Law & Order In Native America


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Law & order in Native America.  You know it’s interesting to me that many might tend to think that America as a lawless land before the advent of the European to our shores.  But…that was not the case.

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 in Native America 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 did he have 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 the lad 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 so much that  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, that killer 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 murdered.  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:  “…Historians 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.

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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Below is a picture of my husband and I on the Blackfeet reservation.Hubby[1]










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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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24 thoughts on “Law & Order In Native America”

  1. Very interesting post. I always learn something. I found particularly intriguing that a murderer would have to replace the one he murdered.

  2. There is so much truth that we do not know, as in today’s world I think the bad news always gets the most publicity. Thanks for refreshing light and good that existed then.

  3. Enjoyed your post, Karen! I think I would have liked living in the time of the Iroquois Nations reign of 500 years. I wonder what types of medicine’s they came up with in that time. The story of the boy that gave back Catlin’s book just as he was leaving intrigued me. The boy’s reasoning was so different from what I would encounter today! It fascinates me how different cultures look at things like that–one simple action can be viewed in many ways.

    • Hi Kathryn!

      You are so right. These things intrigue me, too. And I love to write about these things — and put cherished, but perhaps not true myths to bed, so to speak. : )

  4. Thank you for writing about the laws of Native Americans! I learn a lot reading your books and your posts!

  5. Thank you for an informative post. From some of what I have read, punishment was swift and we might consider too harsh. A child might waste food once, but it wouldn’t happen again. Children learned at a young age the work involved in providing what was necessary to live. Those resources were finite and respected.
    I think within their own tribe or confederacy things were relatively stable with understandings and predictable punishment. Once you got outside that group and were dealing with enemy tribes or white enemies, the rules changed.

    Would I want to live back then? I am not sure. Life would have been filled with hard work just to survive. I can live in rather primitive conditions, I have, but I do enjoy my comforts. Knowing the society was peaceful, followed reasonable laws that were fair to everyone, and supported its members would make it one I wouldn’t mind living in.

    • Hi Patricia!

      As always, I enjoy your viewpoint on these things. I think it would have been a good time and a good place to live. Just from my research. Yes, there we have our creature comforts, but I think they did, too. Just my take on it.

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