The good, the bad and the jail

by Mitakuye Oyasin

Something isn't right! White civilization in 1999 may be the Nirvana of capitalists, investment freaks and lovers of micro-chIps, and numbers masturbators may even be able to point to reduction in crime, but something isn't adding up right. New prisons and bigger jails tell me another story. All across the nation, prisons are bursting at the seams, jails are overcrowded, and juvenile detention centers are being expanded or replaced with larger facilities. At a time of prosperity unmatched in the history of America, the incarceration industry is also booming.

When European explorers first discovered Turtle Island, they thought they were bringing vast improvements to a continent that had done quite well without them for over 10,000 years. One thing they did not mind was a jail or a prison.

This is not meant to imply that my ancestors always behaved themselves. There were tines when a liar or a thief or a murderer had to be dealt with. You can imagine that, in a society without locks or doors to put them on, a thief could not be tolerated. The only exception to this was the theft of food, because food was always freely given to anyone who was hungry. Thievery or anything else was a disgrace and the culprit would be branded with that stigma for life, not a pleasant situation for anyone whose membership in a tribe was the most important foundation in his existence.

The moral law of a tribe also extended to anyone caught in a lie. Ohiyesa points out that, in the days before the arrival of the white man, ''lying was a capital offense. Because we believed that the deliberate liar is capable of committing any crime behind the screen of cowardly untruth and double dealing, the destroyer of mutual confidence was summarily put to death, that the evil might go no further.''

This is a far cry from modern society where it is assumed that everybody lies. Keep in mind, however, that Bill Clinton would not have been put to death for lying about his sex life because my ancestors would have had better manners than to ask about it in the first place. In the second place, my ancestors had more to think about than sex and more to do than feed their sexual appetites like candy addicts in a chocolate factory. They were busy living.

On rare occasions, the council of the tribe had to deal with the grave offense of murder. Sometimes the slayer would be called upon to pay for his offense with his own life. Ohiyesa tells us that when this occurred, ''the murderer made no attempt to escape or evade justice. That the crime was committed in the depths of the forest or at dead of night, witnessed by no human eye, made no difference to his mind. He was thoroughly convinced that all is known to the Great Mystery, and hence did not hesitate to give himself up, to stand trial by the old and wise men of the victim's clan.

''Even his own family and clan might by no means attempt to excuse or to defend him. But his judges took all the known circumstances into consideration, and if it appeared that he slew in self defense, or that the provocation was severe, he might be set free after a thirty days' period of mourning in solitude. This ceremonial mourning was a sign of reverence for the departed spirit

''If there were no circumstances justifying the slaying, the murdered man's next of kin were authorized to take the murderer's life. If they refrained from doing so, as often happened, he remained an outcast from the clan.''

So crime did exist when tribal law was the only law. But it was not pervasive. There was no need for a policeman to be present while the children played games or, in modern language, went to school. Drugs and alcohol were non-existent. Child abuse was unheard of. There were no muggers around. Major crimes were dealt with quickly and fairly, and seldom occurred.


One major change has occurred within my lifetime that has had an impact on crime. The family is an endangered species. In the days of my ancestors, the family was the reason for existence and the guarantee of a future for the tribe. If, for any reason, the family stopped functioning, then the extended family took over. Everything was in and for the tribe, and the most important asset of the tribe was the child. The safety and well-being of the children was the primary function of the tribe, and no child grew up feeling unimportant or unwanted.

Stop me if I am wrong, but I don't think that is the case today. Children are being dumped into day care at the first opportunity. When that's over, they are dumped into school. When they come home, if anybody is home, they have to compete with television and/or internet for any attention. Single parents abound, and when they get home, they are faced with a job of parenting that is meant for two and often strains the efforts and resources of both.

Gangs have become the families of these lost children. Drugs and crime follow. Those who survive to adulthood replicate their own backgrounds of addiction, abuse, abandonment, neglect, and betrayal. Take a walk through your own community. You may not like what you see. The hope of tomorrow is in trouble.

Bigger jails? More prisons? Enlarged juvenile facilities? If these could stop crime, we wouldn't have any crime to worry about. They are more bandaids than solutions.

Build families. Save the children. It may not put an end to crime, but it would put an end to one of the biggest crimes of American society.

Uploaded to The Zephyr website April 15, 1999

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