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A prison documentary describes a journey from despair to reconciliation

DENVER — The story of Jimi Simmons is a story of justice both denied and upheld. As a baby, the government dissolved his tribe and the state took him from his parents, but as an adult an all-white jury freed him from a murder charge and a possible death sentence.

The ordeal lived by Simmons, 56, of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community/Muckleshoot Tribe, was told in “Making the River,” a documentary that opened Denver’s 5th Annual Indigenous Film & Arts Festival Oct. 7-13.

“I wanted to show people that anybody could change their life,” he said of the making of the film. “Now I want our communities to work toward being a positive asset for people when they get out of prison.”

Simmons’ saga began at 17 months, when the government withdrew recognition from his tribe, his family dissolved, and he was placed in a Catholic Church-run home. Later, a foster parent told him, “You’re going to end up in the reformatory,” and he did — from the age of 10 or so he was in and out of youth corrections for various property crimes. At 27, he went to Oregon State Prison and “I thought that was my life,” he said.

He didn’t see his parents again “until they were in their coffins,” he said, and at his father’s funeral he first met his brother, George, with whom he did a robbery in Tacoma, Wash. that led to their being sentenced to the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.

A prison guard was killed in the aftermath of the murder of an Indian inmate, he said, and “the prison didn’t do anything about it even though they knew who did it — and never did charge the person who did it.” In the aftermath, however, the brothers were charged with first-degree murder “with special circumstances — when they try to hang us.” Although Simmons was later found not guilty, his brother was convicted of second-degree murder and killed himself because “he was a man who liked his freedom.”

He spent years in solitary confinement and, unlike the situation in youth detention, there was no hope of “making the river.” The film’s title reflects the youths’ belief that if they could reach a river near the detention facility, they had made a successful escape.

For someone who had only had an identity involving abandonment and criminal behavior, however, Simmons had the opportunity to reclaim an Indian selfhood in prison, he said.

As far back as youth detention, Simmons said he felt an affinity with other Indians “because we were the warriors — after all, it wasn’t that long ago they killed all our people.” Later, he was aided in his defense against the murder charge by the Society of the People Struggling to be Free, a splinter group of the American Indian Movement, he said.

“They were the first people who told me I didn’t have to use alcohol and drugs,” he said.

He learned from another group, the Brotherhood of American Indians, that “by joining with other inmates, I could get things done I couldn’t do by myself. The prison officials don’t like it when you get together.”

In Walla Walla he also spent his days at a prison sweat lodge and traditional elders visited the inmates.

“The guards gave certain groups favors, but they never gave the Indians favors,” he said. “But we prayed for everybody.”

“They thought they gave us this sacred lodge, but the Creator gave it to us. And they thought they brought medicine people in, but the Creator gave them to us. Even when we were locked down, some medicine men would come in and they would say, ‘I don’t know how I got here, but I did.’”

He said he wanted to “tell the brothers and sisters in the iron houses that people care about them and always remember them in the ceremonies.”

Simmons, who said he has been “clean and sober for 22 years,” works with grassroots groups in California, particularly with those aiming for a society that one day will have no prisons because today “we have the prison/industrial complex — they have slave labor.”

“Making the River,” by Sarah Del Seronde, was presented at the University of Denver by the Institute for Indigenous Resource Management in partnership with the Native Student Alliance and Native American Law Students organization.