CRIME & PUNISHMENT — Native American Style


Thought I’d introduce a brand new topic today — I know that I still have clothing to talk about on the Survival theme.  But this has caught my attention today. 

Now probably the first thing to know about Native American history is that there was very little crime.  Perhaps crime and punishment go with Western Industrial-type nations.  I don’t know.  But this I can say — in all my research, time and time again travelers to the outermost regions of Native America commented on how honest and how little crime existed.

Probably the first thing to realize is that there were no jails.  I once saw a Native American movie where the Indians put a white man in jail for crimes involving shooting and killing and such.  Hilarious!  Sorry, they didn’t have them. 

So what did they do if one of their own committed a crime — like murder? 

All tribes were different, but in matters like murder, the family or the clan usually dealt with the murderer.  Often the person guilty of the crime was “sentenced” to go away from the tribe and try to make it on his own — which in the long ago past, was almost a testiment to a death sentence.  In the Lakota tribe there is a reference in the book, WATER LILY, about the offender having to make restitution with the family by taking the place of the dearly departed.  Usually such people were so happy to not be put out of the tribe, that they became the best family members of all.   Imagine if this were so in our society today?  That the offender had to make restitution with the family for his acts of violence?  What do you think might be the result?  Less crime, perhaps?

This is one of the closest pictures I could get to an actual jail — which Native Americans didn’t have, by the way.   Anyway, there were other punishments, some of them performed by various societies.   In the Creek society, as well as the Blackfeet, the crime of adultery (for women only) was a cut off nose — the tip of the nose.  This was usually performed at the request of the offending husband and was done by the society that he belonged to.   There are several accounts on file of what happened to Indians who were forced into jail for the first time.  Because such things were unknown to them, it seemed unusually cruel to them.

You might ask what in the world does this picture have to do with crime and punishment or even Native America.  Well, not much, except that I believe this man is on the covers of many Historical Indian books.  He sure is terrific, isn’t he?  As far as stealing is concerned, it was almost unheard of.  George Catlin remarked that in all his travels in Native America he had never had one single thing taken from him, or even a hand lifted against him.  In truth, one young man made quite a journey to join Catlin in order to return to him some of his property.  However, if stealing had been done, the offending party again made restitution with the “victim” by supplying them with whatever they needed in return.  Seems a much simplier process, doesn’t it?  Make up the damage one has done to the person who has been harmed, himself.

This doesn’t say that there was not savagery in Native America.  Tales are ripe in the New England areas and Texas areas of the crueltry that can be played upon a victim.  To one’s enemies, honesty, forthrightfulness, integrity was not shown, nor given, nor ever expected.  In truth, fair game might describe the way Native Americans treated the enemy.  Occasionally mercy was shown to an enemy victim and there are many, many stories to this in our accounts of history.  But as far as crime to one’s fellow tribe members or one’s family, it truly was a rare occurrance.  So much so that often such accounts were used to tell the passing of the years.

One more comment I should make before we close this subject.  Besides almost non-existent crime, there was also no poverty.  Some people were more prosperous than others — such has always been the case amongst a people.  But no one went hungry when there was food to be had within the tribe, nor did anyone go without.  And if a culture is known by its humanity towards others and the material condition of its people, then I would have to say that Native America was, indeed, a culture to be proud.

So, tell me, what are your thoughts on crime and punishment?  What do you think of jails?  Of common law?  Of justice?  Can man be trusted with justice?  Oh, and don’t forget, if you haven’t yet got your copy of my latest book, THE LAST WARRIOR, please be sure to pick one up today.  Just click on the link below.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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31 thoughts on “CRIME & PUNISHMENT — Native American Style”

  1. My comments on crime. When I moved to the Ozarks, one only saw the kindest of the people here helping one another. But the longer I’ve been here and with my husband being a Deputy, I am seeing more of the other side. Just this week a son killed his brother because his Dad and his brother were arguing over property rights. The Hatfield and McCoys were know for fighting over property. It still goes on in these parts. Ron says the worse call to get is a domestic call or families fueding.
    If we look at the First Thanksgiving as they portray it in history, the Indians and Pilgrims were helping each other and thankful for the bounty. The Indians helped the pilgrims upon their arrival here. Had they know what they future held, it might have been different.
    Hello from a friend who hasn’t heard from you in awhile.

  2. I really enoyed this Karen! I think Native Americans had it figured out as far as how to live in a society goes! Looking back on lots of there practices and beliefs, you can really see that they had a great way of life and a true sense of family..of honor and tradition.

    I think today’s punishments for crime are sometimes not fair and then sometimes not harsh enough….lots of times I think they get it backwards and dont fit the punishment to the crime!

    oh.and BTW: that’s Nathan Kamp and yes indeed-he does appear on lots of book covers-with quite a few of those being novels about Native Americans! Such a beautiful sight to wake up to this morning!! LOL

  3. Hi Karen – great post. I think what’s wrong with our criminal justice system today is that there is no ‘rehabilitation’. The criminal hasn’t ‘learned’ anything, so once s/he has been released, they can easily go back to what they know and haven’t changed the way they interact with others.

    The idea of making amends, and changing situations is the way to go.

  4. Hi Kay! Great post as always. And as always, I wonder why societies go so easy on male adulterers. (Not that I approve of adultery for anybody, but be fair LOL.) I agree with Melissa…also, our justice system seems far more engaged in the criminal’s “rights” than the victim.

    Perhaps in cultures where one had to work constantly to survive, there was little time for mischief and crime. Dunno. But I would not like having the “perp” living with my family. Yikes.

    Good start to my day, Kay! Adam Beach AND great information.

  5. We could learn a lot from Native Americans. What a wise society, especially at a time when our own society seems so out of control. Thanks for a great blog, Karen. And I always have to look for that great Adam B. photo. The other guy isn’t bad either.
    Who’s seen Appaloosa? The Apache leader in the movie is gorgeous! And all we get is a glimpse of him.

  6. Hi Jane!

    Great to hear from you. Haven’t seen you in a while via email or here on the forums. Interesting about the Hatfields and McCoys, huh?

    Thanks for you thoughts, darlin’.

  7. Hi Melissa!

    Ah, yes, that’s his name — Nathan — what a good looking man, huh? I think he’s on the covers of some of my books. My next cover, however, I think they actually found a Native American to pose for the cover. It’s quite something.

    I agree with you on how the punishment is no longer fitting the crime — too little or too much. I think it might be better if we went back to common law and left the statute law behind us. My take, anyway.

    Thanks for your thought, Melissa.

  8. Hi Maria!

    You are so right. It’s a bad situation with our crime and punishment. The criminal has a hard time finding a job after he’s out of prison that is a job paying something he can live on — thus, he often falls back into a life of crime.

    You are so very, very right — rehabilitation is missing. So very, very sad.

    Yes, I think common law — one makes amends for those things he has done that has harmed others — is still the best system. Unfortunately, it’s not the system that is part of our court system. Did you know that the “B” in the lawyer’s Bar — that they all have to pass — stnads for British?


  9. Hi Tanya!

    Great thoughts. You’re right — goodness — the victim is often more at risk in a court system nowadays than the criminal. Something wrong with these statutes. I do wish that the criminal were rehabilitated. I think the world would be a much better place if this were the case.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Hi Elizabeth!

    I’m so involved here in my course — and I don’t watch TV that I didn’t know there was a movie out called Appaloosa — is it out in the theaters now? Sounds fascinating.

    Thanks for your thoughts Elizabeth! Have a super day!

  11. Karen – I have to say – just as a total aside, I love this blog. I never fail to find something completely interesting when I come to P&P and I always learn something. It’s really a treat to visit this site.

    Okay – I’m done with my fan girl moment.

  12. Hi Kay,

    This look inside the Native American culture is interesting. I think they definitely had the best way of dealing with crime. The white man’s way is flawed. They lock up the criminal for years and when he gets out, he only commits more crime. For the most part it doesn’t rehabilitate. Plus, the rest of us have to pay to keep the criminal behind bars. Doesn’t seem fair to me.

    As usual, you certainly give me something to think about. I love learning about NA’s.

  13. Hi Linda!

    Wow! Thank you for that. Yes, I do believe the system of common law is better. But also I think the way the child was raised helped, too, so that he felt is WAS the tribe — its own personal representative — and so he had to make good his actions so that the tribe would look good. Interesting.

  14. Hey Kay – fascinating post as usual.

    Personally, I don’t believe locking people away from society helps. Jesus said to forgive them.

    People ask how I can ‘put up with’ and visit family members who abused me as a child. But it’s all in how you look at it. I believe they did it b/c of their own insecurities – that often happens in broken homes when people divorce and re-marry and end up with blended families. Some work out, but many times insecurites instigate jealousy and hurtful behabiour. I felt that. How could I not forgive them when I went back 10 yrs later and saw how sorry they were? That every time I visit, I first see their hesitation as if I’ll lash out at them. That whenever I look in their eyes, I see the question, ‘Does she remember?’. Since I was the only child out of 6 who was abused, locking them up would not have helped the situation. It would have just put more kids into the system.

    Up here in Western Canada, some of the First Nations are going back to their roots with their own ‘healing circles’ (I think they’re called). It entails all the people involved – both victims and aggressor – sitting in a circle and coming to a viable solution for everyone. At first the Mounties wouldn’t go for it, but over time, they’ve found that when aggressors are faced with the actual grief and upheaval of their actions, most are willing to redeem themselves and want to help their victims.

    So far, healing circles have been used for minor offences and only in some locations but it has met with favourable results from everyone involved incl’g the mounties where it has occurred.

  15. Hi Anita Mae,

    I, too, think that men don’t belong in cages. It certainly doesn’t seem to redeem them, does it? The healing circles that you talk about sound wonderful, and I bet the majority of people would be struck by the evidence of the damage that they did.

    Only a small percentage would probably remain undected — and perhaps those people alone should be taken out of society — wonderful post. Thank Anita.

  16. Hi Karen, it’s a very thought-provoking blog. Very interesting how Native Americans dealt with crime. I’m not sure how it would work in today’s society–but you’ve got me thinking about it.
    Maybe the thing it doesn’t account for is mental illness. If a criminal is not totally sane, then no amount of rehab would work?

    Very interesting discussion! Thank you for the blog!

  17. Hi Karen and all! I so love reading about the historical facts and all!! This was fastinating.
    Oh yep, I remember alot of movies and even the TV shows like BONANZA and GUNSMOKE that had scenes where the American Indians would put them in jails! I never knew it didn’t exist til reading this today!
    (I like to watch old shows, so I don’t know any of those new shows and if they still do that).

    When I first saw that pic that looked more like a contemp pick, I had to smile on that. I’m sure you don’t have much input to your covers right? I always asking about that and most authors say that they just give info about what they look like, nationality, hair color etc, but usually the cover doesn’t much match the character (but alot of covers are great tho!)

    You know when reading this all, and thinking about punishment. I’m thinking that the crime too was so much less because of too the punishment coming directly from the clan-the family and how that would be so much more emotionally! I know when I did something wrong as a child, I was so sad to disappoint my family, not so much of fear of the punishment. And in a way I think thats lost today for maybe some? I could even see see that there would be even less crimes if some had to have banishment from their love ones, even those that are not consider criminal crimes (such as adultly). Thinking more, that these ‘crimes’ that are not lawful ones, that even I had as growing up, such as disrespect to my parents, etc, that it would be the worse punishment. I know I was brought up more strict that I probably brought my kids up because my punishment was different for them than I got, but still had the same rules. Such as respecting authority and the like. And when I read too here about how the clan helps them, it made it all feel like one big family.
    I know I’m going on here, but made me think so much about how I too miss those big families too!
    Thanks for the awesome post!!!

  18. Hi Karen, this was a very interesting post thank you for sharing with us. I didn’t know much about back then on how they dealt with crime they had it easier then now.

    My thoughts on crime it has gotten alot worse. Now you see on the news a whole lot even more parents are killing their babies and drive by shootings. It’s very sad. I am sure it was bad before but now it seems worse and some people just seem so heartless. But when it comes to them going to jail they want to cry and all. If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime shouldn’t do it any ways it’s wrong.


  19. Hi Kate!

    It is an interesting thing to see how other cultures treated crime and punishment — especially when they lived so closely together.

    Common law would demand the offender make amends to the victim — an eye for an eye sort of thing — we used to have more common law in our courts,but it’s been replaced pretty much now with the commerical code and statutes. But it is ineresting.

  20. Hi Caffey!

    I loved reading your post on this. Yes, I think the punishment coming directly from the clan or the famlly had much to do with how little crime there was in Native America. You’re right — one doesn’t want to feel as if he/she has disappointed his family. I think this had much to do with it.

    But what is so striking to me in these historical accounts is how little crime there actually was and that there was NO poverty or hunger so long as the tribe had food. All were rich within their country.

    Sometimes I think our Techno society is missing the bit when it comes to humanity.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  21. Hi Linda!

    Yes, don’t you wish that criminal could think in terms of consequences for their actions. Of course Native America really didn”t have any drugs that altered the mind — nor any harsh spirits before the white man came and so most people had all their mental facilities at work.

    Haven’t all of these odd-ball killings been traced to the new psychotropic drugs — apparently there is something in them that causes the person to forget all about consequences or something like that — I’m probably not saying it right — it does do something to the brain apparently that shuts off that part of the “psyche” that would feel emoition — emotion is good. Particularly so when it is appropriate to the moment at hand.

    Anyway, thank you for your thoughts.

  22. Hi Kathy!

    To one’s friends and one’s family, one was taught never to lie, but to live with and confront the truth. A liar was sometimes put to death. Can you imagine if that were done today? What would we do for politicians?

    But to an enemy — well, they were fair game, and could be deceived or lied to all one wanted. The problem, once the white man came, was not realizing what whites were friends and what whites were enemies. They trusted to their word in treaties and such, much to the ill being of the tribe.

    It’s easy to look back and see the mistakes made, not so easy to not make the mistakes in the present. Hindsight, etc.

    All Indian Nations that I know of valued one’s sacred word of honor, and once pledged, it was NEVER withdrawn. It’s why it was so hard to get an Indian to pledge his word, sometimes. : )

  23. Very thought provoking blog. Native Americans have always interested me but I am not sure that what I know about them is all that accurate…Hollywood and all….but I do feel that they honored honesty above all and trusted way too mush that other’s word was also honorable.

  24. A few years ago 3 men walked into a bank in our town and killed 5 people. Those 3 and another that was involved but not in the bank are all in prison. Some are waiting execution or are serving life terms. I doubt that any of the 5 families would want to have any of these men anywhere near their homes.

    The “fire water” and the reservations are the worst things that have ever happened to the Native Americans. They both changed a proud way of life and contributed to the crimes of the people.

  25. where did you find this information Karen? I was wondering if you could provide a bibliography or a reference list as i am doing an assignment for school and this was the only website with accurate information.

    Very helpful. Thanks!

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