Bringing Down Walls

A Native Elder's Earth & Spirit-Based Prison Program

by Tom Atlee
EarthLight #28, Winter 1997-8, pp 8-9, 22-23 

Editor's Introduction:
Talking Circles, Sweat Lodges and Co-counseling
A sense of sacredness and spirituality.
Mindfulness of the earth and "all our relations." 
Respect for individual people, no matter 
     who they are or what they've done.
These are all components of a program run in an unlikely setting: a stateprison system. Not long ago, a manuscript entitled "Ending Violent Crime"was brought to our attention which describes an extremely successful prisonproject run by a native elder for the past dozen years. It includes a proposalfor expanding that project in a way that could drastically reduce violentcrime in the U.S. for only a fraction of the money we now spend on ourtragically ineffective "corrections" system. 
The elder's name is Manitonquat (Medicine Story), Keeper of the Lore forthe Assonet band of the Wampanoag Nation. As the anonymous editor of themanuscript notes, his program makes eminent good sense for two reasons:it works and it's cheap. Only 5-10% of the convicts who complete Manitonquat'sprogram revert to criminal activities which land them in prison again (comparedto a general recidivism rate of 65-85%). As a volunteer, Manitonquat serves120-150 inmates in six state prisons with only about $100/month in travelexpenses. He estimates that if he worked full-time on a small salary, hecould provide bi-weekly programs for up to 1,000 inmates. 
Our gratitude to Tom Atlee and Karen Mercer for bringing this extraordinarymanuscript to our attention, and to Tom for the following compelling hybridof his own words and those of Manitonquat's. 

Manitonquat emphasizes that what he does is not religious, although anyonefrom any religion may participate. His program involves no creed, dogma, or sacred scripture; no priestly hierarchy or temples. It does involvea spiritual path through which "we find direct relationship with natureand with each other. We encourage spiritual growth and seeking. A wholehuman being must be aware of more than himself, that there is a vast mysterybeyond our consciousness to which we must have some relation. 
"The word spiritual as I use it," explains Manitonquat, "refers to that'more' that includes all of existence, since existence is more than allour facts, more than all our imagination, more than all our concepts, morethan we can possibly conceive." Recognizing this brings humility and wonderinto our lives, making us more open to the fullness of things and to ourown limitations. Such a broad sense of the sacred makes us less likelyto abuse the life around us and less inclined towards what E.F. Schumachercalled "the ruthless application on a vast scale of partial knowledge." 
"The Original Instructions," continues Manitonquat, "are natural law, andwhen that is fully understood we can learn how to live a life that is harmoniousand in balance. We notice that things tend to want to heal, to come tobalance, to become better, and that human beings want in fact to learn,to become more aware, more conscious, and to make things better." 

One of the great losses of our materialist-industrial culture is that mostof us just go about our business without any sense of being situated withinthe natural aliveness of our world. This not only deprives us of a senseof belonging and meaning (and life!), but makes it possible for us to thoughtlesslymanipulate the life around us for our own purposes, or those of our bosses. 

Manitonquat puts things back into context by inviting everyone in his program,each time, to greet "our common mother, the Earth." He points out thatour bodies, our food, our clothing and shelter and fuel and medicines-everything we have-is given to us by the Earth. It doesn't come from another planet, nor is it created by people. People just rearrange what the Earth provides. 

"Then we greet her children, that big family of Mother Earth, those thatput down roots into her, those that crawl under her skin, those that runabout on her as we do, those that swim in her waters, and those that fly on her winds. Each has a different gift that they bring to the web of life, which depends on all these gifts. Therefore we also send our thanksgivings to these relatives all over the Earth." 

For those of us uncomfortable with the mythic quality of this "family" with their "gifts," everything Manitonquat says here is scientificallysupportable. Evolution clearly describes the ancestral and genetic relationof everything alive-and the more we learn about ecology, the more we discoverhow intricately the diverse "gifts" of every organism are woven togetherinto what is aptly described as "the web of life" of each ecosystem, eachliving community- and, ultimately, our planetary biosphere. There is comfortand power in coming home to the fact that we are part of this living community.Especially if we are locked away in some punitive fortress of stone andmetal. 

People in prison know about respect, if only by its absence. Many of themcome from a street world where respect must be earned, often by force, violence and threat. Even a hint of an insult can trigger violence. Andall too often, prison guards and officials use humiliation and disrespectas means of control. Too many inmates have never experienced the respectdue to everyone simply because they are a human being. 

Another native elder with whom Manitonquat has worked, Slow Turtle, tellsthe prisoners: "You are special. Each one of you has an important place in the Creation. Each one of you has special and unique gifts. No one was ever like you in all the universe, and there will never be another onelike you again. Therefore only you have your special gift, and you arethe only one who can give it away. You will not feel right, will not fulfillyour purpose until you give it away. The rest of us need to receive yourgift and hear your story." 

Buried under all the toughness, rage, cleverness, and terror "lives a hopeful,playful, bright, and caring boy, the child he once was, which was not destroyed,only buried under a mountain of distress"-although Manitonquat uses "amore pungent and familiar word" than "distress" when he talks to the prisoners."Every person in the circle," he writes, "is regarded as a good and wonderfulperson to whom terrible things have happened which have made him hide behindheavy armor and isolating walls. 

"This teaching of respect is spiritual wisdom to our people, because wehave found over the ages that it makes our lives work, makes them better. When we depart from this wisdom, we make mistakes and regret it. Therefore we are taught to respect the Earth, all forms of life, and all other human beings regardless of their age, sex, color, nationality, or belief." 

Manitonquat says: "Our people noticed long ago that the circle is the basicform of Creation. The seasons and the cycles of life are circular. Circularforms, including ellipses, globes and spirals, are the fundamental structuresof all things." Planets, stars, and galaxies all have this form, as dothe orbits of planets, satellites, and comets. "In the microcosmic world the circles continue in cells, molecules, atoms, and in DNA, the fundamental building block of life." 

How starkly this contrasts with the rows, lines, boxes, and hierarchies-what Manitonquat calls "pyramids of domination"-of Western mechanistic thought and culture. Auditoriums are filled with rows of seats bolted to the floor, all facing a stage that is raised, often with a podium (symbolizing thesource of authority). But " the circle all are equal. There is notop or bottom, first or last, better or worse. Some people may be designatedas elders, and by custom these may speak first, but their words are notnecessarily more important than anyone else's words. " 

The order of speaking in a talking circle is determined by a special object,usually a "talking stick," which is passed around the circle. An elder speaks first. When someone holds the stick they speak for as long as they wish. "Everyone else will listen and give the speaker his attention andrespect. No one will interrupt, and no one will argue with a previous speaker,or with any other individual. You respect him by listening and keepingyour mind open to hear his words, as well as to feel his heart and whatlies between the words. 

"Each man holding the talking stick is asked only to be honest. It's sosimple, yet so profound, and its effect is so powerful. Most of these menhave never in their lives been listened to with respect. For them to hold the talking stick and feel respectful, supportive attention, is a reallypowerful, liberating experience. 

"As the stick progresses, others who have been touched open their hearts,old wounds open, and tears flow that heal them. At the end of the circlethe bonds, understanding, safety, and trust have grown. The circle is stronger."The prisoners frequently express deep gratitude that they are "treatingeach other like human beings" in the circle. For once, they aren't dehumanizingthemselves or others. And no one is humiliating them. As one prisoner said,"That's strong, man." And again, "This circle is my family. You know whatI'm saying? I never had a real family. Not people who will really get downwith you, go all the way-you know? This is real family, man. How it shouldbe, straight up." 

A tough black Puerto Rican prisoner first came to the circle "'just toget out of lockup." He said he didn't know anything about the things we were talking about, but he could see that the people in this circle werereal, the most real that he had ever encountered." 

"After some years in a prison circle," reports Manitonquat, "men find themselvesso changed that it is hard for them to believe that they once were thepeople who committed their crimes. Having been rescued by a circle, havingseen ideals of respect and honesty, equality, closeness, and caring atwork, these men want never to be isolated again, never to be without the support and the love of a circle of real human beings." 

In a Native American sweat lodge, people sit together in total darknessin a low domed structure made of "saplings set in the ground in a circleand bent over and tied to each other in pairs" and then covered with blanketsand canvas. Pouring water over red-hot stones in a central pit creates the steam. Other than this, the specifics of the ritual differ considerably from one native culture to another. But the intention is shared: 

"Most of the teachings which we have been given concerning this ritualsay that one of the central purposes is rebirth. In the process of purificationwe are cleansed of the various pollutions and poisons inflicted on us sinceour original birth, including the mental and emotional ones. The lodgebecomes for us another womb in which we can grow in spiritual strength to the point where we are ready to emerge again into the world, reborn,as pure and innocent as a new baby. You may imagine, then, that this wayof confronting and shedding past hurts, mistakes, confusion, and stress,and getting a chance to begin all over again, would be very beneficialfor anyone seeking a better understanding and a new start in life." 

Manitonquat's monthly prison sweat lodges are located on the grounds ina secluded area designated by the prison, between the buildings and the outer fence. A corrections officer stands guard. Usually, an elder opensthe circle where each member is encouraged to speak of his intentions forthe sweat. The men then enter the lodge. The ceremony may last over twohours. It cannot be translated adequately into words. 

"In my way of leading a sweat," explains Manitonquat, "I use four rounds,one for each direction, in which I focus on healing the body, mind, heart,and spirit. Breathing the strong, hot steam into the lungs has a cleansing effect on the whole body. At the same time, we pray for the healing ofloved ones, friends, the Earth, and all life forms, all our relatives. 

In the mental round, I ask them to release their problems, to empty theirthoughts, and come to a still and peaceful mind. In the third round I askthem to open their hearts and let out the feelings which have been bothering them. This can be a very noisy round, as I encourage them to weep, howl,rage, and generally make a lot of racket like hurt animals to force outthese feelings with some energy. The final round is more silent, as weeach in our own way seek to make a connection with what is real, the innerspirit of all things, our own inner spirit, that of others, and that ofthe spirit of all Creation." 

The experience seems to "burn out their past, their troubling thoughts and feelings, the tension of life in prison, and their worries about theoutside world. The men learn that sweats are a safe way to "deal with theirtensions, with anger, anxiety, and grief." Prison administrators learnthat men who do sweats are less prone to violence and trouble. Even thoseleast able to deal with frustration and insult, who have not respondedto the efforts of prison counselors and mental health units, whose barelycontainable rage has brought them sedation, segregation, and solitary confinement,experience "a deep release of inner turmoil and a profound relaxation ofbody and mind in the lodge." 

One of the most troubled prisoners Manitonquat encountered, stood for threerounds holding the lodge frame over the stones, where the heat was mostintense, finally lying flat on his back for the fourth round. This man, who believed in nothing spiritual, told Manitonquat that he'd had a vivid full-color vision of "a rainbow eagle-dancer" dancing for him. Deeply shaken, he wept, and was overcome by a profound peace unlike anything he'd experienced before. 

The elders always make themselves available for individual counseling beforeor after circles and sweats. The most striking success Manitonquat hadwas with a class in peer counseling called Re-Evaluation Co-Counseling. This approach is practiced by hundreds of thousands of ordinary peoplearound the world (most of whom are not in prisons). They pair up and taketurns counseling, mostly listening appreciatively to each other. 

Co-counseling is unique in how well it deals with issues of oppression-especially because it deals not only with the scars of those who have been abusedand held down (i.e., people of color, women, the poor), but also with thescars borne by more privileged people (i.e., Caucasians, men, the wealthy). 

In the co-counseling world view, oppressive systems undermine the fullhumanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors. By bringing to light past hurts and upsets and discharging the emotional energy locked up inthem (through crying, shaking, yelling, etc.), co-counseling helps peopleregain their birthright-the ability to be, as Manitonquat described earlier,"...loving, joyful, intelligent, and creative" human beings. 

Co-counseling is a two-way street. Some prisoners (and others) are so self-absorbedthat they can't listen attentively to another person. Manitonquat got toknow people in his circles well enough that he could choose qualified prospectsfor his co-counseling class. For those chosen, co-counseling proved tobe "...something totally new and beyond anything they could have imagined.They became really involved, would ask very pertinent questions, absorbthe reading material, and practice their skills whenever opportunities arose." 

There were problems unique to the prison scene. Needed emotional discharge(often very noisy) occasionally had to be restrained because the prisonersdidn't want to attract attention from guards. And sometimes a person's heavy issues had to be set aside, and his attention brought back from the past to the present, because there wasn't the time to work all the waythrough what he was struggling with. 

Manitonquat made mistakes, but the prisoners were patient with him andhungry for the information and skills he brought them. Eventually, theprisoners "...learned that they can allow themselves to feel feelings whichare terrifying, painful, and enraging. They will not go crazy or get bummedout forever, but will actually relieve themselves of old burdens, gain more power, and think more clearly. They began to use their new skillswith other inmates, with guards, with their families. They began to envisiontaking leadership on the outside, creating circles, counseling, and helpingyoung people stay out of trouble and out of prison." 

No matter how good the in-prison program is, a new challenge is faced whena prisoner returns to the outside world. "A very large number of men inprison have no home, no family they can go to. With a few dollars the statehas given them, [long-term prisoners] face a world that has greatly changedsince their incarceration, alone and with no support. They are terrified they will fall into new and unknown traps, or be helpless without support when old demons approach again, and they will find themselves returnedto die behind those walls." Most current pre-release programs are dismalfailures, claims Manitonquat, and most parole departments totally overwhelmed. 

Manitonquat proposes, "...our own half-way houses, staffed by the ex-prisonersthemselves, where newly released prisoners can have the ongoing supportof a circle. Going from a circle in prison to a circle on the outside wouldbe an easy transition for them, in a way that is familiar and empowering. Here the men would find counseling, to understand their way into the newsocial world, to relate to their families and friends, and to find employmentand housing." 

Delancey Street, a private non-profit organization which began inSan Francisco and has opened other branches in other states, is a strongmodel. Managed and operated entirely by ex-convicts, Delancey Street ownsan entire city block of reconstructed buildings from which ex-cons operate businesses. 

Manitonquat would make two modifications to this model. First, he'd haveopportunities for "...times of quiet and retreat in a natural environment, with possibilities of co-counseling, and employment in such fields as agriculture, forestry, and wildlife management." Second, he'd have ongoing circles atthe heart of the program. His experience is that prisoners do Twelve-Stepprograms largely to improve their parole status, while they do circles"even though it gains them nothing with the parole board. They eagerlyhope to find a circle on the outside. They want to introduce their familiesand friends to circles and to teach circles to young people in schoolsand on the streets. The men who have been in the circles for some periodof time generally credit them with turning their lives around." Some areeven grateful for their prison sentence because it gave them the circle.Without it, they might have continued their downward spiral until theywere killed. 

Some of these men killed without thought or feeling, some of them believedthat a big roll of money was what made them a man. Some just couldn't faceor comprehend any of the world they had to survive in, and so just stayed stoned as much of the time as they could and felt and thought nothing. 

"They want to show their gratitude, to pay back for the great gift of theirlives they have received, and they know instinctively that the best wayto do that is to give to others. Their first thought is usually for the young people, especially the boys on the streets, in schools, in gangs,in the juvenile justice system. They know how all that is, and what itdoes to a young person. 

"They want to reach out to those young people and show them the blessingof the circle. They want to show how much more powerful and supportive and close a circle is than the gangs they cluster in. They want to tellthem about the progress of life through drugs and crime and in and outof prison, because they have been there. To a young man it's a badge ofhonor, a rite of manhood, to do jail time. A circle of men who have donehard time would be like heroes to these boys, and such men could tell thema lot about the 'honor' of prison time. They could get to these boys' feelings,they could be the fathers, uncles, big brothers those boys need. 

"For your consideration I present my vision: a Peace Corps of ex-criminals against crime and violence. The real work of the place would be done bythe ex-prisoners themselves. The circles are so tight that everyone inthem is transparent. These men have seen all the games, and they mightbe able to run games on straights but not on each other. They would befiercely protective of their program, wanting it to work, wanting it tobe a model for the world. No doubt unforeseen snags will arise, problemsno one has thought of, but these men are smart and caring and I am confidentthey can take any new problem into the circle and work with it and solveit, with the encouragement and insight of elders to assist." 

Manitonquat doesn't stop there. He believes variations of this model "...couldeventually all but do away with prisons as we know them today, by reducingcrime and helping distressed perpetrators turn their lives around. In atrue community if somebody does something wrong you don't put him in acage. You try to find out how he can repay the damage he has done, to do something for the people that he has hurt, and you try to help him so that he doesn't commit such a misdeed again." 

Manitonquat is envisioning a 21st century version of the way native peopleshandled wrong-doing in their tribal villages before white people came-respectfully, with spiritual power, as a human community embedded in the broad community of nature. 

"I am seeking leaders of leaders. Not to set up hierarchies, but to teachpeople themselves to be leaders, to take responsibility, to work with eachother, and solve their problems by putting their minds together. For meit is clear that the way to heal society of its violence, its struggle for dominion, its fear, hostility, greed, and addictions, its lonelinessand isolation and lack of love, is to replace the pyramid of dominationwith the circle of equality and respect."   ###

Manitonquat notes that he is getting older. He is looking for othersto join or support this effort. To support the program, contact: 
Mettanokit Prison Program: Another Place, Inc. 
173 Merriam Hill Rd. 
Greenville, NH 03048 USA 
(603) 878-3201 -- Fax (603) 878-2793. 

Tom Atlee is writing a book on "co-intelligence," a capacity of bothindividuals and human systems that integrates our full human capabilitiesand takes our interconnectedness seriously. Co-intelligence is evidentin many approaches (like Manitonquat's) that we can use to consciouslyevolve into a wisdom culture based on co-creating with each other, Nature,and Spirit. Tom can be reached at The Co-Intelligence Institute, P.O. Box 493, Eugene, OR 97440, e-mail:

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