Native American Spirituality In The United States Prison System {Part 3: Native Voices}

native american indian prison system

Image: Flickr / leafdot

Native American Voices in the U.S. Prison System

Welcome back to our series on Native American Spirituality In The United States Prison System. In Part 1 we looked at Native spiritual practices and sacred objects prohibited in prison and their importance. Part 2 presented a brief history of legislation affecting the religious freedom of incarcerated Native Americans. Today we will explore testimony from incarcerated Americans illustrating the need for access to Native religion.

While doing research for this post, I was fortunate to come across someone who had just finished a study on incarcerated Native Americans across the United States.  She had a wonderful document containing testimony from Native inmates.  She asked them questions about their personal struggles for religious freedom in prison.  They gave her permission to tell all who would listen, about what it means to be a Native American fighting for the right to practice ancestral spirituality in an oppressive prison system.  Much of the testimony supports my findings noted throughout this series.  I am going to present the testimony that I feel best reflects the true nature of the experience of incarcerated Native Americans.  It will demonstrate that they are indeed denied almost every religious right.

The first question the prisoners were asked was, what religious rights prison authorities had taken away from them. 

Raven’s Voice, incarcerated in Washington State says, “In our system here, we all have had to continually stress the need for Native peoples to practice, observe, and participate in ceremony, fast, sweats, and other areas of our spirituality.  It is a way of life, not some pseudo religious practice.  The DOC officials here seem to think that they know how it is that we are to practice and observe our spiritual beliefs.  As Native prisoners practicing our faith we are continuously under fire because of our implements, our herbs, roots and barks, our pipes, drums, and lodge areas.  Our personal privacy in all these things is totally non-existent.”

Lone Wolf, also incarcerated in Washington State, expands on this same idea. “Personally, I feel that we don’t have the proper amount of time on Sweat Day to do the ceremony in the proper manner.  Three and a half hours isn’t enough time, without rushing, to do things completely.  Often we don’t have time to have our pipe ceremony.  Whenever a Native goes to smudge, he is harassed by the police and the smudge area is located in a common smoking are where the verbal negative is prevalent and one feels like he is on stage for the rest of the population.  We have been forced to make our four seasonal fast available to the whole population in so far as our traditional food (fry bread) is served to the whole population.  No other group has its spiritual food served to everyone.”

Another question asked which further illustrates religious persecution in prison was “What aspects of your Native American spirituality are allowed?”

Alex Montana, incarcerated in Texas, stated that the Sweat Lodge Ceremonies and smudging are prohibited. “A medicine pouch is allowed; however, it must be kept within a prisoner’s locker, inside his cell.  Nevertheless, many unit wardens do not adhere to institutional policy in this regard.  Also, a prayer Pipe Ceremony is allowed, however, it is only conducted indoors, in either an enclosed booth or a locked cage, and only permitted once a week, at the discretion of unit officials.”

Owisnii Oswiiguh says “Long hair is allowed.  Medicine bags are generally not worn because of problems with a few guards, who, in most cases, do not realize the powers of them (that the power will sometimes go out totally by their handling or that it will go into them in and away).”

Through the testimony of these four inmates, we can see that even though religious freedoms may be given to incarcerated Native Americans, they come with limitations otherwise not known. True freedom involves no time or place restrictions and the ability to fully participate in one’s own culture.  This does not seem likely to happen due to the naivete on the part of the non-Native prison officials.  They will never be able to grasp the spiritual connections Native Americans have with everything in the cosmos and how important it is for them to have access to this spirituality.

Sources consulted for this series include:

  • Beck, Peggy, et al. The Sacred. Arizona: Navajo College Press, 1996.
  • Brooks, Laura. Interview. In the Words of the Native Prisoners Themselves. With Ravens Voice,     Lone Wolf, Alex Montana, and Oswisnii Oswiiguh. University of Main Law Review March 1998: 45-60. 
  • Echo-Hawk, Walter. Native Worship in American Prisons. Cultural Survival Quarterly: January 1996: 58-69.
  • Fordham, Monique. Within the Iron Houses. Social Justice Spring – Summer 1993: 165-172.
  • Reed, Little Rock. The American Indian in the White Man’s Prisons: A Story of Genocide. Arizona: Navajo College Press, 1993. 
  • Ross, Luana. Inventing the Savage. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.