Living without money – Native American wisdom

February 24, 2011

Before our white brothers came to civilize us we had no jails. Therefore we had no criminals. You can’t have criminals without a jail. We had no locks or keys, and so we had no thieves. If a man was so poor that he had no horse, tipi or blanket, someone gave him these things. We were too uncivilized to set much value on personal belongings. We wanted to have things only in order to give them away. We had no money, and therefore a man’s worth couldn’t be measured by it. We valued the exchange of love, so we did not deal in fear. We had no written law, no attorney or politicians, therefore we couldn’t cheat. We were in a really bad way before the white man came, and I don’t know how we managed to get along for millenniums without the basic things which, we are told, are absolutely necessary to make a current civilized society.

— Lakota Sage Lame Deer (from John Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions)



  1. I beg to differ.
    Although there was no “minted money”, coins and bills, there certainly was monetary value in traded goods. Wampum is not a folk tale, it’s a purse on a string. Having no jails does not mean there were no criminals. There can only be criminals in a society if crime has been defined. Moral laws existed in pre-european cultures. If someone stole or murdered, they were excommunicated, shunned, or summarily executed, unless the theft or murder fell under the guidelines of allowable for the culture.
    Not having a jail simply means the society did not expend (or waste) time and resources constructing a building for the purpose of housing individuals that have violated the moral law. Who needs them around?
    Having no written law does not mean having NO law.
    I would also differ with the statement that native cultures placed no value on personal belongings. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. Many objects were valuable, or rare, or came from a great distance, and were prized for these merits. Seashells being found a thousand miles inland indicate that these were traded for goods locally, indicating they had a monetary value. Additionally, folks couldn’t jump in their cars and run down to the Wal-Mart and buy things on credit cards. It would take personal effort (and time & resources) to make such things as clothing, utilitarian tools and weapons. Some personal property was imbued with spiritual qualities and values, so much so that they would be “buried” along with their owners so that they might have these important and valuable items in the afterlife.
    Moral laws, also, are those that are accepted by the civilization. Murder is a good example. In today’s society, at least most modern western cultures, murder is only allowed when executed by the state (the government) or perhaps military tribunal. Generally, execution is a sentence arrived at through a justice system. (Not going into whether the systems are actually just, etc.) In many ancient cultures, there were circumstances- outside of legitimate war and battle- where one is deemed to have the right to kill the other. In today’s America, this is extremely rare and heavily protected (self-defense, for example). In most cases, killing someone results in a murder charge, or perhaps manslaughter when not pre-meditated.
    “We did not deal in fear” stands out as an afront to sensibility. “Before our white brothers”, in most places there were territorial tribes and warring factions. War was much more common between tribes in pre-euoropean north america than it is now between armed countries.
    At least where I live, the concept of peaceful coexistence was just gaining strongholds, as evidenced by the great conferences such as the Six Nations.
    In other places, some native cultures were considered absolutely malevolent and cruel. No disrespect intended (and I am NOT an expert), but some southwestern tribes were considered downright viscious, and any encroachment on their lands would be met with defense and retribution. Again, no disrespect intended, but in the native cultures of the day, torture, rape, dismemberment and retribution were readily accepted and the norm.


    • Hi Paz
      Thanks for your comment. I actually published this little excerpt because I felt the philosophy resonated with the theme of my blog (ie the simple pleasures of a non-capitalist, community-centred society, honouring values of love, empathy, generosity and honesty) rather than for its historical context. But thanks for sharing your views 🙂

      Warmest wishes

  2. I think the excerpt was pretty accurate — the Lakota Sioux had no word for personal property, it was a very different world view. I grew up in South Dakota, where the Lakota lived. This summer we had a vacation out there, and driving West to see the Black Hills I made sure I drove my children, aged 7 and 5 (the five year old was 4 at the time) through the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. The intense poverty was so stark they felt really shocked. Then when I explained that they used to own this land but it was taken from them, my seven year old asked “who took it.”

    “The Americans,” I replied. “But that’s us! We should give it back.”

    “It’s not that easy. It wasn’t us, it was people who lived 100 years ago. And now the world has changed and we can’t go back.”

    “We should still give it back,” he insisted. We talked for awhile about justice, being thankful for what we have, and soon conversation shifted to typical vacation banter. But I’m glad I took them to see how the Lakota live today — it really is a crime how the land was taken.

    • Thanks for sharing that anecdote, Scott – your boy sounds pretty smart! I’m not a big history buff but I have read some stuff about how the invading white Europeans treated the Native Americans and quite frankly, it’s heartbreaking. The arrogance and belief that the white man’s way of life was superior to any other is also decidedly unpalatable.

      Always good to hear from you, Scott 🙂

  3. Dear Sharon, what a beautiful way to have lived. I sometimes feel I was born into the wrong time and can feel myself wishing I lived when all it took was love, respect and family to survive. I have 2 questions for you. First, who produced the picture above and where may I get a copy of it? It is captivating. The next question, is there a word, term, phrase or symbol for simplicity in the Native language?

    • Hi Diane, sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, I’ve been busy on my new site and blog so haven’t visited this one in a while. I’m sorry I can’t answer either of your questions. I found the picture via Google images and I’m afraid I have no knowledge of any Native American language. However, if you google it you may be able to find the word there. Sorry to not be of much help! Thanks for your comment though, and I agree with your point about love, respect and family.

  4. This world provides freely the resources we need to survive.
    It only takes the willingness of the people to work together to work to produce and provide those things freely.
    In doing so we ensure our own freedoms are not taken away through the use of a Hierarchy or monetary system or ruling class.
    We’ve put this hardship on our selves when we put people in that status of power.
    And were seeing it today.!
    Common sense tells us that it is more productive if people worked together than it is to work alone.Helping one another for the good of the many. to produce and provide these things for our survival and to make life a little simpler.
    Free use of resources, Manpower, Technology are the three things a society needs to function.
    Not money.
    Money is a tool used by the ruling class to rob you of your Freedoms,Liberty’s,and Independence.
    To put you and to keep you in debt to others.
    Every problem we have in this world can be traced to Money fueling greed and selfishness in people, politics and Economics.
    Sharing freely is the answer to the world’s problems.
    We already know how to work together,
    We already know how to Organize and come up with solutions.
    Solutions that don’t intitle someone to profit off your needs and hardships for their own personnal gain of power.

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