Tools for Action

The Conflict Transformation Process

Native American cultures have been under attack by European immigrants and their descendants for 500 years. Over the years, homelands were stolen, people were massacred, languages were banned, sacred sites were destroyed, ceremonial objects were shipped to museums, children were kidnapped and sent to boarding schools. Native people remember this history, but most other people do not.

This is an unresolved conflict that, like slavery, simmers just below the surface of American society. The Sacred Land Film Project’s work is based on the premise that our culture needs to recognize the depth of this conflict, and transform it. We don’t need conflict resolution. We need conflict transformation. This can only happen through recognition of the problem, dialogue about its meaning, and a new understanding of our shared history. From this might come reconciliation between native people and non-Indian culture and a new relationship with the land. Our contribution to this long term process is to combine journalism and public education to promote ongoing dialogue that can lead to positive social change.

From Black Mesa to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, efforts to ensure the protection of sacred places involve conflict. The Sacred Land Film Project seeks to promote the transformation of conflicts on sacred land, and believes that, whenever possible, these conflicts should be addressed within a restorative justice framework. For many people, such an approach requires a change in basic understandings about conflict. Rather than seeking to quickly resolve an existing conflict, the goal is to work through a process:

  • to identify and address its root causes, including structural problems;
  • to facilitate ongoing communication between the parties involved;
  • to change how the people (or communities) involved relate to one another; and
  • to transform the situation so as to avoid a recurrence of the problem.

The conflict transformation process should be participatory, with all parties actively involved. Relationship-building is key: parties need to have opportunities to talk and listen to one another such that while they may not agree, they can eventually articulate the other’s point of view and important factors that have influenced it. Power imbalances must be considered and dealt with throughout the process because they make relationship-building difficult. Relationship-building is particularly challenging in situations where the offending party has more power than the victim(s).

Most conflicts derive from a clash of worldviews and values that appear to be markedly different and incompatible, including those involving sacred lands. Corporations (like the Peabody Coal Company at Black Mesa in Arizona) tend to view land as a resource to be exploited in order to make a profit, whereas indigenous peoples view land as a sacred trust to be tended by the community for future generations. Rock climbers (like those at Devils Tower in Wyoming) may view a site that is sacred to Native Americans as one more cliff to climb for recreation and personal enjoyment. Business people in the United States may view “the sacred” as a personal relationship between individual human beings and “God” and think that worship should take place in a structure built specifically for that purpose. Indigenous peoples tend to think of “the sacred” in terms of a web of relationships between humans and the Creator’s handiwork, including land, water, animals etc. Thus, the issue of protection of sacred landscapes fits the classic definition of conflict: real or perceived incompatibility between two or more persons or groups.

More often than not, when a conflict arises over a sacred place, there is pressure to resolve it quickly and to bring a halt to the immediate crisis. Usually the conflict is resolved within the existing legal framework and there are “winners” and “losers.” Often the conflict resolution process is devoid of any discussion about the worldviews and values of the different parties involved or about the root causes of the crisis at hand. In this scenario, even when a conflict is “resolved,” it can continue to fester — it remains latent. The conflict continues to exist, regardless of whether or not it is expressed.

The saga of Weatherman Draw, in southern Montana, is an example of “conflict resolution.” The conflict there surfaced when plans were announced to drill for oil in a valley that contains one of the largest assemblages of Native American rock art on the continent. Jimmy Arterberry, a Comanche preservation leader, testified against drilling at a Congressional hearing, explaining that the site “is a living spiritual center.” The conflict was “resolved” in April 2002 when an agreement was reached between the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the Anschutz Exploration Corporation and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The corporation agreed to turn over its leases in Weatherman Draw to the NTHP, which would hold them until they expire. The BLM pledged not to issue any new leases until a management plan for the area is developed. An imminent threat to a sacred place was abated for the time being — but what will happen when the current leases expire? While there has been a reprieve, the debate about the protection of Weatherman Draw has simply been postponed, and the underlying conflict still exists.

Co-Producer Malinda Maynor (Lumbee) and Director Christopher McLeod consult with Hopi Activist Vernon Masayesva before a film interview. Photo by John Schaefer for ITVS.

Conflict transformation requires a set of skills and processes that grow out of a different philosophical understanding of conflict. Transformation of a conflict over sacred land requires identifying those experiences and issues that have caused a sense of harm or injustice. It involves uncovering the sources of the conflict, while at the same time seeking to build relationships between those involved and empowering them to transform the situation. The focus is on developing creative solutions that meet everyone’s needs to the fullest extent possible. This process most often occurs outside of the existing legal system. It is intense and time consuming. It requires a deep level of investment and ongoing engagement by those involved in the conflict. But the solutions tend to be more enduring.

In the case of Weatherman Draw, the true transformation of the conflict would require a full discussion of why the concerned tribes feel that oil drilling will do immeasurable harm. It would involve intentionally building relationships between key individuals from the tribes, the Anschutz Exploration Corporation, environmental groups, NTHP and the BLM, so that each stakeholder understands how the other’s worldview, and the values that underpin it, shape their perspective about the immediate situation. The parties may very well still disagree strongly, but they would likely be better able to work together to develop creative solutions that seek to meet everyone’s needs.

What is meant by a “restorative justice framework” for conflict transformation efforts? Restorative justice is a philosophy of justice and a set of skills and processes that is both consistent with, and complementary to, conflict transformation. Restorative justice is based on three main principles that can be applied to efforts to protect sacred places, namely:

  1. Restorative justice focuses on the harm done to people and communities.
  2. Wrongs or harms result in obligations.
  3. Restorative justice promotes engagement or participation by the primary parties affected by the harm — victims, offenders, and members of the community.

In other words, restorative justice is a process to involve (to the fullest extent possible) all those who have a stake in a specific offense (i.e. the prospect of oil drilling in Weatherman Draw) and to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations and put things as right as possible in order to encourage healing and reconciliation.

The climbing management plan that evolved at Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming in the late 1990s is one positive example where the principles of conflict transformation and restorative justice were consciously applied. The tower is sacred to more than 20 tribes in the Northern Plains and it is also a destination for climbers from around the world who are challenged by the vertical basalt face. Indians do vision quests and sun dance ceremonies there, the area has long been considered a sanctuary where people may not fight, and these traditions go back many generations. Many climbers feel that they too have a spiritual connection to the tower and try to respect native traditions. The National Park Service brought together climbers, Native American leaders, and environmentalists for a series of meetings and discussions over three years in a sincere attempt to resolve the conflict at the tower.

After several years of interchange and relationship-building, the Park Service asked several of the Lakota elders who were participating in the process whether they would rather have climbing banned outright, or if climbers should be asked to choose not to climb. The elders returned to their community and came back with the recommendation that it would be best to have the Park Service teach the public, including climbers, about the history of the tower and native peoples’ connection to it, and to ask visitors to make a personal choice to respect the wishes of Native Americans. There is now a “voluntary ban” on climbing during the month of June, when sun dances and other ceremonies are at their height. As a result of this creative solution, based on dialogue and education, climbing in June dropped off by 85%. Some climbers still stubbornly insist on their right to climb, even in June. But a process of dialogue and education is underway, and it might one day transform the conflict at the tower.


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