Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
A New Category
The world-view of native people differs significantly from that of most of the dominant culture, especially that of governmental and bureaucratic thinking. One particular difference should be noted before we go any further in describing the programs we have initiated through our Prison Project. In the corrections systems everything must have a category, must fit into a category that is recognized by the administration. This is necessary to them so that there will be an office and a responsible person to oversee the project. So a program for prisoners must come under the heading of, for instance, religion, in which case it will fall under the jurisdiction of the chaplain of the institution, or education, under the jurisdiction of the prison school program, or under culture, where it will be in the province of the recreation or program director, or under therapy, which is the domain of the director of counseling, or mental health, which is directed by the medical department.
Each of these departments have different guidelines and rules which must be followed by any outside program. For instance, in two of the prisons we serve, our program is called cultural, and under those guidelines the men can carry on their own meetings without a leader from the outside. In the other institutions the program falls in the category of religion and must have a leader from the outside present in order for the circle to be convened. There are variations there too - in two of the prisons, because guards are assigned to the sweat lodge times, the men can conduct their own sweats without outside elders, and in the other two prisons where we have sweats they cannot have them without us even though guards are available. Each prison will have its own regulations about the programs in addition to the overall guidelines set down by the state corrections or federal justice departments.
The dilemma this presents for us is that we don't think in such categories, and our ways do not fit neatly into any of them. And that is indeed one of the principle reasons for the strength of our programs. We are not dealing with only part of a person, trying to teach him a skill, or to mend his soul, or to explore cultural traditions, or to share problems and vent feelings. We are interested in reclaiming the whole person, putting attention on every aspect of human existence, helping a person turn his or her life around and become a full human being again. So it is not easy for us to squeeze ourselves into the limitations of institutional categories. We figure out how to do it as best we can, and in the process I think we have expanded the understanding of a number of administrations and staff personnel.
The entry point for our programs in Connecticut in 1983 was through the First Amendment to the US Constitution, providing for freedom of religion. Since prisoners should not be deprived of their rights under this amendment, and since we had native people in the prisons who did not have access to an elder, medicine person or spiritual teacher or to performing any rites sacred to them, Beech Tree Medicine Society, the organization which sponsored us originally was able to convince the governor and attorney general of the state that our spiritual people should be allowed access to our constituents in the prisons. The case was initiated by the request of a native man in the then maximum security prison at Somers, CT, and so our first circle was held there. It was led by Slow Turtle, supreme medicine man of the Wampanoag Nation, with the assistance of gkesedtanamoogk, then medicine man of the Mashpee Wampanoag, and Ed Sarabia, a Tlinkit and Director of Indian Affairs for the State of Connecticut. Therefore our program there is considered religious and falls under the chaplain's overseeing.
This makes for a misunderstanding for many administrations and chaplains and some of the men who are not in the program. We emphasize that we are not a religion. We have no creeds, no dogma, no sacred scripture, no temples, no hierarchy of priests, and each person may make his own direct relationship to the Divine. We say it is not a religion but a spiritual path. This path we find through direct relationship with nature and with each other in a circle. We are neither a religion nor are we anti-religion. We encourage spiritual growth and seeking, as a whole human being must be aware of more than himself, that there is a vast mystery beyond our consciousness to which we must have some relation. We remind everyone in the circle that religion is a matter of each person's private conscience, and we respect everyone's religion. Thus we have in our circles some who follow only their own direct connection to Creation and the Creator, and others who are members of established religions, and others who are atheists or agnostics. We do not ask to know their personal religion, but many tell us, are proud to be Catholic or Baptist or Muslim or Jewish, or followers of some eastern mysticism or even confirmed religious Pagans. Neither they nor the elders find any conflict between their religions and the way of the circle. You may understand the reason for this when you read the next chapter about the circle. Our native people, however, are glad when our medicine people and elders are accorded the same respect as the chaplains of other traditions.
In Massachusetts the circle is considered a culture group, which is good, because then they are able to hold their circles even when I am unable to come. Of course the men are very happy when we are able to come, so I make an effort to come once or twice a month at least. We all need connection with our elders. When I was younger I spent much of my time searching out the elders and listening to them. Now that most of them are gone and I have become an elder, I feel the need to go to those who cannot come to me, to our forgotten relatives in the prisons. The drawback in some of these prisons has been that the administration has sometimes been overly concerned that all the participants are truly Native American. They wanted some official assurance, like a tribal roll number. This is not our way.
Also, as an elder, I myself am not too much interested in teaching the specifics of my own culture to others, although I will do that with our own people. But when our many nations and cultures and creeds gather together, what concerns me is what we have in common. We are a common race, the human race, and as a race we are doing terrible things to each other and to the Earth, our mother, and to other life forms, our relatives. We need to explore beyond our cultures, beyond our religions, beyond our scientific and academic learning. We need to inquire into the depths of our hearts and spirits as human beings and cure ourselves of our terrible sickness, our violence, our greed, our hatred, our selfishness, our lack of respect and caring for other beings. These matters are of importance to everyone, to the prisoners as much as anyone else. To consider them is the beginning of healing.
When at the inception of the circle Slow Turtle was asked by the warden at Somers how would he know who was Indian, Slow Turtle said that the circle was open to all who came respectfully for whatever reason or interest. He said it is not our way to discriminate because of race, creed, gender, or nationality, or in any way. He said he was sure the Jews were not asked to produce evidence that they were born Jewish and would probably welcome any interested gentile, and that was no doubt true of all other groups.
So we have people of many heritages in our circles. Only a few of them have been born and raised within a native community. Many more are aware that they have some Indian blood on at least one side of their families, but have little knowledge of this heritage and wish to learn. Some have no native blood at all, are proudly of Irish or Italian or Polish or mixed heritages, but relate strongly to the natural spiritual ways and the closeness to Mother Earth, and feel at home in the circle. This is in line with what we have been taught by our elders, that our ways are not "Indian" ways but human being ways.
This writing is to inform the general public about this successful way of working with prisoners. My hope is that when enough people learn about our program there will be some who want to work with it, to create organizations to expand the work, to train other groups in the work, and to extend it beyond the prisons and into communities.
I would also like to add here that there is one other excellent program available for prisoners at this time. This is the Alternatives to Violence Program which is presented as a volunteer program by the Society of Friends (Quakers). The fundamental assumptions about human beings and the ways of working with and supporting prisoners, giving them information, opportunities and safety to express feelings and try out new ways to deal with conflict and emotions, all these are very similar to our approach. And as far as I am able to tell, AVP works very well. Men in our circle speak very highly of their experiences with AVP and relate them to their experience of our circles. The main difference is that AVP is a workshop which happens over a day or a weekend, and hopefully may be repeated at a later time for greater advancement, but the circle is a regular weekly program that men grow with over months and years. So of course I would like to see AVP supported as well, and have the personnel and funds to be a regular program the prisoners can depend upon, monthly, if not weekly, in every prison.
I realize that I have been using "men" interchangeably with "prisoners" as I write. We have presented programs in women's prisons in the past, but have none at this time. In one state the women's prison allowed our women to come in for a single presentation, but were not open to beginning an ongoing program. In another state we did get a circle in the women's prison for about a year. It was eventually dropped when the administration prevented one of our elder women from entering. Our experience was that the women in general were in for very short terms, and were not in the circle long enough to establish a close bond among all the women there. The circle had some strong cliques and couples who kept themselves from being too close with the others, and one real "loner" who was a life-termer. The women did appreciate it, but the circle changed so much every time it seemed few were getting a real advantage out of it, and we decided it was not worth the struggle with the administration. We do maintain contact with a few women in prison by mail.
If a circle were really well supported by the prison, I still think we could work it out to have a strong women's program. But the fact is that there are very few women proportionate to men in prison. Most of the women are incarcerated because of men, following their lovers in illegal acts of drugs and robbery, being turned out for prostitution, or in many cases not having an attorney able to convince a jury that killing or wounding an abusive man was self-defense. By far the greater amount of violence in the world is perpetrated by men, and if we can solve the problem of violence among men, I don't think we will have that problem with women any longer.
Because of the fact we do have in our program so many men from different cultures, including sometimes some from Africa and the Near East as well as Europe and Latin America I am convinced that this program can be made to work in any nation for people of all backgrounds. Our aim is to go beyond cultural conditioning and national history, to get down into the essence of what it is to be a human being, what it means to be a man alive on this earth at this time. Our way is based on very ancient ideas and ways that were common among all peoples at one time.
We have developed this way within the prisons, keeping in mind their specific history and needs, but allowing them to learn and grow and heal and get control of their feelings, thoughts and actions. Human feelings are human feelings, and all human beings are more alike than they are different, when we get past our superficial cultural differences. I am assured by the variety of races, creeds, and ethnic backgrounds of people in our circles that our way is indeed a human-being way, and can be made applicable to any prisoner in any prison in the world. From my work in the world outside of prison, with many people in many cultures around the world, I am also convinced that this way could be the strongest resource in helping our young people today and in combating crime in society.So perhaps we need to think about a new category for our bureaucracies to deal with this way. Maybe we should have a category called "The Whole Person" or "The Human Being".