Walking the Red Road IN THE IRON HOUSE

By Williams, Joel West | American Jails, May/June 2014 | Go to article overview

Walking the Red Road IN THE IRON HOUSE


Williams, Joel West, American Jails


As of midyear 2011, approximately 29,700 American Indian and Alaska Natives were incarcerated in the United States (Montin, 2012). Although Native Americans are incarcerated at a high rate, there remains a persistent misunderstanding among correctional institutions regarding the role of traditional religious practices in American Indian life and the rehabilitation of American Indian inmates. Unfortunately, institutional protection of the exercise of American Indian religion often fails merely because its practice looks different from other religions, and administrators perceive it as threatening to penological interests.

In addition, prisons are not part of traditional American Indian society. Longtime advocate for American Indian inmates Walter Echo-Hawk (1996) observed:

"For the indigenous people of the New World, penal institutions were alien criminal justice institutions. Traditional Native American societies did not rely upon imprisonment to punish social offenders. Many of the first Native American experiences with European-style incarceration came when chiefs, warriors, families and, sometimes, entire Tribes were confined as prisoners of war or criminals in the so-called 'Indian wars'...."

Not only are prisons alien to traditional American Indian culture, but they have also been instruments of cultural genocide, used as punishment for American Indians who practiced their traditional religion. "In 1892 and 1904, Federal regulations outlawed the practice of tribal religions entirely and punished Indian practitioners by either confinement in agency prisons or by withholding rations" (Inouye, 1992).

Although some say this is "water under the bridge," this view ignores the fact that the waters continue to flow (Echo-Hawk, 2010). Remarkably, it was not until 1978 that traditional American Indian beliefs were protected by law (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2002). Still, some prisons and jails continue to disregard the religious needs of American Indians. Unfortunately, they must continually turn to the courts and Congress to force correctional facilities to accommodate their religious practices. It is hoped that the information provided in this article about the unique religious practices of American Indians and the law protecting them in the correctional setting will lead to better accommodation of their needs.

American Indian Religious Practices

American Indians have a unique religious tradition. For American Indian inmates, religious practice has a powerful, rehabilitative effect (Johnson, 1997; Sumter, 2000). Moreover, access to their religious items and ceremonies can be accommodated without undermining a facility's security needs, instead greatly contributing to indigenous inmates' rehabilitation (The Pluralism Project, 2005). Yet a persistent issue has been that correctional facilities do not recognize American Indian needs as religious, or they fear interference with a facility's safety and security interests.

Because facets of American Indian religion look different from those of more mainstream religions, it may be difficult for non-Indian people to recognize and understand the significance of some beliefs and practices. During a hearing on amendments to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, one U.S. Senator (Wellstone, 1993) described the problem well:

"[O]ur traditional understanding of how to protect religious freedom, based on a European understanding of religion, is insufficient to protect the rights of the First Americans.... What we are talking about here is not religion in the sense it is traditionally understood in the United States. 'Religion,' for traditional Native Americans, is not some set of practices easily distinguished from everyday life, accomplished in specific buildings, with particular religious authorities presiding. Instead, religion is deeply intertwined with the very fabric of Native American cultural identities.... I think that it is clear that when we talk about religious freedom for Native Americans, our first problem is to clear up the obvious misunderstandings about what is under consideration. …

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