Law & Order & the American Indian

Good Morning or Afternoon!

Hope you all had a terrific Labor Day.  It’s probably been the first day off I’ve had in many weeks.  We grilled.  Yum!  What did you do?  Whatever it was, I hope it was fun and delicious.

Interestingly, when we think of early America, many of us might tend to think of it as a lawless land.  I know that there were certainly gunfighters and outlaws and such.  Stories of the West are filled with these characters.  But there were probably — by far and large — many people who lived their lives in safety and security.  One of the things that I love about writing Indian romance is that I often find favorite myths and ideas in conflict with what really happened.  So I thought I’d mention a few tidbits of law and order that I’ve learned over the years.

Probably the first myth to break is the idea that the land and the people were savage and given to satisfying their lusts.  George Catlin writes of traveling the West alone, with only his pony as his companion.  He traveled in this way for many weeks and not once was he molested by Indians, buffalo, bears or wolves or coyotes.  He draws many pictures of his adventures, to be sure and one can really sense the power of the land…that it healed the spirit instead of the opposite.

George Catlin also writes of traveling through Indian country, living with the Indians, painting their pictures and being at their mercy.  He writes quote eloquently about the fact that not once was he molested, nor had any item stolen from him, though the opportunity to do so was always there.  In fact, he writes of a particular young man who found a book of Catlin’s and, in the style of the land and people, the lad waited until Catlin was leaving to give the book back to him.  Not because he wanted to keep it, but to give it to Catlin as he was leaving would have prevented Catlin from returning the favor.  The young man wanted it plain that his was a strong heart and that Catlin need not return the favor.

Sometimes I think of Native America as a series of small towns, scattered all over America.  Because hunting and warring was the profession of most men, their villages were kept small.  Mostly family.

Only in the summer, spring, or late fall months would the entire tribe meet, giving lovers a chance to meet and others the opportunity to renew acquaintance.

Honesty, integrity and fortitude were valued above many other things.  In fact, in some tribes a liar was put to death.  (It would have been a sad state of affairs for most politicans in our modern society to have lived then — I think Bob Hope put it best when he said  — in a movie — that he was a politican and that the profession came naturally to him, since he was from a long line of liars.)  Sigh…

There were no jails in Native America.  I remember reading a book called Buckskin Brigades by L. Ron Hubbard, where the hero (who is a blond-haired Indian) was put into jail in one of the traders outposts.  It was such an unnatural state for our hero, that he could little understand it.

On the plains, if one had a grievance with another, it was up to him to make it right.  If one member of a tribe killed another member of the tribe, he was often forced to leave, which was often a sentence of death.  In some cases amongst the Lakota, the murderer — through agreement with both families — took the place of the person who was murderered.  And often these people became the very best members of the family.  Revenge was considered a duty — and it was the law of the land.  If one were wronged severely (and it had to be severe), it was considered the duty of one of the male members of the family to seek revenge.  Sometimes this worked out okay, but sometimes not.

As a matter of fact, it was this mind set of revenge that caused the Iroquois to come together in peace and to establish their League of Five (and eventually Six) Nations.  Because at this time, wars were caused by revenge — which became unweildly due to the constant need seek remedy in revenge — the Iroquois sought to wipe away war from the face of the earth by curing grief — not only in oneself but of the dearly departed one, also.  In this way, the Iroquois established a peace that filled America long before the white man arrived on Eastern shores.  By all calculations the Iroquois Nation lived in peace as a genuine and true Republic for about 500 years.

I’ll leave you with these thoughts:  “…Historicans forget that there were free men in America before the first white settlers arrived with their slaves and indentured servants.  There is more truth in a popular account of America widely circulated in Great Britain in 1776:  ‘The daring passion of the American is liberty and that in its fullest extent; nor is it the origianl natives only to whom this passion is confined; our colonists sent thither seem to have imbibed the same principles.  Truly the passion for liberty as practiced by the Iroquois was a contagious thing.”

From the book, Roots of the Iroquois by Tehanetorens.

I hope you’ll remember that I have a couple of books out on the shelves right now.  The most recent is SENECA SURRENDER and the other is BLACK EAGLE.  Now I’m also offering one or the other of these books as a free give away to be announced at the end of the day.  Just leave a post and you’re automatically entered.

Oh, and by the way, I owe someone here a book.  Life has been tremendously challenging of late and unusually busy and I’ve lost that email, so I don’t remember who it is that I owe that book to.  If you could please refresh my memory, I would so greatly appreciate it.

So come on in an leave a message.  If you could, would you have liked to live back in the time when Native Americans ruled our land?  For myself, in many ways, I believe it would have been a good home, one filled with love and family.

What do you think?

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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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28 thoughts on “Law & Order & the American Indian”

  1. Good morning? (It is 1:40 am here.)

    I went back in the P&P older entries and found your Aug 10/10 contest where Estella won. Perhaps she is your unknown winner? You offered a choice of backlist books as the prize. (Wonderful!) You will find the original entry at

    and then you announced it on

    As for living back in time like that, there are pluses and minuses to every time in life. I would just be thankful to be alive! When you say you believe it would be filled with love and family, I tend to agree with you on that. And you can’t have too much of that! (Well … it holds true for the love part, but the family part could be … er … cumbersome, LOL!)

    Have a great week!

  2. I always wondered how tribal rules were determined and enforced. I thought that the chief and his tribal council made up all the rules. But the chief had the final say. Banishment sounds similar to the Amish’s shunning. Did they have fights to the death of one of the opponents?

    As for living amongst The Native Americans: I like the respect they gave to each other…the closeness of family ties. I don’t think I could have handled the primitiveness of those times whether it be in a town or with a tribe.

  3. Hi Kay!

    What a great post, as always! I love the insights you give into the Iroquois tribal customs. I don’t know much about them since I was raised here in Oklahoma, and our tribes are the southwest plains tribes, but I always love to read your posts and learn more. Although I love to write about the “days of old” I don’t think I would have been a good candidate to actually live back then. LOL Yep, I’m too spoiled. Although, maybe if I’d been born then and didn’t know about the modern conveniences, I would have been fine. Thanks again for this great post–love the information!

  4. Kay, I hate that a lot of history has been distorted and facts either changed or erased all together. Most of that was due to prejudice against the Indians or anyone who was different from us. And it sadly still continues today. We’re not very tolerate of others. I would’ve loved to live in a peaceful Indian village. It would’ve been a wonderful place to raise a family.

    I wish you lots of success with your books.

  5. Hi Laney4!

    Thank you so very much. Now, why didn’t I think of that? Duh!

    Yes, I think it would be good to have lived back then in a simplier time and in a simplier manner. Not that there wouldn’t have been problems — heaven forbid we not have problems — but I think the land here before the advent of the incoming civilization housed some wonderful cultures. 🙂

  6. Boy did I get off on a tangent. I started talking about the culture and instead of rules for behavior and honesty I went off on use of resources.(That is the section below the line. Ignore it if you want.) They are related. A respect for yourself and your fellow man will translate into a respect for nature. Developing a peaceful system for redressing grievances is probably one of the most important steps a culture can take. The variations you mentioned all worked in their own way to defuse more conflict. Many violent incidents were the result of expected revenge behavior not necessarily a personal desire for retribution. By taking the pressure off the individual to react violently and escalate the problem, the individuals and the society benefited.
    I saw this when I was overseas. Revenge is the culturally accepted way to react to a situation in many countries/cultures. The old adage “Shoot first, ask questions later.” is still alive and well. For example, a public transport bus hit a person while going through town. The driver stopped. The towns people stormed the bus, beat the driver and some of the passengers, and robbed everyone. You injure one of us, you will pay. No effort to find out who was at fault. No determination how seriously the person was injured. The innocent suffered just because they were there. If any of the passengers were from a neighboring village, it would have been acceptable for their relatives to come into town to beat up those who attacked the bus. And on it would go. That would never have happened in the Iroquois Confederacy. They were very wise in cutting off this type of behavior.

    I will have to look for ROOTS OF THE IROQUOIS. It sounds like a good resource.

    I appreciate our modern conveniences but wouldn’t mind living in the cultural period of the early 1700’s. The Iroquois had established peace in their region and lived in harmony with the land. Native cultures depended on nature for their existence and learned to balance their needs and use of resources. Today society takes what it wants with little concern for the consequences. We are getting better, but there is much room for improvement. We have damaged so much of our natural environment that in many cases it will be decades or even centuries to recover if it is even possible. We can have a good life without destroying that which makes it worth living. With just a little thought we can reduce the amount of resources we use and our impact we have on the environment.

    Native peoples used their resources wisely. Nothing was wasted. Many early settlers lived the same way. I remember a session I did on village life after the hunt. We went though how every part of the animal was used – hide, bones, meat, tendons, organs. Using the bladder for a ball for the children or as a container for liquid always got their attention. Children learned at an early age not to waste. No picky eaters who threw out good food. You did that and you went hungry and were punished.

    I have never understood using the best farmland for housing or commercial developments. Why not use scrub or rocky land? Where do people think we will get our food once we pave or build over all the good land?

    It amazes me how much trash we find when hiking. People carry cans, bottles, paper in, eat and drink the contents then don’t bother to carry out the empty containers. They are lighter, so what is the problem? We have yet to come home from a hike or canoe trip without a bag of trash we picked up along the way. We pick up a bag of trash from the road in front of our house every week or so. Lazy and inconsiderate are some of the nicer descriptions of these people.

  7. Hi Laurie!

    Yeah, all tribes were different. The Iroquois actually ‘wrote’ their laws down by means of wampam. It was a misunderstood of the incoming civilization that the chief made the laws and held the balance of power in the tribe.

    In the old days, this was very untrue. Each man was his own judge and jury and each man was responsible to himself and his family and not to the chief.

    But there were rules. Rules that were established through centuries of living. 🙂

  8. Hi Cheryl!

    Yeah, the tribes in Oklahoma tend to be the southwest tribes. However, there’s also the southern eastern Indians (trail of tears) there, too — the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee, etc. But the Iroquois were dispersed unfortunately, but there laws remain — their love of freedom of every individual remains in tact today. Thank goodness they had what they had for they so greatly influenced our Founding Fathers.

  9. Hi Linda!

    I, too, get discouraged sometimes when I see the distorting of the facts and history changed. Only from viewing history from a cause/effect viewpoint — what cause had what effect — and true, true history, can we really learn from our mistakes.

    And it does still go on today. Maybe that’s what I’ve learned from being an historical writer — is how valuable history is. Thanks for your thoughts.

  10. Hi Patricia!

    Thanks for your informative post and for your thoughts. Wow! It’s so true, you know. The Indians did live in harmony with the land and used it wisely.

    The Iroquois would move from time to time because they needed to let the land rest. Interesting concept.

    They might come back to that same spot and build their village again after the land had had a chance to replenish itself. Now, the interesting thing about this is that the land, given time will replenish itself.

    Which brings to mind the concept that all is alive — or at least was alive at one time. A very interesting concept.

    Thanks for your informative post, Patricia!

    • Fabulous post as always, Kay, and as always, thanks for the pic of Adam Beach! I taught American Lit for about a century and we quickly dispelled the notion that the native peoples were “savages.” I think this designation befell anybody who didn’t believe in the Christian God. There are so many tales of the natives helping out the whites. Look at Squanto and the pilgrims. And it was the Nez Perce who saved the Corp of Discovery when they arrived at the Columbia river starving and ill with disyntery. And the Nez Perce never shed white blood until that awful summer of 1877.

      THanks for keeping these cultures and ways alive for us here! oxoxox

  11. Hi Tanya!

    Yes, and then there was Father DeSmut — not sure of the spelling, who writes about the Indians — the Nez Perce again — who saved him when he would have drowned in a flash flood. There’s also the Iroquois again and their relationship with William Johnson whom they saved on numerous occasions. These are a few right off the top of my head. There are many others.

    I’ve read about them — I just can’t recall them at the moment.

    George Catlin also writes about American Indians who saved his life. Karl Bodner (who toured in 1834 with Prince Maximillin) wrote years later of being disappointed in his own society — that there (in the Americas) he had friends.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tanya. 🙂

  12. i always loves your posts kay
    very informative and also makes me yearn for some simpler times
    i’m familiar with those laws from reading your books
    i LOVE that lies were so horrific
    i detest liars and in our culture it’s almost an art
    the people were so honorable
    i love that they respected each other so and that they raised their children in a loving community–i imagine without time outs or spanking
    i think it’s amazing that there was a special circumstance where the murderer would be welcome into the family
    what depth of character

    though the vengeful ways could become an issue…i have to admire their bravery and sense of right and wrong

    i honestly believe i would have LOVED to live with the indian people (the peaceful ones 🙂
    preferably in a warmer climate too, lol
    they has such cohesive and commuinty lives–i really think i would have liked that
    and the connection with nature and wisdom

  13. Hi Kay, Thank you for writing about Natives. I appreciate the real history instead of the movie/made up history that a lot of people still believe. Living with Natives in California and living on a Paiute/Shoshone Reservation it is crazy how many people ask if we live in teepees! So for the humor, my neice put a teepee up in her front yard.
    Sometime I would like to hear your take on the use of the word “Squaw”. I am offended each time I hear it. But it seems many authors still use it.
    Great post. Thanks.

  14. Hi Tabitha!

    I echo your sentiments. I do believe that I would have liked to live in those times. It’s interesting to read the lives of many different characters who spanned both worlds in the last part of the 19th century. One for one, they lost their enthusiasm for life when the old ways ended.

    Yes, the “art” of lying has become a real profession in our society. It seems that art spans not only untruths, but half-truths and speculations and outright hearsay.


  15. Hi Mary J!

    From my understanding of it the word comes from the (and here you have to please forgive my spelling) Algonquian language and means the private part of a woman. The Algonquian language doesn’t have any curse words in it and so I guess it was the closest thing to a curse word that the incoming civilization could grab hold of.

    So, yes, I find it offensive, also, and movies that use it irritate me also.

  16. I always enjoy reading your posts… learn some wonderful things… It would be interesting to have lived back then…thanks for sharing!

  17. I love your Native American posts1 I am not sure I would want to have lived in those times, tho. I love our modern conveniences too much.

  18. I’ve always respected the Indian way of life much more than our ancestors. We may have had some great ideas, but unfortunately we seem to have wandered away from true values and tolerance seems to be only an ideal not taken. Yes, I’d love to go back in time. I love some of the technical advantages that we have now but if I didn’t know about them, I couldn’t miss them lol.

  19. Ah, Estella! I was so hoping you would come here today. Yea! Please forgive — life has been a little topsy turvy and I’ve lost your email that said which book you wanted — I think I might have your address on file, but I’m not certain. Is it possible that you could resend me that email?

    Thanks so much, Estella. Sorry for the wait and confusion.

  20. Hi Catslady!

    I’m with you. As far as I’m concerned, the Industrial/modern age has failed.

    It failed the minute it decided it didn’t need people and started pushing population reduction. It failed as soon as profit was more important than people and their health (factory farms, factory foods, chemicals in the food and agriculture).

    I once read an article about how many people there are in the world all total and how much land mass there is on this planet and the fact that the entire world’s population could be fit into Texas. Now mind you, one wouldn’t have acres and acres of property — but the entire population of earth could fit into Texas.

    It was then that I realized the industrialists of this world have betrayed us one and all.

    Yes, the simiplier life where honesty and human life was valued above all else is for me. 🙂

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