Traditional Peacemakers


In her role as child support director for the Chippewa Cree Tribe, Brenda Gardipee sees more than 250 cases a year of child support and custodial disputes on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. The cases go through tribal courts in adversary proceedings. She was looking for a new way to handle such cases, suspecting that many times mediation would work to the betterment of both parents and especially for the children. Instead of a new way to accomplish this goal, she is resurrecting an old way. For almost two years, she has been working on creating a Traditional Peacemaker Circle on the reservation. Under the plan, tribal elders listen to both sides in a family dispute case. Legal counsel gives advice to the Tribal leaders, but they work with both sides to come up with a way to settle the problems. A pool of Tribal leaders is compiled, and three are chosen for each case, she said. The first case came before the Traditional Peacemaker Circle Tuesday. In that case, she said, tribal elders discussed the difficulties with the mother and father. "They explained the traditional child-rearing practices of the Tribe," she said. The father seemed to be aware that he had not lived up to his responsibilities, she said. The session lasted much longer than anticipated, and it seemed to be successful, she said. At the end of the proceedings, both sides seemed pleased. Gardipee said there are many cases when the traditional Tribal practices will be helpful in resolving problems. As an example, she said a tribal court may have ordered The non-custodial parent, usually the father, to pay $200 per month in child support. If the father is unable to make payment, the Traditional Peacemaker Circle may work with the parents to come up with an acceptable settlement. For instance, she said, the father might agree to pay $100 per month in cash, with the rest coming in firewood or something else the mother might find necessary. The elders might also work out ways to improve the relationship between the parents, she said. "Many times, the mother might feel that the father is not doing his part," she said. Maybe the father is not visiting the children, or not picking them up on time. Parental visitation is vital she said. It is important for the child to have contact with both parents, she said. And it is important that the mother have some time to herself. The concept behind circle goes back to traditional Native American ways, she said, which is why she believes it will be successful. The system can also be used for other civil matters, such as probates, she said. Developing the system took some time as the tribe worked its way through the legal system. The program launched on Tuesday was nearly two years in the making, she said. Attorney Dan Berlcourt has helped clear the legal hurdles to get the project under way. And Donald "Del" Lavendure, then an attorney for the Crow Tribe, worked with Gardipee, providing information on how other tribes have provided similar services. Lavendure is now a high-ranking official with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington. Gardipee said she is excited about the program because it helps young people by reinvigorating the traditional tribal methods of dealing with problems. "I think it's going to be better for a lot of people," she said. The high unemployment rate on the reservation makes it difficult for many noncustodial parents to make payments. The circle will help them make alternative payments. Working things out is always better than facing a direct order from the judge, she said One of the first people to take part in the program said "going before the elders is much better than being ordered by the tribal court," she recalled.


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