Monday, September 26, 2011

Families and Resorative Justice

It might be interesting for the Museum of Culture and Environment at some point to develop an exhibition on restorative justice, with special attention to how families attempt to make amends for historical wrong-doing, or at least to enter into productive dialogue with other families with whom they are linked through historical bonds of suffering and injustice.

A fascinating article by Lynda Mapes in The Seattle Times (9/25/11) details efforts by descendants of American explorer William Clark (of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition) to "right a wrong" committed against the Chinook tribe of the Pacific Northwest.

During the winter of 1805-06, the Corps of Discovery stole a canoe belonging to the Chinook; now, over two centuries later, Clark's descendants have made partial restitution by presenting an elaborate ocean-going canoe to the Chinook nation. Mapes describes a quasi-private ceremony in which the canoe was carried by Clark family members, and then ritually cleansed by Chinook and Clark descendants with cedar boughs. This ritual event, initiated by a family in an act of atonement and apology, is all the more poignant given the long history of dispossession suffered by the Chinook Nation, and given the fact, noted by Mapes, that canoes were traditionally regarded by the Chinook as quasi-animate members of the family. (The complex"birth" of this repatriated canoe is described in the event's website, at:   )

It occurs to me that this remarkable ritual event is exemplary of a broader recent pattern in restorative justice activities, in which family members have sought to make amends for the unjust acts of their ancestors. This phenomenon is related to the forms of institutional apology or historical reflection explored in my book The Accidental Slaveowner (which details the recent 'statement of regret" by the Emory University Board of Trustees for the institution's 'entwinement' with slavery). Yet these more private acts carry a special kind of force precisely because they are carried out by family networks, and involve such close person-to-person transactions and dialogue. 

Perhaps the most prominent examples in the U.S. of family-to-family restorative justice have taken place under the rubric of the remarkable grass-roots organization, "Coming to the Table,"

Descendants of slave-owning and enslaved families, in many cases distant cousins to one another, have engaged in difficult dialogues about the legacies of slavery and racial injustice in American society. Some of these conversations have been held in public or are documented on the group's website; others proceed in relative privacy.  

I don't know of a comparable event to the Clark repatriation of the canoe, among or between the Coming to the Table families. In the Clark-Chinook case, after all, there was a specific wrong on a specifiable date, that could be symbolized and partially righted by the 'return' of a specific object. In the case of chattel slavery, the histories of injustice and suffering are so vast it is difficult to imagine any specific act of restoration that would seem appropriate. (Hence, the intensity of debates around the Reparations movement; how can historical debts associated with slavery possibly be repaid?)  Rather, the work of social healing that takes place in the shadow of  chattel slavery seems continuous and piecemeal; attending family reunions across lines of race, helping to restore one another's family cemeteries, and so forth.  (In chapter two of The Accidental Slaveowner I  describe an important act of family-to-family restorative justice, which seems to have been only partially conscious; an elderly white descendant of a slaveowner gifts a house to her African American cousin, herself the descendant of that slaveowner and an enslaved woman.)

For all their differences, these family-to-family exchanges may be thought of as an outgrowth of the widespread turn to genealogy in the wake of the publication of Alex Haley's Roots in the 1976 as well as an emerging global sensibility that moral citizenship demands historical accountability for wrongs committed in the past.   These exchanges, of houses, canoes, or of dialogue, speak to the ambiguous nature of the extended family in modern society.  Most of the time, the modern extended family is conceived of as an object of pride often ignored or relegated to the background, yet periodically celebrated in family reunions.  Yet in recent years we have seen a growing tendency (by no means dominant) to conceive of extended families as ethical entities, who can in a sense settle moral debts with one another.  Curiously, this tendency would seem to mark a partial return to a premodern conception of the family, as a corporate person that functioned as a legal entity--and which would thus pay 'blood money' to another family for crimes committed by one of its members. Modern family-based instances of restorative justice are rather different, to be sure, but some of the older sensibility (of the family as a debt-accruing and debt-discharging entity) would seem to endure.

I'm not quite sure what an exhibition on families and restorative justice might look like.  If there were a number of physical objects that were exchanged among families, bearing complex memories of historical injustice, then they might serve as foci of the show.  

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