Young Navajo offenders would be better served under traditional Navajo law, according to a Kansas University student who this month will receive the school's first master's degree in a program that focuses on indigenous nations.
Christine Wittenbach, of Rochester Hills, Mich., said Navajos focus on staying "in balance," and their laws are passed orally from one generation to the next. The different cultures often clash, she said.
"A law enforcement officer may think a child is being disrespectful by not giving eye contact. But in the Navajo culture, that is a sign of respect," she said.
Navajos have a lot to offer in the treatment of troubled youth, she said. Their culture is more focused on the causes of a youth's behavior instead of simply punishing them.
And, she said, Navajos are more concerned about the victims of crime, and how to make things right with them.
After receiving her degree, Wittenbach plans to work at the Four Corners Home for Children near the Navajo Reservation in Farmington, N.M., where she was an intern.
During her internship, she wrote a paper on a proposal that argued that a return to traditional Navajo law would help prevent chronic juvenile offenders among the Navajo.
Wittenbach was in the first class of eight students admitted in 1998 to KU's cross-disciplinary master's degree program on indigenous peoples in the Americas.
She finished the two-year program in 18 months.
She came to KU after earning a bachelor of arts degree in family science from Anderson University in Anderson, Ind.