Why Our Ancestors Put Liars and Cowards to Death (and Why We Should Think About It)

Now, I am not seriously suggesting the death penalty for lying and/or cowardice.  We might have some pretty empty reservations, and a pretty empty country altogether, if we did that.  What I am seriously suggesting is that we should think about, and talk about our traditional values, and why our ancestors thought liars were so bad for the community that they actually put people to death for it.

I have a confession of sorts to make.  When I first brainstormed what was to become the Tribal Leaders Institute, I decided to use the four Dakota values - Courage, Honesty, Perseverance and Generosity - as a basis for my ethics courses, simply because I am a Dakota, and it made sense to use our traditional values to address ethical issues on my reservation.  However, I admit at the time, I really did not know how powerful those values are or the impact they had on our ancestors' lives.  And I also admit, I found it hard to believe Charles Eastmen when he said:

"Among the Dakotas lying and stealing from other tribal members was a capital offense.  A person who was capable of lying was believed to be capable of committing other cowardly crimes against the tribe and was put to death to prevent the evil from doing more harm.  If a person stole from another tribal member he was forever after called Wamanon (thief) and this distinction followed him for the rest of his life."  Charles Eastman, Dakota, 1858 - 1939

When I first read this quote I thought, putting a person to death for lying?  Isn't that a little extreme?

It has been approximately three years since the Tribal Leaders With Character project (now Tribal Leaders Institute) was funded.  After having done numerous presentations, written hundreds of pages, and participated in dozens of discussions about the four values, I am now getting a glimmer of understanding why these values were so important to our ancestors' lives, and just how powerful these four values really are.  I am realizing why a person was put to death for lying.

A lie or lack of courage back then had more potential to harm everyone, not just the person who told the lie or lacked courage.  For example, a night guard who lied about staying awake all night may not have been aware of an enemy who came in and stole valuable horses; thereby, giving the enemy thieves a valuable head start.  Or the scout who lied about locating buffalo; thereby causing the hunters to search an area devoid of buffalo for a day without finding any, while women and children starved back in the village.  ... or the war chief who lied about the number of enemies in a village.  He wanted to attack, thereby causing the death of many warriors.  When you look at lies within these contexts, you can see why our ancestors put liars to death.

And without courage, our ancestors would not have survived, it is as simple at that.  Everything our ancestors did required courage, hunting the huge buffalo, scouting the enemy, and guarding the camp, warfare, overcoming the elements - a cowardly person who also lied would not have lasted very long.

Today, courage and honesty do not carry the same meaning as they did 150 years ago. This is partly due to switching from the Dakota language to the English language.  My mom always said, "Our [Dakota] language is really descriptive..."  In other words, you meant what you said, and you said what you meant.  The English language has thousands more words than our language.  Many different words are used to describe the same action.

For example, today we use many words to describe courage and honesty.  These other words "water down" the true meaning of a term, or what the term truly meant 150 years ago.  The following are just a few examples (you have to take one of my courses to hear the rest).  Today, due to the use of the English language, we use words that downplay the true significance of the offense.

  • When a person steals from a program/tribe we use the word embezzlement, or misappropriations instead of - stealing.
  • When a tribal leader does not have the courage to make a decision, we use the word indecisive or cautious instead of using the correct word - coward.
  • When a tribal worker lies about the hours they have worked, we say they falsified their time sheet, and we never point out what that worker is really doing - stealing.

A lot of our behaviors in the workplace are just more versions of lying and/or cowardice.  This behavior is often called "tribal politics."  Examples of lying, and cowardly behavior include:

  • "Making ill-informed decisions" - due to cowardice, tribal administrators, board members, and tribal councils often do not listen to both sides of a story or get all the information about a conflict before making what is many times unfair, dishonest, and horrible decisions.
  • "Hypocrites" - Tribal workers who chronically miss work and/or are tardy, take 30 minute work breaks, two hour lunch breaks, call in sick when they're feeling perfectly fine and just don't want to work, and leave work under false pretenses (medical or some other emergency), and are the first ones to point a finger at other tribal members who do the same thing.  This dishonesty prevents them from taking an honest look at their own behavior.

An alcoholic is said to have a negative effective on a minimum of four people.  Therefore, alcoholism affects nearly every tribal member, whether they drink alcohol or not.  Many, many tribal members practice the same negative behavior as an alcoholic, one of which, is lack of self-honesty.  This inability to take an honest look at our work place behavior is one of the reasons we continue to lie about hours worked, steal from our programs, and exhibit other cowardly behavior which include, deviousness, backstabbing, betrayal, etc.  Just look around and you can see that alcoholism has had a tremendous negative impact on our communities in recent history, and now along with other drugs, continues to have tremendous impact.  Alcohol and drug abuse weakens any traditional values we may have held on to.


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Dr. Erich Longie published on August 20, 2009 1:44 PM.

What Is The Best Defense Against Lies and Liars? (Cont) was the previous entry in this blog.

FIRST YEAR COMPLETED is the next entry in this blog.

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