Peacemaking Circles: From Conflict to Community

From Conflict to Community

By Kay Pranis, Barry Stewart, and Mark Wedge

Living Justice PressSoftcover, 277 pp., indexed, 978-0-9721886-0-9, publication 2003



In this ground-breaking book, the authors outline both the spirit and the structures that make up the peacemaking Circle process as it is used in communities, schools, correctional settings, and in healing many other kinds of harms. Many stories of healing which have taken place in Circle settings are included, as well as observations from those who have been facilitating Circles for years.

A time-tested paradigm for healing relationships and keeping them healthy, Peacemaking Circles explores how communities can respond to crimes in ways that address the needs and interests of all those affected – victims, offenders, their families and friends, and the community. Based on indigenous teachings combined with current research in conflict resolution, the Circle process described here builds an intentionally safe space where we can bring our best selves to some of our most difficult conversations.

Though the book relates the process to criminal justice, the explanation of Circle philosophy and practice can be readily applied to hurts and conflicts in other areas of life. Above all, the book offers a grounded vision for how we can be together “in a good way,” especially when it seems hardest to do.

Vine Deloria, Jr. on Circles

“The book [Peacemaking Circles] reminds me of the way that the Plains Indians often settled their disputes. A council would meet and discuss the nature of the problem, or crime, and every one would speak to the issue. Then elders would ponder the problem for a long time—unless it was a particularly heinous crime—and finally a solution would be found. The elders, of course, always sat in a circle to remind people that we are all equals and all participants. I think that format was probably used by most tribal people. I can’t imagine a select group hearing a dispute and then rendering a quick judgment without causing great disruption in the community.

“The circle eliminates the feeling of institutional coercion and enables people who have been injured to heal themselves and also places the offender in a position where, to keep any sense of personal integrity, he or she has to live up to community standards. Everyone learns from the experience. Contrast that with our procedures today where the family of the injured person gets a chance to curse the offender after that person has been convicted and the family is further encouraged to announce publicly that they have been partially revenged. Here no one learns anything and the courtroom becomes merely an arena for institutionalized vengeance.”

—Vine Deloria, Jr., eminent Dakota scholar, author of God Is Red, Custer Died for Your Sins; Red Earth, White Lies; For This Land; Singing for a Spirit 

Vine Deloria, Jr. passed on November 13, 2005. His spirit and influence will be felt for many generations to come.

“The United States has more incarcerated people per capita than any other nation. More than two million are in prison, and millions more more families of inmates and victims are suffering. But, as prison construction and incarceration are booming, the statistics show a surge in violent crime for 2005. Clearly, the system is not working, but all lawmakers can suggest is even harsher sentences. Is it not a kind of psychosis to keep doing the same thing and expect different results?

“Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community presents an innovative way to move beyond the limitations of the current legal system to a community-oriented approach to justice that involves all those affected by the terrible injuries of crime. This process, which evolved out of the First Nation tradition of using Sacred Circles to solve community problems, can heal families devastated by crime and bring the affected community closer together.

“Peacemaking Circles accomplish this by shifting the focus of justice from “getting even” to “getting well,” for the offender, the victim, and the community. “[Circles] ask the victims what harm has been done as well as what can repair it and contribute to healing,” the authors write. “By participating in Circles, victims often feel less isolated by the pain caused by the crime and are gradually able to reintegrate with their families and communities.”

“The process is beneficial to the offender too. Circles provide many offenders with their first experience of respect earned without violence and of genuine concern and caring by others. Circles also help them realize their potentials and give them hope for the future.

“We treat each other in respectful and ultimately sacred ways because we see each person as part of the whole and indispenable to it,” one participant explained. “We also see ourselves as connected to all other beings, and so what happens to them affects us too. Our connectedness give us the responsibility to care for each other and to help mend the webs that hold us.

“I have volunteered in this field for over 20 years, establishing Circles in prisons in three states and several other countries, and can attest to thei power in reclaiming and restoring people to good lives in their communities. In similar programs I have run for over 20 years in 10 prisons, I know of only four people who returned to prison. In addition, I have often been told what one participant says in this book: ‘The Circle saved my life. Without it I would be dead by now.’

“Peacemaking Circles is a useful manual for anyone wanting to initiate such work, not only for sentencing but in other areas of concern, such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and dealing with youthful offenders and troubled children.

“Reading cannot capture the experience of a Circle. You must participate to truly understand. This book shows you how to do that. Most importantly, Peacemaking Circles urges us to become active in transforming our society and shows us how to counteract the isolation of the modern western world and restore real community that fosters our humanity, our creativity, and our ability to heal one another.”

YES Magazine, Winter 2007, reviewed by Manitonquat
Manitonquat (Medicine Story), a Wampanoag elder, is the author of five books, including The Circle Way and Changing the World.

“Peacemaking Circles: From [Conflict] to Community is an excellent foundation book that illuminates both the practice and philosophy behind peacemaking Circles. To begin, Kary Pranis, Barry Stuart, and Mark Wedge masterfully set the stage by relating “The Ugly Feather” story in order to show the Circle process at work. The remainder of the book is divided into seven chapters. The first chapter examines Circles as a paradigm shift away from the institutionalized coercion that typifies our present system of criminal justice, to one which sees conflicts as opportunities and seeks reintegration over stigmatization, punishment, and ostracism as end goals. The next three chapters look at the structure, the inner/outer frames, of Circles and how these frames come together in such a way to promote the healing of those gathered. The fifth chapter demonstrates that Circles are more than capable of dealing with crime as long as precautions are taken and follow-up is carried through. The final two chapters discuss the advantages that the Circles process promise outside the criminal justice setting due to the fact that “[t]hrough the Circle space, we begin to experience how we can be with each other differently, without the fears and defenses that the judge-and-punish framework [of society generally] instills in us.”

—Review in the International Journal of Restorative Justice, September 2007, reviewed by John Charlton

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