaŋ’s act of love in The First Beginnings frames our understanding and practice of justice.
Philosophically, mitákuye oyás’in [All My Relatives] states that a person is related to all Creation. This phrase is used when a ceremony begins or ends. It is also used to close a prayer or as a prayer itself. Mitákuye oyás’in reminds us that we all come from one source, the blood of Íŋyaŋ, and therefore we need to respect each other. … Through these ways we maintain wolakota “peace.”
Because our Creation comes from one source, our original instruction is to be a good relative. This original instruction manifests itself in our being D/L/Nakȟóta, particularly in our relationships. And when we are in relationship (as my people traditionally know it), one is struck, among other things, by how much of our behavior toward one another and the natural world embodies qualities often associated with justice.
I have written before about our relationship with the natural world, but here I concern myself with the human relations within my nation. For us, these are as profound as the relations we have with the natural world, our non-human relatives. To outsiders, my people appear to place undue emphasis on relatedness, which we experience as kinship. Ella Deloria noted whites’ frustration with trying to understand our kinship system, which they find incomprehensible. Kinship, though, is instructive, because it determines mutually reenforcing, reciprocal responsibilities and duties, as well as proper attitudes toward others.
For a D/L/Nakȟóta, the primary if not singular responsibility in our relationships is to do no harm. But this responsibility’s attribution concerns itself with wačhiŋičiya (having to be independent in—but not of—one’s needs). This understanding of being in charge of yourself is not the same as being a “self-made” individual or rugged individualism. It is quite the opposite.
To understand Native justice’s foundation, then, we must unpack some basic things, starting with, “What are one’s needs?” To answer this question, I draw on Native critiques of Abraham Maslow, who developed his hierarchy of needs while observing the Siksika Nation in Alberta, Canada. These critiques show that his hierarchy of needs’ final outcome—self-actualization—reflects settler individualism, which is very different from Indigenous collectivism. Maslow identified several tiers of needs (usually presented in pyramid form) that must be met before an individual can achieve self-actualization (the top tier).
In contrast, the Siksika Nation and other Indigenous nations experience “self-actualization,” i.e., being authentically secure in who you are, as inherent. Standing Bear, an Oglála Thítȟuŋwaŋ/Oyáte citizen and writer, shared his personal account of Oyáte child-rearing practices. These practices clearly demonstrate a child’s inherent actualization before reaching adulthood; our children internalize responsibilities that reflect D/L/Nakȟóta values, such as kindness.
I was taught kindness to grandmother and to all old people. I saw my mother give frequently to them and I was allowed to give at the same time. I learned truthfulness, respect for the rights of all people, order, and like virtues. So each day, with a brightening mind, I learned by examples of kind action.
Unlike Maslow, however, who saw self-actualization as the end point, Siksika society and other Indigenous societies experience self-actualization as the starting point. Sidney Stone Brown, a Siksika citizen and mental health practitioner, explained Native actualization’s starting point:
So I think that when you look at the philosophy of indigenous populations, they knew it was important to protect kin. It was important to raise children and to nurture and love them and every child knowing that they were wanted and valued. And that’s what the teepee line[r] represents. The next place in the teachings of the elders is that we all have a place to fit into the community. So indigenous populations, including the Blackfoot people, had clans, we had societies, and we had roles and responsibilities. So that when you were born into a particular family, when you were raised in that family, you were also raised in that culture of the society, and a clan, and the relationship to the community. And when you know that you have a place that you fit and belong, that’s really what we’re talking about in terms of security…. So in that process of raising children, they find where they fit and belong, to carry out that spiritual promise. And then the next level of giving and being is to be able to practice altruism.
Both Ella Deloria and Standing Bear affirm Sidney Stone Brown, saying that all other considerations are secondary to being a good relative. So, being in charge of one’s self and independent in our needs internalize accountability. Since morally right and fair relations flow from them, people recognize these relational qualities as distinguishing features of justice. Hence, from cradle-to-grave, Indigenous peoples experience life as living justice.
While Native justice emerges from actualization first, Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan citizen and social-work professor, suggests that community actualization is where we experience the full breath of Native justice in action—that is, to do no harm. In other words, all community members carry out their respective responsibilities and duties communally. For example, Ella Deloria talked about my people’s scheme of life, one that worked and reflected community actualization:
For the most part, then, everyone had his [or her] part to play and played it for the sake of his [or her] honor, all kinship duties, obligations, privileges, and honorings being reciprocal. Thus, kinship had everybody in a fast net of interpersonal responsibility and made everybody like it, because its rewards were pleasant. There were fewer rebels against the system than one might think,… Only those who kept the rules consistently and gladly, thus honoring all their fellows, were good Dakota—meaning good citizens of society, meaning good persons of integrity and reliability.
Likewise, Ryan Heavy Head, a Siksika citizen, discloses how our Siksika relatives also understand community actualization, which, again, is not uncommon throughout Native Country.
[H]aving your life bound up with those around you for its whole duration can support creating a culture of generosity, trust, and cooperation, rather than one of inequality and individualism. Being in conflict with permanent neighbors, while also living in such a communal culture, can prove costly and stressful. Learning to cooperate, forgiving wrongdoing, and pursuing the sharing of resources and wisdom make life much more tolerable in these conditions.
Like Maslow, other 20th-century settlers who spent any quality time among Indigenous peoples were forced either to admit or to reluctantly acknowledge that, compared to white settler society, little violence or coercion existed.
For example, because we were being “too permissive” with our children, settlers would, among other things, justify kidnapping our children and sending them to white-run boarding schools. Supposedly, this schooling would teach Native children to respect and fear authority, parental or otherwise, which was otherwise “lacking” in Indigenous communities. Hence, boarding schools de-actualized, i.e., traumatized our children and youth, who then became our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents.
Also, when it came to the Termination Era’s cry for “law and order” in Indigenous societies, white settlers found themselves dumbfounded. Settlers’ official field reports, in honest moments, would comment that they expected a no-man’s land of lawlessness and disorder when they visited an Indigenous community, but they discovered quite the opposite. Settlers, of course, attributed the peaceful, ordered flow of Indigenous societies to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), stating that only the bureau’s colonial oversight kept Indigenous justice systems in line. The reality, however, proved otherwise: Native justice—that is, before the 1968 Indian Civil Rights Act—displayed “a substantial element of fairness in the tribal process.”
While we have examined Native justice philosophically, settler colonialism challenges this philosophy. For instance, colonization influences traditional Native justice, especially when Indigenous individuals uncritically accept Westernization. Indeed, settler-colonial studies disclose that modern Indigenous communities have adopted a rights-based versus a responsibility-based orientation, which affects our approach to justice. As a result of these influences, Native Country is fractured and dysfunctional. Hence, decolonization is a long game. For instance, redirecting this trend away from individual rights and back to community responsibility requires us to decolonize our minds and our behavior.
For me, decolonization is a very personal journey and a work in progress. For example, rather than using our given names, I use my people’s kinship terms when I address my community members. Unlike addressing people by name, D/L/Nakȟóta kinship terms appeal to the myriad relationships we have with one another and our place of belonging within them. I am not suggesting that kinship terms alone will decolonize my people overnight, but I can honestly say that addressing community members in our traditional way is satisfying emotionally and personally fulfilling.
That is, within our kinship terms is the baked-in message: We telegraph to one another that no harm is intended. This community actualization through relationship is what traditional Native justice looks and feels like.
. “The Theological Dimension of the Indian Protest Movement,” in For This Land, Writings on Religion in America, ed. James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1999), 35.
. Ibid., 34–5
. Ella Deloria, Speaking of Indians (New York: Friendship Press, 3rd printing,  1998), 10.
. Albert White Hat, Sr., Reading and Writing the Lakota Language (Salt Lake City, UT: University Utah Press, 1999), 46.
. Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 8.
. “What Maslow Missed in His Hierarchy of Needs—The Native Self-Actualization Model: An Interview with Dr. Sidney Stone Brown,” Therapy Reimagined, n.d., https://therapyreimagined.com/modern-therapist-podcast/what-maslow-missed-in-his-hierarchy-of-needs-the-native-self-actualization-model-an-interview-with-dr-sidney-stone-brown/#Episode-transcript, accessed 10 April 2023. Emphasis mine.
. Deloria, Speaking of Indians, 21–2.
. Teju Ravilochan, “The Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow’s Hierarchy,” Resilience, 18 June 2021, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2021-06-18/the-blackfoot-wisdom-that-inspired-maslows-hierarchy.
. William A. Brophy and Sophie D. Aberle et al., The Indian: America’s Unfinished Business, Report of the Commission on the Rights, Liberties, and Responsibilities of the America Indian (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 44.