Within the Iron Houses: The Struggle for Native American Religious Freedom in American Prisons
Fordham, Monique, Social Justice
MOST AMERICANS FEEL SECURE THAT THEIR FREEDOM TO WORSHIP IN THEIR particular religious faith is a well protected right. After all, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise therefo..."
However, for many Native Americans, the First Amendment provides no such sense of security. Considering the genocide they have experienced at the hands of the U.S. government, it is not surprising that Indian peoples have never had their traditional religious freedoms protected under its auspices. In fact, Euro-American hostility toward Native American religions has served as justification for 500 years of oppression. Recognized early on as a primary source of strength and stability for Indian nations, Native religious practices were disrupted, degraded, and outlawed by white colonizers bent on eradicating "pagan savages" and helping themselves to their resources. The Potlatch of the Northern Pacific coastal nations and the Sun and Ghost Dances of those of the Great Plains are just a few of the better-known ceremonies that were forbidden and whose "illegality" was then used to persecute their practitioners. By the mid--1800s, nearly all aspects of traditional Native American religious practices were against the law.
It was not until the late 1970s that the U.S. government acknowledged its long history of Native American religious repression. In 1978, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), a move that seemed to indicate a new consciousness on the part of the government. In its preamble, the act spelled out the many ways that the federal government has failed to recognize Indian religions and has interfered with or prohibited their free exercise. The act stated that U.S. policy would now be to:
protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent rights to believe,
express, and exercise traditional religions...including but not limited to
access to sites, use, and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to
worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
However, in the 14 years since AIRFA was signed into law by then-President Jimmy Carter, various branches of the U.S. government have continued to chip away at Native American religious freedoms. AIRFA was passed basically as a policy statement, without provisions for enforcement, and the recommendations it generated for changes in the ways agencies operated vis a vis Native religious concerns went virtually ignored. Subsequent efforts to invoke AIRFA as a tool in cases fighting for Native American religious protections (i.e., preservation of sacred sites or religious use of peyote) were often fruitless, further demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the act.
Incarcerated Native Americans have also tried to evoke AIRFA in support of their struggles for First Amendment religious protections. However, the American prison system is allowed to formulate its own unique interpretation of "freedom of religion," regardless of AIRFA. The courts consistently defer to the decisions of individual superintendents or wardens as to which "freedoms" constitute a "security risk." Religious activities can therefore be prohibited at the discretion of corrections officials without any substantiating evidence that past incidents involving said practices have transpired. The results are inconsistent and tend to privilege inmates with mainstream, Judeo-Christian beliefs.
Perhaps no other U.S. group has suffered greater denial of their First Amendment rights to freely practice their traditional religion than have incarcerated Native Americans. The U.S. penal system has its roots in Judeo-Christian concepts of punishment and redemption; solitary confinement, for example, began with the idea of isolating the prisoner with a Bible. In fact, two of the primary "rehabilitative" components of U.S. prisons, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, are based on Judeo-Christian tenets antithetical to traditional Indian religious beliefs. Although they purport not to advocate for any particular religious persuasion, these A.A. and N.A. meetings typically conclude with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
One should not get the impression that prison authorities have simply "overlooked" the desires of Native American prisoners to exercise their traditional beliefs. As Standing Deer Wilson, an Oneida-Choctaw in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, has written:
There are more Indians in Oklahoma than in any other state except
California, and yet American Indian traditional religion is against the law
at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Indians are welcomed with open
arms as long as they are Christians. They are provided with Bibles, free
Bible courses, religious books, crosses, crucifixes, and medals of Chris-
tian saints, preachers, and church services. But if an Indian worships in
the way of his grandfathers, his religious beliefs are trampled upon and
disrespected and every aspect of his religion is banned.... [E]ven the hair
on his head, which connects him to the Creator, is shorn from his head by
The religious persecution of Indian people continues unabated. It can easily be postulated that the large number of Native Americans within prison populations (in states with high Indian populations, such as South Dakota and Alaska, figures run as high as 25% to 31% respectively) is directly related to their systematic oppression at the hands of White America. However, despite the best efforts of the church and the state, Native peoples have not lost their identity or forgotten their histories. Pan-Indian developments in the last 20 years, such as the activities of the American Indian Movement and the Traditional Circle of Elders, have emphasized the benefits of a return to traditional spiritual practices. Native American brothers and sisters in prison, obviously alienated from mainstream society, desperately need to be able to engage in religious practices that affirm their cultural identity and traditional Indian values. Visits from Native American spiritual leaders, freedom to wear long hair and headbands, participation in sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies, access to sacred objects such as eagle feathers, medicine bags and bundles, pipes and pipe bags, drums, gourds, corn pollen, and sacred herbs such as cedar, sage, sweet grass, and tobacco; these things together comprise a general listing of what freedom of religion means to an Indian prisoner seeking to follow the traditional path. The word "together" must be emphasized here; many times a warden considers granting just one of these components sufficient to fulfill his obligation to provide Native prisoners with freedoms commensurate with those of other faiths. One such instance involved a warden whose idea of providing "an American Indian religious facility" consisted of allowing Indian prisoners to sit on the floor of a closet in the prison chaplain's office in order for them to hold their pipe ceremony. Because no other prisoners were permitted to utilize this space, the warden felt this was an equitable arrangement, despite the fact that Christian prisoners were provided with a large, permanent chapel in which to worship.
Whether one chooses to characterize the denial of religious freedom to Indian prisoners as racist harassment, or just a result of ignorance, such arbitrary denial is difficult to justify in light of the benefits reported by prison officials who have allowed such practices. The sweat lodge is often the central component in religious programming for Native American prisoners, and the benefits derived from this ceremony have been observed by corrections officials such as George Sullivan, Deputy Director for Operations for the Colorado Department of Corrections, who has worked in the U.S. prison system for almost 40 years. Sullivan first implemented sweats for Indian prisoners when he was warden of the Oregon State Correctional Institution in 1970, besides allowing Native spiritual leaders to visit and counsel with inmates there. Sullivan soon recognized the importance these activities had for the Indian people at his facility:
It gave them an opportunity to rekindle their relationships and under-
standings of their heritage, and I think it was very valuable to them....
[W]e had no problems with any of the Native American prisoners who
participated in these Native American religious services....
Sullivan later instituted a similar Native American religious program at the New Mexico State Penitentiary when he became warden there. Once again, the program was a success. When Sullivan assumed his current positions as Deputy Director for Operations for the Colorado Department of Corrections, wardens in the state were actively opposing the implementation of religious ceremonies for Indian prisoners. Undaunted, he used his authority to mandate that all wardens within the state institute religious programs for Native inmates that incorporated sweats and regular visits by spiritual advisors. The programs, according to Sullivan, have been "in all ways a positive experience and result." Some wardens continue to argue that there is a security risk involved, but based on his experience, Sullivan says:
Those contingencies are just not valid. There's absolutely no reason an
inmate cannot wear his hair long per his religious beliefs, no reason he
cannot have his medicine bag, there's absolutely no reason whatsoever
why they cannot have their sweat lodge...eagle feathers, or their pipes.
There's just no good security reason why this cannot be permitted.
It seems odd that many prison officials would oppose any program that suggests lower rates of disciplinary action, improved prisoner attitude, and the possibility of reduced recidivism. In any event, Native prisoners clearly cannot afford to have their religious freedom hinge on the enlightenment of individual corrections officials. Enforceable legislation is required to standardize policy once and for all.
Some of the more well-known Native American activists involved in efforts to improve statutory and constitutional religious protections to Indian inmates include Walter Echo-Hawk, Esq., and Don Ragona, Esq., of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and Vernon Bellecourt and Ted Means of the Heart of the Earth Survival School. Together with other dedicated Indian activists and spiritual leaders, they direct The Coalition for Prisoners' Rights, which operates within the American Indian Religious Freedom Coalition. Recent developments on the state level are currently generating a great deal of enthusiasm among these activists and others concerned about the religious freedoms of Native prisoners: model laws have been passed in Colorado and New Mexico that are seen as effectively legislating comprehensive religious freedom for Indian inmates. Involved in the development of both bills is Lenny Foster, Director of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project and a vital Coalition for Prisoners' Rights member. Foster has been involved in the passage of prisoners' rights legislation in other states, but believes that the specificity of the New Mexico bill in particular makes it a model for Native prisoners' rights legislation on both the state and the federal levels. A spiritual advisor who has worked for the past 13 years in prisons around the country, Foster says he wants American Indian spiritual advisors to have the same privileges that Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and even Hare Krishna clerics have been granted.
On the federal level, Foster and members of The Coalition for Prisoners' Rights have been centrally involved in efforts to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), discussed earlier. These amendments are designed to give enforcement "teeth" to this prior legislation; to transform it from a mere policy statement to a federal guarantee of religious protections for Native Americans. The movement advocating for these amendments is spearheaded by The American Indian Religious Freedom Coalition, which includes such major Native American rights organizations as the Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc., the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund, the Native American Religious Freedom Project of the Native American Church, the Navajo Nation and its Corrections Project, and the Heart of the Earth Survival School. In addition, prominent environmental organizations, such as the National Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund have joined with the Coalition, as have several major religious organizations from various faiths.
Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, has been taking testimony at various locations around the country in preparation for the introduction of federal legislation to amend AIRFA. Lenny Foster has joined the list of respected individuals providing such testimony in efforts to ensure that religious freedom protections for incarcerated Native Americans are included in the amendments. The amendments, which are still in rought form, as noted above, cover a wide range of Native religious concerns, pertaining to issues such as sacred sites and the sacramental use of peyote. In terms of prisoners' rights, those amendments now would ensure that Indian inmates:
1. Shall regularly have, on a basis comparable to the access afforded prisoners who practice Judeo-Christian religions, access to:
a. Native American traditional religious leaders;
b. That such leaders be afforded the same status as chaplains of the Judeo-Christian faith and be afforded all the rights and privileges therein;
c. Subject to paragraph (2), items and materials utilized in religious ceremonies; and
d. Native American religious facilities.
2. Native American prisoners who express a desire to wear their hair according to the religious customs of their individual tribes may do so if:
a. Upon a showing that the practice is deeply rooted in tribal religious beliefs; and
b. That these beliefs are sincerely held by the Native prisoner; and
c. Denial of the Native American prisoner of the right to wear his hair long by the penal administration may be done only after it has been shown that the legitimate institutional needs of the penitentiary could not be served by viable, less restrictive means that would not unduly burden the administrators' task of running the facility.
The Native American Prisoners' Rehabilitation Research Project and The Navajo Nation Corrections Project have collaborated to produce an invaluable critique of this rough draft of the amendments, pointing out possible loopholes in the draft's existing language that could be used by prison officials to continue to deny true religious freedom to Native prisoners. Lenny Foster cautions that, without the level of specificity achieved in the New Mexico state law, the new AIRFA amendments may still be subject to the subjective interpretation of prison officials.
Additional testimony will be taken in Washington once the legislation to amend AIRFA is formally introduced. Opposition is expected to be strong due to the impact the amendments' land-related protections will have on the mineral, oil, gas, and timber industries, who currently derive huge profits from contracts on federal properties.
The quest by Indian peoples for religious freedom often seems like an unending one. For Native Americans incarcerated in U.S. prisons, it has often been a struggle waged in imposed silence. However, the voices of Indian people inside the "iron houses" across the country are finally being heard, and their right to exercise their traditional religions in dignity is slowly being recognized as a pressing concern by peoples of all races and faiths. These developments come as the result of inmates' willingness to stand up against a frequently brutal system to ensure that, even if they were made to suffer for their beliefs, other Indian people might know freedoms long denied them. With more state legislation in the works and the introduction of federal amendments to AIRFA expected in 1993, one hopes that more drums will be heard inside American prisons, and more hearts will return to the religious traditions of their grandfathers and grandmothers. Our entire country can only benefit. As Lenny Foster has put it, "if the original people of the land are not free, no one is."
Additional sources of information:
Native American Rights Fund (NARF) 1506 Broadway Boulder, CO 80302 (303) 447--8760
Navajo Nation Corrections Project P.O. Drawer 709 Window Rock, AZ 86515 (602) 871--6244
Heart of the Earth Survival School 1209 4th St. S.E. Minneapolis, MN 55414 (612) 331--8862
Association on American Indian Affairs, Inc. (AAIA) 245 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1801 New York, NY 10016--8728 (212) 689--8720; (212) 685--4692 FAX
The Honorable Senator Daniel Inouye Chair, Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20501 (202) 224--3934; (202) 224--6747 FAX
Native American Prisoners' Rehabilitation Research Project 2848 Paddock Lane Villa Hills, KY 41017 (606) 341--4080
Friends Committee on National Legislation 245 Second Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002--5795 (202) 547--6000
Video: The Great Spirit within the Hole follows the paths of several Native American inmates as they return to traditional Native religious practices. It is produced and distributed by Spotted Eagle Productions, 2524 Hennepin Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55405.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Within the Iron Houses: The Struggle for Native American Religious Freedom in American Prisons. Contributors: Fordham, Monique - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 20. Issue: 1-2 Publication date: Spring-Summer 1993. Page number: 165+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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