Recycling Lives: Feather Paintings to Restorative Justice (Guest: Kenneth Johnson)

BTSpotlightKen offered the link to this article on the Support Forum and allowed us to reprint it here. It appeared in, the blogsite for Ken’s publisher, Southern Yellow Pine Publishing. –JDS


KJohnsonphotoLife is all about change. It is said that the human body replaces itself every seven to ten years. Therefore, one could contend life, in many ways, is about discarding the unusable and dysfunctional to make way for the new and capable. Although this works well for cellular reproduction, it is a horrible construct for human society.

It’s no secret I have Native American heritage. While I am extremely proud of my linage, I don’t let it define my work. So, like many Americans, I have a segregated life where there is a Ken Johnson who is known to the world as a culturalist, a conflict specialist, and also an author. While this side of me is known to crack a joke or two, I make it a point to portray myself as a professional who’s very factual and driven.

On the other hand, my family knows the quirky and sometimes eclectic side of me, the man who is a husband, son, uncle or cousin. They know my overpowering love of pork, the outdoors, and all things fun, strange, weird and new. But there’s also a group, one I consider to be my extended family, that knows me simply as Awohali Galvlati Ugu –Principal Chief Soaring Eagle. This is the “young man with an old soul” who holds the passed-down knowledge and ways of the Florida Tribe of Cherokee Indians (knowledge concerning healing plants, history, hunting and fishing tactics, legends and mythology, etc.). It is also this side of me that’s known by some for my love of feather painting, a Native American art form.

American Indian culture embraces recycling and transformation. It should come as no shock that this philosophy is seen in many aspects of our life, including our artwork as well as our old system of justice. In fact, the American version of Restorative Justice is partly based on this philosophy and lifestyle.

Ken Johnson Feather3Giving Flight to the Outcasts
I mention all this to note how a discarded feather is, in many ways, no different than a wrongful offense that has taken place. Birds molt (discard) feathers when there is a change in the seasons, a change in life, or even stress or injury. In many ways, human society and American culture do this as well. When a wrongful offense is committed, governmental structure often steps in to “heal the wound” by first punishing and casting aside the offender while, in turn, ostracizing the victim. Evidence of this is seen in court cases where the offense is styled as “State of Florida vs John Smith” rather than “Jane Doe vs John Smith.” In essence, the state acts as the surrogate victim, taking the victimization rights from the true victim, while re-victimizing the person through an onerous process in which they have no say and often receive no justice.

Before I begin to paint on a feather, I first contemplate it. I look at characteristics like its shape, how it bends, the coloration, its original intended purpose, and any outward signs of damage. With my heart, I begin to speak to the feather to learn its story and “ask” what it wishes to become. (True, this might sound strange, but it is something artists often do.) Two feathers from the same location may end up being two very different paintings. For instance, one might be a colorful pelican perched atop a pole along the water, while another is a free-flowing, bioluminescent jellyfish lighting up the dark depths of the sea below.

KJohnsonbookIn Restorative Justice, facilitators like myself are presented with three different user groups, each with their own stories, issues, values and opinions. Naturally, there is a victim and an offender, but what people never think about is the third party to all this: the community.

Like with the feathers, heartfelt questioning needs to take place with each party. For instance, a victim might simply want to have a say in the matter and the harms repaired so he or she can have closure. Meanwhile, the offender could have unmet needs which preclude him or her from atoning for the misdeed and making amends. The community may have suffered due to a loss of productivity from the victim and the wrongful action of the offender, something that could result in and spur further misdeeds by troubled youths wanting to act out.

Like layers of paint on feathers, a careful Restorative Justice practitioner can use circles, mediation, conferences, panels and even justice circles to help bring everything back into balance. Victims are made whole so they can cast aside that awful title, and offenders do the same once they have atoned for their offenses. While having no official title of “victim” or “offender,” the community is made stronger by being made whole, and also by reassimilating two parties back into the fold.

Studies consistently have shown that Restorative Justice practices have a meaningful and transformative impact on the communities that use them. Rather than leaving behind the broken and discarded, it lifts up and makes whole those that were broken.

Like feather painting, Restorative Justice gives flight to the outcasts.

Ken Johnson is a private researcher, writer, lecturer, and consultant on issues of culture and conflict. Organizational architecture and anabolic (positive) conflict are just some of the key issues he investigates. Though written for the school system, his book, Unbroken Circles for Schools, has core concepts which can be applied to various life applications. (Click on the photo of the book above for more information.) To learn more about Ken and his work, CLICK HERE to visit his website.



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