In a fascinating storytelling style, Medicine Story shares the startlingly successful program he and various other Native American elders created to assist incarcerated men. Initially it was just for Native Americans, and included women's circles, but over the years (due to a wide variety of reasons) the men's circles were the only ones that continued, and they widened to include anyone who wanted to come. The basic beginning is for appropriately trained volunteers to establish talking-stick circles in the prisons; if more funding or a willing prison bureaucracy allows for it, other useful and proven techniques such as sweat lodges or a counseling program (referred to as RC or Re-evaluation Counseling) can be added.

An actual circle consists of an opening greeting which reminds us that "we are all relatives here in the circle, and … to all that is in Creation, and that there are beauties and wonders and mysteries past all our understanding. When we sit down we feel closer than before, and that is a good feeling, a human feeling" (39). After that the elder explains how the circle works. The first and most important thing to remember is this: "the essential aspect, … the one requirement of the circle, is respect. If we always remember and hold to this teaching, our circle will be a good one… a learning and a healing for us, if we hold strictly to our teaching of respect" (40). This respect is embodied by listening quietly and attentively to whomever is currently speaking and holding the talking stick. You don't have to agree; you just have to listen with silent respect. In the circle, everyone is equal (58). Also, there are no interruptions or arguments, what is said in the circle stays in the circle, and the person who is speaking is honest. Really, that's all there is to it.

It sounds startlingly uncomplicated — one might even initially think it too much so. However, as the editor notes, "Like much of what I've learned from Native peoples, the exercise looked extremely simple on the surface… and the more I considered it, the more profound it got" (14). Even if initially it is a terrifying prospect, over time the men learn to open up to each other — because they are always listened to with respect, without judgment or anger. Eventually they start to realize: they are not inherently bad people. They are people caught in a bad system, and though they have made mistakes they can still take responsibility for both those mistakes and their lives — and they can, if they wish, change. The editor writes, after participating in such a circle,

I cannot do the exercise justice in print, it was beyond what I can speak of in mere words. Manitonquat said that we'd feel even better if we had 20 minutes per person, instead of 5, or even an hour… and I believe it. I see it possible that this exercise could drain a great deal of the negative feeling that seems to be a large part of our world. Plus… it's cheap. A cheap solution that works well, with other benefits — it doesn't get much better than that. Plus, the exercise can be worked by people themselves — they don't need outside help after the first time. (14)

Manitonquat asks what I think is an excellent question: why have we convinced ourselves that violence is normal — and that we must meet it with ever-escalating levels of yet more violence? Why not instead choose to believe — and act toward — in a life based in "respect and love and sharing and cooperation and harmony" (87)? According to Manitonquat, there is one sacrifice which must be made for this process to work: we as a society have to give up the concept of prison as our revenge and retribution against wrong-doers. As he notes,

[I]f we are seriously interested in a solution, if we really want to compensate victims, rehabilitate perpetrators and reduce violent crime, then we need to leave our emotional desire for revenge and look at the issue practically and realistically. The fact is that punishment neither deters nor rehabilitates. … Only individual human attention can reach inside individual human beings for the kind of complete life-change that is needed. (24)

Fascinatingly, this program is not a theory; it is already working consistently, and has been since 1983 — nearly three decades. Manitonquat's statistics are startling: general recidivism in the prison population is between 65% to 85%, while that of people in his program is only 5% to 10% — and he believes if they had the organization and funds for a post-release program in place, then they could lower the recidivism rate to 0%. This isn't just a pipe-dream; Manitonquat mentions something called Delancey Street, a strong post-release program which started in San Francisco and is a private, non-profit organization which is managed and operated entirely by ex-cons (65). The author also describes how the men he has worked with want to try to give back to society in various ways (67), and explains his dream of ex-cons as the new "antibodies" () against social violence.

Considering how tough it is for ex-cons in the world today, I think this is a very worthwhile dream indeed. I know now it was naive of me, but until recently I'd actually believed that prison was how criminals "paid their debt to society" — that after they emerged from prison they were not continuously and consistently still penalized for having spent time behind bars. From what I've been told, there is like one state only in the US which does not so penalize its ex-cons. I find myself bemusedly wondering: if we use penalizing laws to keep ex-cons from getting jobs, why are we surprised when they eventually turn back to crime in order to be able to eat and survive?

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