I spent some time in jail in December – just a couple of hours, actually.
An invitation had been extended by a group of inmates at a minimum security facility in central Ontario. The small group of Native Brotherhood members wanted to express their appreciation for a donation of moosehide I arranged to send them, courtesy the Union of Ontario Indians and a local Northern Store.
It was two days after Christmas and they had arranged to conduct a New Moon ceremony in a dandy tarp-and sapling lodge they erected on some distance from the residence buildings.
A steady rain rat-tatted on the plastic lodge roof as we walked through the ceremony that spoke of new beginnings. There were enough hand drums and shakers to go around, and a couple of strong singers to keep everyone in time.
Our hosts were seven men, ranging in age from 20s to 50s, each of whom had committed an act that was contrary to acceptable behaviour in the eyes of their community. They looked like your delivery man, your carpenter, your accountant. No hardened criminals here, which is why they could have been watching a football game in their apartments – not cells -- instead of listening to prayers and drum songs in the damp December outdoors.
They claimed varying degrees of aboriginal heritage, enough that each of them demonstrated deference to the ceremony protocol, and obvious pride in who they are. Proud enough that they used that moosehide to craft moccasins for themselves, along with pairs for two guests. Like Native Brotherhood members in penal institutions across Turtle Island, the pride they take in their heritage could help offset any shame they might feel about the mistakes they made that brought them here.
The wood fire crackled in the centre of the lodge and the smoke disappeared where it was supposed to, up into the space created for that purpose in the tarp roof. The damp air made a feast of bison burgers and pasta all the more inviting, and even spoon-standing-strong campfire coffee was a welcome warming influence.
Everyone in the circle accepted their chance to speak, and there were no outward indications of bitterness or sorrow, no complaining about a plummeting stock market, or how unfair the boss had been at work today.
When it was my turn, I remarked on how it is possible to be free, whether or not we find ourselves living behind tall fences.
I know people who have never set foot in a jail who are imprisoned as surely as if they wore numbered uniforms.
Some of them are chained to jobs that they despise but are afraid to leave.
Some are trapped in bodies that won’t allow them to walk, or see, or remember.
Some are slaves to pills or chemicals they inject or snort to help them forget who they are or what happened to them in the past.
And still others are trapped by the debts they incurred to buy houses, cars, or luxuries they feel they should have but don’t really need.
Freedom is not about geography. It is not about what is outside each of us, it is about what is inside. Those who walk a straight path in life are the most fortunate. They have earned the ability to keep their spirits free.
It was a warm gathering in that lodge on that rainy Saturday afternoon, and laughter fuelled the warmth as much as the logs in that crackling fire.
Everyone got a chuckle when a staff member pointed out that I had actually broken a Correctional Services regulation by bringing in a bundle of pow-wow guides as gifts. She pointed to the magazine’s centre-spread, a large map of Anishinabek Nation territory.
It seems that prison officials would prefer that inmates not know exactly where they are, in case they decided that freedom might just be somewhere outside each of them.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.