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.


Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6Next page




  • marie katcheak

    this is a a very interesting and well drawn experiences which go on constantly everyday in rural alaska. Which effects the Alaskan native population. From the OCS, to the jail systems to the way we take care of our dead. The biggest shame of all is the traditional hunting and fishing practices we have use beyond time till the land claims act 1971 became law and a greedy western culture moved in to shrink our way of life. Using food stamps, introducing drugs, hard liquor, an under prepared educational system, and their mega transportation system. When are they going to stop? or have they no shame taking land and resources what are not theirs just because they came here? they all want everything we have clothing, most of all land no wonder there are bears moose in their cities. God take pity on greedy people or is it to late.

    • Steve Sumida

      In 2003 I gave a presentation at an International conference on domestic violence entitled, “Inupiaq Traditional Justice, Is there a domestic violence application?” I received no feedback.

      Probably because the western audience was resistant to the idea that such a solution might exist in indigenous culture. In the decade since then, I have seen several examples of traditional justice effectively applied to domestic violence in villages in the Brooks range, the East Aleutians, Pine Ridge, and in story telling examples in the Nez Perce longhouse. Today the speech would have gotten an assertive title rather than that of an inquiry. But I am not convinced that I would get a different response. Not all aspects of western culture deserve the degree of assimilation it is afforded in the villages or the cities.

  • Polly E. Hyslop

    While I applaud the efforts of Steve Sumida, I wonder about the title of the article, \”Our Ancestors Did not know Criminals.\” As a Native graduate student, I wonder why this title was chosen. As far as I know, my ancestors did know criminals. While we have traditional practices of resolving conflict in our communities, we still had criminals way back when. They were probably called wrong-doers though.

    • Steve Sumida

      The author chose the title, so I cannot comment on her intent. I approved her judgement in choosing a title that would appeal to her audience. My materials include a values poster from Gambel Island that had narrative values rather than single word values. One of these was “Our ancestors did not know criminals” that was written in Siberian Yupik with an English translation by a King Islander. I considered it accepted by the Siberian Yupik of St. Lawrence Island since I discussed it with them them at the time I was there, and they had two versions of the poster with both on prominant display. The meaning of this poster and this phrase is signficant in describing the outcome of emphasizing values rather than written laws as a basis of government.

  • Aleksandr

    The story of those doing wrong being turned black is what Mormons have in their book as the cause of the color of African people’s skin. Ruh-roh, racism!

    Btw, that was something I was told, not something I declare as fact, go look it up if want. I just thought, if true, it was an interesting similarity.

  • Steve Sumida

    From the article there is little information to interpret the meaning of the story as involving racial overtones. From my limited experience with Cupik culture it does not seem to vary significantly from the surrounding cultures in at least one aspect of story telling. Unlike westerners, including me, elders do not feel compelled to finish a story with an explicit description of the moral of the story. I have experienced this in many villages. By not telling the listeners what they should have learned, it allows different people who are at different levels of their moral and cultural development to take away what they need, based on what they thought the elder was telling them. Of course this is not the only technique used by elders in this culture, in this community or in this meeting. In fact other community leaders had spoken first using other methods. This was the last elder to speak, and my interpretation did not involve a racism analysis but rather that the elder was elevating a particular value from personal experience examples to the context of the spirtual consequence. But like you, I took from it what was important to me. But the story was not for me, it was for his audience of subsistence hunters, and they would have interpreted the story in the context of their own personal relationship with the elder and their community’s unique set of shared values.


Leave a comment