Putting Mother Nature to Rest
Doing time involves a lot of adjusting. Not only for the prisoners and their families and friends, but also for prison staff. It may be a cold adjustment.
Adjusting to powerlessness
Prison has a way of sucking the power out of its charges. Finding a spiritual path is one way for these occupants to claim some of it back.
For incarcerated NDNs this often means walking the Red Road for the first time. It’s a path that grounds one in traditional understandings of human relationships. Nature is seen as both outside ourselves and within, and dynamically between oneself with others.
Sometimes the best one can do is learn about this wisdom from reading books. Fortunately, there are sometimes elders in the prison population who model this relational wisdom. Those who don’t complain about the weather but show how to flexibly flow with it.
Running Deer (Lakota) was one such person. He was known for performing sacred ceremonies in the middle of winter in his bare feet. Originally from the Rosebud Reservation, he became a trusted elder among the “skins” in the Michigan facilities wherever he was sent.
Being functionally illiterate, Running Deer was powerless by White standards. Mother Nature didn’t care if he could read or write, of that he was sent to Virginia to ease overcrowding in the Michigan Department of Corrections. Being grounded in nature, he was adept at adapting to new environments, even those as harsh as another state prison.
Adjusting to environments
Winter was settling in, so Running Deer went out to the yard to perform a sacred ceremony to prepare for the transitioning season. Mother Earth doesn’t care about our arbitrary state boundaries, so he found an appropriate spot not far from the perimeter fence.
A guard took exception. “Hey you!” the guard shouted. “What are you doing by the fence?”
“I’m putting Mother Nature to rest,” Running Deer answered.
“It’s a Lakota tradition. We honor the change in seasons with this outdoor ceremony.”
“Not here you’re not,” the guard boasted in a double negative. “Now pack your gear and get off my yard!”
Adjusting to humility
Not wanting to cause trouble, Running Deer followed suit. He gathered up the ceremonial items and politely returned to his unit. Some things just had to wait.
Mother Nature did not. Shortly afterwards, that region in Virginia was hit with the worst ice storms it had seen in a century. Much of the state was paralyzed, including this prison compound. Guards grumbled about the difficulty getting to work in such unusual weather.
About a week later, after the ice melted, Running Deer gave the ceremony another try, albeit on wetter ground. This time a different guard spotted Running Deer near the same location. “What are doing out here by my fence?” the guard demanded.
Running Deer was about to resubmit his explanation. Before he could start the sergeant stepped up. “Don’t worry about him,” he warned his colleague, “he ain’t hurting no one.”
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