Manataka American Indian Council





Feather Paintings to

Restorative Justice: Recycling Lives

by Ken Johnson


Life 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. This may work great for cellular reproduction, but it is a horrible construct for human society.

It’s no secret that I have Native American heritage. While I am extremely proud of my lineage, 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 sometime 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, which I consider to be my extended family, who know 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. So, it should come as no shock that this philosophy is seen in many aspects of our life including, but not limited to, our artwork as well as our old system of justice – which the American version of Restorative Justice is somewhat based upon.

Giving Flight to the Outcasts
I bring all of this up to note how a discarded feather is, in many ways, no different than a wrongful offense taking place. Birds molt (discard) feathers when there’s a change in the seasons, a change in life, or even stress and injury. In many ways, human society, people, and American culture do this as well.


When a wrongful offense is committed, our governmental structure oft times steps in to “heal the wound” by first punishing and casting aside the offender while in-turn also ostracizing the victim. This latter functionality is more easily 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 a surrogate victim – taking all of the victimization rights from the true victim, while also re-victimizing the person again through an onerous process where they have no say and often receive no justice.


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

In Restorative Justice situations, we facilitators are presented with three different user groups with their own stories, issues, values, and opinions. Naturally, there is a victim and offender but what people never think about is the third party to all of this – the community. Like with the feathers, heart-felt questioning needs to take place with each party.


For instance, a victim may actually just want to have a say in the matter and the harms repaired so that he or she can get closure. Meanwhile, the offender may have unmet needs which preclude her or him 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, spurring further misdeeds to be done by troubled youths wanting to act out. Like layers of paint on feathers, a careful RJ practitioner can use circles, mediation, conferences, panels, and even justice circles to help bring everything back into balance. Victims are made whole so that they can cast aside that awful title, just as offenders do 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 re-assimilating two parties back into the fold.

Studies have consistently shown RJ 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 which are broken. Like feather paintings, RJ gives flight to the outcasts.

Ken Johnson, Author of Unbroken Circles for Schools
Awohali Galvlati Ugu
Florida Tribe of Cherokee Indians

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Graphics: Ken Johnson