Native American Spirituality In the U.S. Prison System {Part 1: Denial of Religious Rites}

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Native American Spirituality In the U.S. Prison System

For centuries Native Americans struggled to retain and to engage in their traditional spiritual practices in the midst of a society dominated by Judeo-Christian beliefs.  Since the coming of Christopher Columbus, Native peoples fought against European expansionists to maintain their traditional cultures, religions, and way of life.  This has been a difficult struggle in free society but even more arduous for those Native Americans who are incarcerated. The freedom to follow the religion of their fathers and mothers while imprisoned is a longstanding struggle for Native Americans which has worsened in recent years.  In order to fully examine the scope of the current situation of Native American prisoners, I will look at three main areas: Native spiritual practices and sacred objects prohibited in prison and their importance; a brief history of legislation affecting the religious freedom of incarcerated Native Americans; and testimony from incarcerated Americans illustrating the need for access to Native religion.

Native American spirituality is a complex interweaving of beliefs and traditions.  Every tribe has its own ceremonies and traditions along with a unique belief system.  Despite individuality among tribes, there is a general, common group of beliefs with can be found throughout Native Americans nationwide.

Six Main Concepts of Native American Spirituality

Native American spirituality embodies six main concepts which serve to guide Native peoples’ path in life. These include:

  1. a belief in or knowledge of unseen powers, or what some people call the Great Mystery
  2. knowledge that all things in the universe are dependent on each other
  3. personal worship seen as a commitment to the sources of life through strong ties with the community, all objects in the cosmos, and the great powers
  4. the belief that persons knowledgeable in sacred traditions are responsible for teaching morals and ethics
  5. the existence of trained practitioners who are responsible for specialized knowledge within each tribe or community
  6. a belief that humor is a necessary part of the sacred *(Beck 8).

Each of these concepts (with the exception of the sixth one) are rarely able to be followed or expressed in a prison setting.  Since they are all an integral part of Native spirituality and daily living, their denial becomes a form of religious intolerance.

Denial of Religious Freedom

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Based on these concepts found within Native American spirituality, we can see five main areas in which there is an outright denial of religious freedom to incarcerated Native Americans.  First, Native Americans are removed from their homeland and placed in prisons quite some distance away.  It is virtually impossible for their relatives, community members, and spiritual specialists to visit them.  Although there may be a shaman or Native counselor available to the incarcerated Native American, it quite possibly would be someone from another tribe due to the relocation of the prisoner.  Access to a spiritual specialist from one’s own tribe is essential.  Each tribe has a unique relationship with the spiritual forces that govern the cosmos.  It is the tribe’s task to remain true to their relationship with this force.  Ceremonies and rituals are handed down from these forces.  Therefore, not all spiritual specialists are going to perform the same ceremonies in the same ways.  Incarcerated Native Americans believe in the power of their own tribe’s healer.  A healer from another tribe would not be effective.  They might be able to pray with the healer but that healer’s ceremonies and rituals won’t necessarily work for a person from another tribe.

Being removed from one’s own homeland is directly related to the third spiritual concept shared by Native peoples – an emphasis on personal and collective commitment, prayers, and other forms of sacred worship.  There is an important and necessary link between individual worship and community well being.  The community carries out forms of worship and ceremonies in order to aid the individual.  Each individual prayer reinforces the bond between the human being and the Great Powers.  Life is made easier if you share the pain.  These relationships of bonding to one another and to the Great Power are maintained by celebrating or worshiping in a sacred manner.  By not having access to the community (one’s tribe as well as other Native prisoners), proper worship is nearly impossible.  Personal, private worship is allowed but at times is not as effective or appropriate without the help of the community.

Before a person may participate in worship there are procedures which must be undertaken; purifying, blessing, and sacrificing.  Purification requires getting rid of all poisons and excesses in one’s body through sweat baths, emetics, bathing, smoking, and smudging (blowing smoke from certain herbs on the body). Making yourself empty opens up the mind to spiritual communication.  The next process involves praying to the Great Spirits and asking for power and strength.  The person will also pray for others’ health and strength.  The third procedure is sacrificing.  One must take a piece of themself and give it without hesitation.  Natives give of themselves because they are a part of everything else and one becomes aware of his or herself as a part of everything.  All these procedures are usually accompanied by songs, music, and perhaps dancing. This leads to another major issue within prison: the refusal by many prison officials to allow ceremonies for proper worship and at times in an attempt to heal.  The Sweat Lodge ceremony is the most frequently denied ceremony.  Sweat Lodge ceremonies are a form of ritual purification and healing.  They also allow for a closer connection to the spirit world.  The Sweat Lodge is integral in Native American spirituality and a regular part of life. Restricted access to it tends to hinder the complete expression of spirituality for a Native American.

Native spirituality in prison is also restricted through the complete disregard for the need of sacred instruments necessary to Native ceremony.  The first spiritual concept shared by Native Americans was a belief in the existence of unseen powers.  These powers may take the form of deities or of an unseen, mysterious force. They are worshiped in elaborate ceremonial dances with the use of different ritual objects.  Sacred pipes, eagle feathers, medicine bundles, drums, gourds, corn pollen, and sacred herbs such as sage, cedar, sweet grass, and tobacco are examples of objects which are integral parts of ceremony necessary for native spiritual expression.  They are believed to possibly contain the spirit’s power.

Forcing an incarcerated Native American to cut their hair is an infringement on religious freedom as well.  Not only is long hair a sacred object necessary in ceremonies, but it is also a tool for mourning.  Native Americans strongly believe in making offerings to the spirit world when someone dies.  Cutting their hair is a way to show respect for the deceased family member, appease the spirits, and mourn as well.  Forcing a Native prisoner to cut his or her hair is almost a form of sacrilege.  Many traditional Native Americans do not cut the hair for any reason other than a death. Long hair is also a beautiful expression of one’s Indianess…it is an extension of one’s thoughts and prayers…there exists a universal serenity that the Native American has when he or she’s in harmony and unity with all living things through his or her connection to the creator with his or her hair. *(Norman 72).

Finally, there is a lack of willingness by prison officials to recognize that Native ceremonies are not on a linear, weekly basis.  Native American spiritual observances are guided by cycles, seasons, and other nature related occurrences.  This disregard for Native ceremony to take place in harmony with those occurrences in nature on which the ceremony is founded is to deny native people their religious freedom.

How did this obvious denial of freedom to practice Native spirituality in prison begin?  Read part 2 in this series, Legal Restrictions on Spirituality and part 3, Native Voices.

*Citations available in the third and final part of this series.