Our ancestors did not know criminals

Story by Jenn Wagaman
Drawings by Jan Stitt

When Steve Sumida conducts a traditional justice training, he includes the story of how the raven turned black.

There are many such stories in Alaska Native cultures. This particular one was told by a Mekoryuk traditional council elder at one of Sumida’s trainings:

Long ago when the Earth was young, Hunter caught a caribou. As he knelt in the snow and began cutting up the caribou to feed the village, Raven hopped up behind him. In those days all of the animals in the Arctic were white. Raven snuck up around Hunter and stole some meat. Hunter continued to cut up the caribou for his village. Raven snuck up behind Hunter again, darted in and stole some meat again. Hunter continued to cut up the caribou. Raven came back a third time and stole again. Then Creator turned him black.

Raven illustrationThe elder told this story to a young man who had committed minor offenses in his community. Together with the elder, Sumida was helping the community apply traditional ways of dealing with such offenses. The story illustrates an important concept of Alaska Native culture — that people live not for themselves, but for the whole. Each member of a community is part of a web that carefully supports each other part. When you don’t work for the whole, the whole will not work.

In the Mekoryuk legend, Raven was turned black so people would know him. But as the Mekoryuk elder admonished the youth, “You do not have to put on the clothes of a thief” — you do not have to be Raven. Instead of punishing the young man, the elder quietly encouraged him to change his ways and come back to the community.

In Alaska Native communities stories convey ideas and values to others. Sumida incorporates these and other ideas into his traditional justice training program — a unique way to approach legal issues in rural Alaska communities. The program is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sumida travels into a community, sits down with the members of the tribal council and talks with them about how they used to deal with small infractions and major crimes — anything that could hurt individuals or the entire community. Then he helps them find ways to use those traditional methods of justice and peace making within the Western legal system.

Sumida believes that rural Alaska’s high rates of suicide, domestic violence and assaults are the result not just of insufficient Western governmental infrastructure, but also the loss of respect for cultural government. When community members are empowered by cultural traditions and beliefs, the result is a safer, healthier community.