Ending Violent CrimeIntroduction | Prologue | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Epilogue
An Elder's Notes
Medicine Story: Notes from over the years 1974 - 1996:
1974: From my first encounter in prison, meeting with the Brotherhood of American Indians at MacNeill Island, I knew there was something terribly wrong with a society that could forsake such men. They were not "bad" people, only ordinary men caught in an evil machine. They were victims of society, of social institutions, as were all those who had mistreated them or betrayed them, the vicious enforcers and the incompetent attorneys. But society was compounding its sins against these men. It was delivering them up to institutions that were even worse than those of the "free" society. And then it turned its back on them. These good Native men had been forsaken and forgotten by the world.
1984: Now we come into such a house of fear and offer a circle. It's free. It's open. Anyone who is interested can come and try it out. So out of curiosity men come, and it seems a little strange to them, burning a smudge and holding hands for a prayer. But they sit and wait, and then the talking stick goes around. I and whatever other elders may have come will begin speaking. We speak about the circle. We speak about healing ways. We speak about different things that will give them information. And we say, "Let's speak about what's in our hearts - our feelings." And each man holding the talking stick is asked only to be honest. And the others who are listening are asked only to be respectful of the person holding the talking stick and to give attention.
Then, a very strange and wonderful thing happens. A man holds the talking stick and he has never before in his life been listened to with respect, He has never been able to be honest before. Now he tries a little bit of honesty, he tells some of his feelings, and it's all right. Everybody says, "Yes. We still love you. We understand how you feel. We feel that way sometimes."
And little by little, as each one is heard, and week after week all get a chance to express themselves, they begin to say things that they have never said to any other human being. They begin to open up their hearts, and they begin to see that they are not bad people as they had always been told. They are people who have been hurt by a bad system and who have done the best they could in trying to survive it. Now they see there are better ways to survive that won't put them back in prison. The system of fear won't allow them to see that. It has to be a system of love that makes them begin to love themselves, makes them begin to find a way to survive in a world of fear by being in a circle in which everyone protects and supports each other.
1986: How can I describe the power of this work for me? There are men and women so chewed up by the brutality of their lives that they hate the law, hate straight society, hate themselves and hate everybody else. And here am I, knowing that under that crushing load they are all wonderful, loving, intelligent, creative human beings, capable of healing, capable of devotion, capable of joy.
Most of the men have felt totally unsafe even to admit to themselves that they have feelings. In the culture of prison, as much or even more than on the street, it is a sign of weakness to show any feeling other than anger. The circle, with its rule of respect and confidentiality, becomes a safe place to put away masks and armor. The men find that they and their feelings are acceptable and understandable. They encourage each other to open, to discharge, and are applauded for doing so. The opening of feelings and discharge is even deeper in the RC class, which is smaller (usually between 6 and 12) and demands a greater commitment to each other. They tell their life stories, recall painful, abusive early memories, admit of mistreatment and mistreating others.
This takes a very high level of trust, and I am touched by it, because they have absolutely no experience of trust of confidentiality in their lives, not with family or friends, and not with professional counselors. Each one has his own favorite stories of betrayal of confidentiality by lawyers and psychologists and counselors - so much for the realities of "professional ethics". They are really using counseling attitudes and theory in relating to each other, and, most notably, in moving deliberately away from hostile encounters with other inmates and guards, staying relaxed, keeping attention away from distress, understanding their families and relationships on the outside, and especially in beginning to feel good about themselves. Most of what I aim for is self-appreciation and pride - it's the major contradiction for everyone in prison.
Time after time I've heard one take the stick and say, "You know, I've never felt any love in my life before. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know it existed. I thought it was made up, something people wrote books about or made movies about for money. But now I know that it'[s true. I never had a family in my
life - not a real family. Now for the first time I have a family. You men are my brothers, and I love you. I would do anything for you. This is something that I never felt before, but it's real." And they say, "I want to change my life. I don't want to come back here again." Everybody encourages everybody else. They say, "Don't you dare come back to prison again."
1987: My prison work continues to be the most important and satisfying learning for me. There is such brilliance and creativity and such human goodness buried under such mountains of accumulated social and personal distress in our prisons, that watching just a little of that emerge is exhilarating and inspiring. Learning theories of human nature and patterns for survival, and especially about oppression and liberation issues have been a great revelation to these men, and comes simultaneously with their being listened to and respected for the first time in their lives.
1988: Some time ago one of my favorite prisoners, a tough but honest and real young black and Puerto Rican man, told about how he had initially come to the group "just to get out of lock-up". He said he didn't know anything about the things we were talking about, but he could see one thing, that the people in this circle were real, the most real that he had ever encountered. On the streets where he grew up and in the prison it is too dangerous to be completely yourself. You have to create an image to front for you. But here he heard people saying what they really felt, talking about their fears, getting angry, even weeping openly when they were moved. It made a profound effect on his life. His whole thinking changed. In a recent confrontation with another inmate he related, "Everything in my life had taught me that, knowing he had a knife and was out to get me, I should strike first. But for some reason I didn't. For the first time I hesitated and thought. I wasn't sure what was right. I looked into his eyes, and I saw fear. I saw myself. I saw my own fear reflected there and knew what he was feeling. I remembered all that Slow Turtle and Medicine Story have told us, and right there, in front of all his friends, I turned my back on him and walked away. I knew that he could hit me right there, because that's what the streets have taught us. That's survival. I knew how everyone might think me weak, but I knew how much strength it took to do that. I went back to my cell and stayed up all night, crying and shaking."
This good brother no longer does drugs of any kind, is thoughtful about his health and strength, and is eager to start a circle when he gets out, with my help, to reach out to young people, to give them the benefits he has found in our circle, and to help them to escape the life of drugs and crime that brought him to prison. He and others in the circle are often harassed by both inmates and guards who mistake their new consciousness for weakness, but through it all they have remained united, strong, and non-violent.
1989: The men in prison are very interested to get my picture of oppression. Of course, they have always known that things are very wrong in the world, but this is the first glimpse they have had as to how that works and of the fact that they are not bad or stupid people who couldn't make a good system work for them. They have even begun to understand, some of them, that guards and cops are also human and hurt by the same system or they never would have assumed oppressive roles. Now, even though most of them figure to be in for quite a long time, they are beginning to think about how to create a life on the outside and how to find and build support for themselves. These are wholly new ideas but light bulbs are going off all over the place, and a lot of discharge is happening. They are very grateful for the sweat lodge, which makes that discharge easy and accepted.
1991: I met a few times with the prison support group, the people who exert the pressure to get us into the prisons and help with what we need. We had a Green Corn Festival in both prisons, and the support group joined us. We had each of the men select a support group member to do a mini with, and that was a very powerful experience for them. The group members are largely terrified of coming into the prison, especially the women, who have a lot of material out of their lives around male violence, breaking through that terror to come in and then seeing these sensitive, caring men in our circle has done wonders for them. We have begun to bring three of them into the prison with us once a month, and that has been very good for them and the inmates. I also had the support group come to my house and gave them an experience of the sweat lodge ceremony, which not only gave them a good idea of what happens for the men in the sweat, but also gave them a place for discharge, vision, and commitment, and also brought them all closer together as a group. It was an experience they agreed they would not forget, and everyone left in a glow.
1993: All the men have changed markedly through this class. Most of them have felt totally unsafe to even admit to themselves they have feelings, and all have begun, little by little, to feel the safety and the healing of opening some of their feelings in the class. It takes a very high level of trust, and I am touched by it, because they have absolutely no experience of trust or confidentiality in their lives, not with family or friends, not with professional counselors (each one has his own favorite stories of betrayal of confidentiality by lawyers and psychologists and counselors). They are really using counseling attitudes and theory in relating to each other, and, most notably, in moving deliberately away from hostile encounters with other inmates and guards, staying relaxed, keeping attention away from distress, understanding their families and relationships on the outside, and especially in beginning to feel good about themselves. Most of what I aim for is self-appreciation and pride - it's the major contradiction for everyone in prison.
1994: A few years ago my oldest son, Tokeem, (seeing that my time was taken up more and more with this free work for prisoners and knowing how pinched I always am for money) asked me, "Why don't you quit these prisons and get some work for money?" My answer was to the effect that I am always open to more speaking engagements, storytelling performances, leading workshops, but that this prison work was spiritually fulfilling for me. I think he came to understand that, because a few years later he told me he thought it was a very good thing I was doing and he was glad I was doing that work.
1995: The class we had for many years in Re-evaluation Counseling extended the circle. Here the prisoners got to learn basic counseling theory, watch demonstrations of counseling, practice their own counseling skills, and further explore the scary world of discharge. They learned that they could allow themselves to feel feelings which are terrifying and painful and enraging, and that they would not go crazy or get bummed out forever, but would actually relieve themselves of old burdens, gain more power, and think more clearly. They began to use their new skills with other inmates, with guards, with their families. And they began to envision taking leadership on the outside, creating circles, counseling, helping young people stay out of trouble and out of prison. In short, they began to see the possibilities of staying in the spirit (actual Reality) and changing the world.
So that's a little glimpse of the healing power of the Native circle in prison.
(Reprinted from Heritage)