Fighting for Indigenous Inmates and Religious Rights
Indian Country Today
Since at least 2013, there has been a continuous call for improved conditions across the U.S. when it comes to indigenous prisoners religious rights. On August 3, Huy (pronounced Hoyt) submitted comments to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson calling attention to ongoing violations of incarcerated indigenous on the state and local level.
The national non-profit’s comments were submitted for the State Department’s November 20, 2017 report to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The comments were sent to both the state department and CERD.
Huy’s comments are a follow-up to the report that the American Indian-run, Seattle-based NGO submittedto CERD in 2014. In its 2017 report, Huy explains that, “The United States has been on notice of this failure to protect indigenous prisoners’ religious freedoms since at least mid-2013, when it received an inquiry about these violations from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples together with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. To our knowledge, the United States has yet to respond to this inquiry, despite calls from indigenous leaders in the United States.”
In 2014, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Brian Cladoosby called upon then Secretary of State John Kerry to respond to the United Nations Special Rapporteur’s 2013 inquiry. There has yet to be a response from the State Department to that United Nations inquiry or to Huy’s 2014 report.
“Our trustee has yet to hear our calls for justice on behalf of our imprisoned relatives. So we turn to international human rights forums for accountability,” stated NCAI President Cladoosby, who also sits on Huy’s Board of Advisors. “We continue to hope and pray for national intervention against state and local government violation of indigenous prisoner religious freedoms.”
The August 3 letter to Secretary Tillerson addresses the continued violation of ICERD articles 2, 5, and 6, along with the treatment of indigenous inmates that is inconsistent with UNDRIP articles 2, 12, 18, and 19.
Violations are happening across the country, but Huy highlighted issues in Alabama, California, Idaho, Texas and Wyoming state prisons.
In Alabama’s case, the state, along with nine other states, continue to prohibit indigenous prisoners from seeking a religiously based exemption from prison policies banning long hair.
There have been small victories for indigenous inmates and their religious rights. The most recent was a decision by Neil Gorsuch, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, while serving as a federal Court of Appeals judge said that Wyoming had placed a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion by Andrew Yellowbear by denying him access to the prison’s sweat lodge.
Victories like this only happen because indigenous prisoners are “being forced to vindicate their rights through protracted litigation,” according to Huy. Litigation, as Huy explained to Tillerson, is not an effective remedy to the problem.
“The Trump Administration is rather obviously committed to states’ rights, to mass incarceration, and to the freedom of religion—at least Western religion,” said Huy Chairman Gabe Galanda, an Indian civil rights lawyer in Seattle. “Those commitments must also make way for the exercise of American Indian religious freedom within state or local prisons, as the U.S. Constitution and federal statute require.”
Huy in the Coast Salish Indian Lushootseed language means “see you again/we never say goodbye.” The non-profit provides economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for American Indian, Alaska Native and other indigenous prisoners in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States.