Oh The Stories They Tell


“As a people, we tell stories to get our morals across in a very simple way” said Patrick Wilson, one of the organizers of the First Annual Midwest Peacemaking Conference of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee. The conference provided the attendees with many stories related to peacemaking. The Native American traditions permeated the entire conference starting with the opening ceremony that included the Little River Warrior Society posting of the colors; the drumming circle and the opening prayer. The members of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians giving the welcoming talks all told the story of their family, starting with how many years they were married.


Patrick Wilson told the story of how he first saw his future wife with the sun’s ray shinning on her. It was a sign.

The stories that we heard were signs for us to be open to a new way of thinking. We are all related. We are all connected.  We are all interdependent. To have a healthy community, we must focus on intervention and prevention of violence and disharmony. These are important themes and methods used in the peacemaking practices highlighted at the conference. The opening speaker, Kay Pranis, told of the success of using the peace circle to select the best Democratic candidate rather than having an expensive primary in Minnesota.  She has worked for the Minnesota Department of Corrections as the Restorative Justice Planner; written books on peacemaking circles; and worked with leaders in corrections, police, courts, neighborhood groups, faith communities and education to develop responses to crime and conflict based on restorative justice.


The restorative justice approach heals the harm that was done by a negative act by bringing together the parties in a circle. The stories of the success of this approach were frequent throughout the conference.

Winnie Thomas, an Appellate Court Judge for the Oneida Tribal Judicial System in Wisconsin, talked about the effectiveness of the Peacemaking Mediation Process in resolving family disputes, employee disputes and school problems between students, teachers and administrators.  The parties resolve their own conflicts by coming together and working out an agreement that is individualized.  Winnie said that the key is following the three rules: 1) Respect 2) Respect 3) Respect!  One story Winnie told was about an eight year old boy who wouldn’t follow any rules in school or at home.  He pulled out a cell phone during the mediation.  She suggested to his parents that having a phone was a privilege that could be taken away if there was not a change in behavior.  The transformation was dramatic! The outcomes of the mediation process helps restore harmony and promote healing.  Over 4000 child custody cases were referred to the Peacemaking/ Mediation Process in the Oneida Tribal Judicial System! This process heals families and communities.


The Mediation Centers in Michigan are doing great work in healing our communities.


There is a mediation center in every county in the state.  Kate Scarbrough is the Executive Director of Mediation & Restorative Services at the Brian Mattson Center for Restorative Justice in Muskegon. With her partner Jackie Hallberg, the program coordinator for the Center, stories of the success of the power of restorative justice in helping make a safer and more connected community were told. The facilitators of the mediation sessions are all trained volunteers from the ages of 26 to 86. Jackie said “It’s all about us together”, including those returning from prison. Their second session focused on juvenile crime and restorative opportunities. The old method of using only punishment plants bad seeds. With restorative practices, the kids involved in a crime are allowed the chance to make things right and the victims, who help structure the restoration agreement, are helped to move forward. “It can be a long road, but the results are so worth it” Jackie said. Kate shared their research on the effects of their programs. Of the young people caught shoplifting, 97% had a clean record after a year. With regard to substance abuse, the success rate was 87%. Restorative practices works because everyone involved is part of the healing process including the parents.


Barry Burnside, the Program Coordinator of Dispute Resolution Services of Gryphon Place in Kalamazoo offered two sessions on forgiveness. All participants agreed to confidentiality. The stories of the individuals showed the power of the teachings of the elders.  There is no word for forgiveness in the native language.  The closest word is acceptance or healing.  There are ceremonies to heal, such as the Casting Away ceremony in the Spring, which is the New Year for the Native American Indians.  In this ceremony, thoughts are released of anyone who has harmed or anyone who has been harmed, so the New Year can start positively.  Another description of the ceremony is the Thunder Returns.  As the rains come, they wash away the hurts picked up during the last year, and the New Year can begin fresh and clean. We discussed definitions of forgiveness.  My favorite was from Joan Borysenko. “Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior.  Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred.  Rather, it is the finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present free of contamination from the past.”  This is the healing that comes from Restorative Practices and Mediation.


The Midwest Peacemaking Conference gathered many professionals working in the field of Peacemaking from the Midwest.  These peacemakers included Tribal and Non-Tribal court workers, authors, counselors, lawyers, educators, probation officers, peace team volunteers, and mediation workers. Since Nature was a part of so many of the stories, the setting of the conference was perfect.  The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Conference Center brought the outdoors inside.  There were gardens, rocks, trees and waterfalls.  The restaurant was next to the beautiful indoor gardens. Many of the speakers described their walks around the beautiful grounds, as they looked for signs from nature to relate their teachings. The entire focus was on our connectedness with Mother Earth.

The highpoint of the conference was the keynote speaker, Ernest St. Germaine, an appeals court judge for the Tribal Courts in Wisconsin and a faculty member of the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada-Reno. He is also the author of Winaboozhoo Adizokaan, a collection of traditional Ojibwe stories. He is a master storyteller who captivated the audience after a delicious dinner, for several hours.


He asked the audience “How many of you remember 1958?”  After a lengthy story of his childhood experience of putting a large, dead crawfish on the seat of his fifth grade teacher who did not like him, he asked the audience “Do you remember hearing the scream?”  His mother made him tell his grandmother of his misdeed.  It was the hardest thing he had to do in his entire life!  The respect for the women’s circle was the theme of many stories of reconciliation. St. Germaine described the healing ceremonies for soldiers returning from war.  The men had to be put right again so they could recover their true spirit which is kind and giving; and rejoin the community. One story was of a man who came before his court due to domestic violence in the household of five generations of women.  His sentence was to go and explain himself before the Women’s Circle. He begged for punishment rather than that.  His sentence changed his life.  Every time he sees the judge, he thanks him.  The stories of people who committed a misdeed and were restored to the community, some after many years, showed the power of the love of the women in the Tribe.  The healing power of love in these peacemaking practices works.  The peace is always there. Guiding someone to realize that is the key to peacemaking.  Now that is a story to be told!

Colleen Mills, President of the Citizens for Peace www.citizensforpeace11.blogspot.com


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