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Oakland residents celebrate the indigenous roots of restorative justice

on November 21, 2014

In commemoration of a week devoted to restorative justice, two nonprofits organized a Sunday celebration at the Lakeside Garden Center highlighting the indigenous roots of restorative justice, a term used to define the shift from a punitive justice system to one that addresses the needs of victims as well as offenders.

The event was co-sponsored by Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice and the North Oakland Restorative Justice Council, and was organized by the Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), which is spearheaded by renowned organizer Fania Davis. Supporters of the event included the Akonadi Foundation, Oakland Unite, and the California Endowment—all large state and national foundations that provide funding for non-profit organizations—and the Alameda County Probation Department.

Davis said that people tend to think of restorative justice as a contemporary way of resolving conflict, when “more than conflict resolution, it is actually a way of life, inspired by indigenous worldviews.” In the Bay Area, it is increasingly used in schools and among community groups. “Nine years ago, when RJOY began seeding restorative justice principles and practices in the Bay Area, very few people were familiar with the term. Today, it’s virtually a household term,” she wrote in an email to Oakland North. “In the time since RJOY’s founding, we have seen a burgeoning of restorative justice awareness and applications to provide pathways to opportunity instead of pipelines to prison for our youth.”

The day’s events were led by elders, all leaders in their communities or careers, and they came from what in native culture is referred to as the four directions: North American, South American, African, and Asian traditions. They included social workers, community organizers, performers, spiritual leaders, members of international indigenous people’s councils and professors who are translating their traditional knowledge into academia. Whether they were leading a workshop or the opening and closing ceremonies for the day, each of them shared their traditions and spiritual practices, strategies for building community and thoughts on providing alternatives to the existing justice system. This was the first time an event of this size and this theme took place in Oakland, bringing local community organizers and young people together with elders from around the nation.

According to Davis, connecting with indigenous roots shows young people that the practice of restorative justice is grounded in the history and culture of their own ancestors. “It allows them to remember who they are,” Davis wrote. “It helps them see that the shift to an ethic of deep community, love, and healing that restorative justice invites is something inextricably linked to their identity—to the deepest parts of who they are. The Elder-Youth intergenerational conversations are key.  The Elders are the bridge connecting the children to their ancestral ways.”

The event began with a blessing from the elders, who represented the Ohlone, Aleut, Hopi and Lakota native communities, as well as African American, Mayan, Chicano and Asian Pacific Island indigenous communities. Each elder led a part of the blessing through songs, drumming, and group prayers.

The blessing was followed by a short group Qi Kung session led by David Wei, an Oakland-based organizer who started Wudang West, a nonprofit ministry for people of all ages, which follows Daoist beliefs and integrates Qi Kung, an ancient Chinese martial art form. The Qi Kung session lasted about 15 minutes, allowing people to do what Wei calls a “body check-in,” or an exercise to stimulate the body and mind. “For some people there’s a buzz, for others there’s a warmth or tingling, but it is a gentle way to bring us back into being,” he said. The benefit of Qi Kung, Wei said, is providing a solution to trauma, a physiological condition for either a victim or offender.

After the opening ceremony, everyone was invited to a luncheon featuring traditional Native American foods including sweet corn and caramelized butternut squash. The meal was catered by Chef Crystal Wahpepah, a lifetime Oakland resident connected to the Kikapuh tribe of Oklahoma, and owner of Wahpepah’s Kitchen. She is the only Native American woman in Oakland to own and operate a catering business that serves traditional Native American dishes.

The entertainment during the feast included storytelling from African American and Ohlone traditions, Polynesian hula dancing and music, including drumming from around the world. After the feast, attendees broke out into one of five hour-long workshops. Each workshop was led by the elders including an Oakland-based Aztec dance group and a Lakota medicine woman. The workshops included topics like teaching young people discipline, respect and sobriety through Indigenous spirituality and Aztec dance, peacemaking in the Mayan tradition, and Lakota traditions to help restore family balance.

Maria Dominguez, a young organizer with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights who was there as an attendee, was happy that the theme for this event centered on indigenous knowledge. As she sees it, understanding that the concept comes from indigenous practices, could help anyone—whether they are the victim or offender—understand the interconnectedness of humanity. “As restorative justice becomes more prevalent in our communities we really can’t forget that this is rooted in indigenous practices,” said Dominguez.

For Davis, restorative justice continues to be an important practice in Oakland and the world at large. “RJOY uses restorative justice to create a culture of healing and connectivity for our youth while interrupting strategies of racialized mass incarceration,” she wrote. “Deep, ancestral healing work is the medicine our traumatized communities need to heal, especially the children.”


  1. Sanyika Bryant on November 22, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Excellent article!

  2. Sanyika Bryant on November 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm

    We need more articles covering this type of subject matter on Oakland North. Thank toy for publishing ir and keep them coming!

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