Skip to main content

Oregon prison is healing ground for tribal members

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) – Phillip Tiger, Cherokee, didn’t really connect with his American Indian heritage until he went to prison.

“Someone invited me to a ‘sweat,’” Tiger said. “I came out in a sweat shirt and Nikes – I thought we were going to play basketball.”

Turns out, the sweat was a ceremonial sauna inside an American Indian sweat lodge on prison grounds. Lodges are usually constructed of tree branches and covered with blankets or animal skins. Inside, participants cleanse body, mind and spirit.

Tiger, raised as a Southern Baptist, was one of about 45 inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution to attend a three-day Native American Healing Conference inside prison walls. The sessions are part of the Oregon Department of Correction’s religious services and are based on the “Healing our Wounded Spirits” gatherings held in recent years in Oregon and Washington for the general public.

Presenters talked about familiar subjects – overcoming anger, making restitution to victims, getting back on the right path – but with a definite tribal focus. They spoke of the Creator, visions, Sun dancing and pipe ceremonies.

“This is your Sun Dance, this prison,” said Darelle Butler, a spiritual leader and healer of the Siletz tribe. “This is your battlefield.”

Butler stood in the middle of a circle of blue – about 45 inmates dressed in jeans and navy blue T-shirts, ranging from 20-somethings to the gray. Around them, on the chapel walls, were pictures from nature – a grizzly bear, mallards coming in for a landing and deer.

Shane Clark, son of an Oglala Lakota father and Irish mother, watched intently. Afterward, Clark talked about growing up as an American Indian in a high school with only two other American Indian students – his brothers. He faced racism and got into fights.

Clark said he fought to hang on to Native values, but still fit into white society. He eventually lost his way.

“I put all my traditional beliefs behind me and was heavily into drugs.”

He earned a trip to prison, leaving behind his children. He slid into depression that worsened until Tyler Barlowe, then a Department of Corrections chaplain, brought him back to his roots.

“He took the time to pray with me,” Clark said. “He urged me to get back on the spiritual path.”

Barlowe, one of the presenters at the weekend conference, invited Clark to participate in a Sweatlodge ceremony. Before long, he found himself with dozens of “brothers” in prayer as sage and sweetgrass smoke swirled around them.

“We give up the nastiness of everyday life,” he said. “We ask the Creator to come and heal us from that.”

American Indian inmate Marshall Mann said he treasures his traditions and this group of Native men.

“As brothers, we share our lives,” he said. “We’re not a gang – it’s a spiritual circle.”

Rituals such as the sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies once were the backbone of Native life, Barlowe said.

“Back in the day, before you went to war or out on the warpath, there were ceremonies to prepare you,” he said. “There were ceremonies that cleansed you when you came home, so you didn’t bring negativity back to your tribe.”

Barlowe, who took part in the 1969 hostile takeover of Alcatraz Island by the American Indian Movement, spent his own time in prison during the 1970s, but now works to nudge Native prisoners back to healthier lifestyles on the outside by embracing native traditions.

“Beliefs and rituals are what we used to deal with traumatic things that happened. It kept us healthy for hundreds and thousands of years.”

Presenter Jeff Van Pelt, a member of the Umatilla Tribe, talked about some of the differences between Native and Western ways of thinking. Natives typically spent more time in creative spiritual thinking while Western society spawned more functional thinking as people wear wrist watches, gear their lives toward college and get their portfolios in order. To American Indians, it sometimes rankles, Van Pelt said.

“Indian people are instinctive people,” he said.

But, instead of reacting with anger and resistance to racist thinking and lack of control, there are other ways to deal, Van Pelt said. Reacquainting the men with their own traditions is one of them.

“It empowers them to go out and format themselves in a different way,” he said.