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Native American Prisoner's Rights

Behind The Iron Door

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Behind The Iron Door

by William Scott Anderson

Please visit the Minorities Job Bank site! They were so kind as to publish my article!

The last gubenatorial race in Massachusetts precipitated the following comments with regards to the state's failure to allow imprisoned Native Americans to practice their religion. While that race is over, the comments/advice remain relevant.

How can I begin to explain the value of the purification or "sweat" lodge and those sacred items intrinsic to the practice of Native American spirituality?

How can I underline that if you truly want to rehabilitate imprisoned Native Americans and GREATLY reduce recidivism, that you must allow them access to the sweat lodge and individual spiritual items? In support of this assertion I provide the following two narratives.

I know a certain Northern Cheyenne man, the cousin of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Out of respect, I will not mention the man's legal name here. But, I will say that my friend, let's call him Tashunka, is a highly respected Horseman whose biography was recently published in the magazine, Western Horseman.

Tashunka had moved to my hometown in Utah, as he was hired by a local rancher. The ranch went bust and he lost his job. Over a period of time, he began losing a lot of things to pawnshops so he could eat... things that were precious to him...like his saddle which he needed to work, bridles, etc.

I befriended Tashunka, and invited him to my home on several occasions. I told him that a local fellow was running purification lodge ceremonies. In introduced the two.

Tashunka "went in," as is said, for the first time in over 20 years. After that, Tashunka said that while he was in the lodge going through ceremony, he realized that his current poverty-related problems were not due to others but due to his inner attitude; that he had grown cynical over the years BECAUSE he had not been undergoing purification, and that he felt he was in a "box" so to speak, and put there by the Creator.

After purification, he knew it was he that put himself in the "box" or untenable situation he was in, and he now knew how to get himself out. Very soon after that things changed for Tashunka; he got a job back in his native Colorado; he got back all of his things he needed to work; and was on his way back to being productive.

In another situation, I know a man named James Mooney who works in a Utah State Prison in Gunnison, Utah. He is a Seminole Indian. He provides Native American spiritual counseling, runs sweat lodge ceremonies, etc.

In early 1995, a delegation from Salt Lake City assembled to determine why the recidivism rate of inmates that this Native rehabilitation counselor worked with was so extraordinarily low. As I recall, it was below 20%. During the meeting, one delegation member was heard to say, "We want to know what kind of witchcraft is involved here." I believe that this may be the attitude of many prison officials.

You see, many Native people develope rage and live enraged at what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the so-called "Christian" peoples. They are looked down upon because they are not "Christian." Yet, perhaps, they are not Christians because the "Christians" they see around them murdered their relatives; stole their homelands; and now steal their culture. Perhaps they do not want to be part of hypocrisy. Many are full of rage, so they act out inappropriately. Incarceration results. Once incarcerated they come into contact with their traditional Native spirituality....many for the first time in their lives.

Those Native Americans that request the sweat lodge and sacred items in their cells are not anti-Christ and, like Gandhi, many understand and deeply respect the teachings of Christ. They just want to live long enough to get out of prison, and once out, stay out. Now, be sure and keep in mind the Utah delegation that was investigating the low recidivism rate.

But, Native Americans just don't understand - given the low recidivism rate of Native prisoners thus rehabilitated - why many white people, such as the judicial systems, governments, jailers and many others don't have enough respect for themselves to allow inmates to worship as they please. Conventional methods of rehabilitation do not work for Native peoples. The way of the Sweat Lodge, use of sacred items, etc does.

Naturally, prisoners think, "Does the legal/prison system really want me to be rehabilitated, or do they just want me to keep coming back?"

So what have you, as the Governor of Massachusetts, got to lose by allowing these people to regain their self-respect, their connection with their Mother the Earth, and worship in their own way?

Do you want them to keep coming back to prison, or do you want them rehabilitated? You have seen what conversion to Christianity while in prison does to lower recidivism of Anglo-Saxon prisoners haven't you? Then what have you got to lose by letting the Native Americans have their worship services in your prisons? You have nothing to lose and millions of dollars to gain. Maybe this will even help you stay in office, if you use this situation to your advantage! And if you do, perhaps you truly deserve to be re-elected!

I have some ideas what you have to lose, but I will keep them to myself, and let you discover them. Like saving millions of Massachusetts taxpayer dollars on the future prison stays of Native Americans that might have been rehabilitated if you had just allowed them to be.

The decision is yours.

Wovoca aka Wovoka, Wavoka: "The Indian Messiah"

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