A Law Seminar Whose Subject Is Older Than Recorded History

February 21, 2017
Chief Justice Robert Yazzi, Shawn Watts

Chief Justice Emeritus Robert Yazzi, Navajo Nation (seated at center), shares a story. Shawn Watts is to the right. Photo by Tamara Willliams\UNM School of Law

As a lecturer in law at Columbia Law School and associate director of the mediation program, Shawn Watts (Law’12) is well-versed in dispute-resolution techniques. He also brings another set of skills and experiences to the negotiating table: Native American peacemaking.

Watts is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. While a student at Columbia Law School, he learned about conventional mediation while nurturing an interest in Native American practices.

Those often include a peacemaking circle that seeks to restore the community to health. Native American dispute resolution is “tough on the issue, gentle on the person,” Watts explained. It aims to find the root causes of a problem and avoid a focus on blame.

“We are less looking at who is wrong than what is wrong,” he said. A respected elder in a peacemaking circle may pass around an eagle feather, woven basket or decorated talking stick to indicate speaking order. An initial ceremony may help create a sacred space in which participants sit.

“The goal is to restore relationships so that the circle becomes complete again,” Watts said. “The decision-makers in the circle are everyone, not a judge from on high.” In a dispute between a mother and father, for example, the circle might include grandparents from both sides of the family and all the children.

That approach differs from traditional U.S. practices, in which impartial mediators with no stake in the outcome are chosen, said Carol Liebman, a clinical professor of law and director of clinical education at the law school. “In other cultures, the only person allowed to mediate would be someone who is known to everyone and is part of that community.”

Watts has pursued this alternative path since his second year of law school, when he helped lead a spring break service project in Wisconsin, which has 11 federally recognized tribes. The project was a mobile clinic that wrote wills for Native Americans, and “every day we set up shop at a different reservation,” he said.

The following year, when Watts applied to the law school’s mediation clinic, he proposed a curriculum to teach traditional tribal dispute resolution at the law school level. Alexandra Carter (LAW’03), clinical professor of law and director of the clinic, encouraged him to pilot the program. Watts brought a judge from the Chickasaw Nation to Columbia and another from the Sac and Fox Nation. Each led training for a small group of students, who in turn visited the Chickasaw Nation.

Carter suggested to Watts that they turn the pilot into a course on Native American peacemaking and co-teach it. They began the class in 2013, while Watts was an associate in the finance and bankruptcy group at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton, a New York law firm where he also specialized in federal Indian law and tribal finance. (He is now at the law school full time.) The course includes a seminar with readings and role-playing exercises and participation in service projects for tribes.

“I send students out into the world,” Watts said. “It’s the multiplier effect.”

“Learning Native American peacemaking rounds out what it means to have a fully comprehensive legal education,” Watts said, adding that Columbia has been a pioneer in bringing Native American peacemaking into the field of legal studies.

Watts was president of the National Native American Law Students Association in 2011-12 and managing editor of the Law School’s Journal of Law and Social Problems. He has also mediated in New York City Civil Court and in Harlem Small Claims Court.

Last semester, Watts and Carter began teaching an advanced mediation clinic. They also teach conflict resolution and negotiation training at the United Nations, and an annual program in Japan for ambassadors to that country.

“Native American peacemaking is something that Indian people have been doing before history was recorded,” Watts said. “At the same time it’s a revolution in how we conceive of justice in the adversarial American system. It’s so traditional that it’s radical.”

—By Gary Shapiro