The Tribal Sons: Spiritual Resistance in the Belly of the Beast
ICMN correspondent returns to the Washington State prison where he was once locked up and shares a sweat with the Tribal Sons, an inmate group that turned his life around
The land around Shelton prison in western Washington State is an evergreen forest accented with lakes and streams. Trout and bass swim in the cool water from the foothills of the Olympic mountain range to the north, as hawks ride thermal updrafts in the afternoon sun.
I saw none of that the first time I was there in 1992. Back then, I was a prison inmate riding in a chain bus. The windows were narrow slits that afforded only small slices of the scenery that passed by.
I wore an orange jumpsuit and jailhouse slippers. A chain was locked around my waist. My wrists were cuffed to the chain. I had to bend forward if I wanted to scratch my head. My right ankle was shackled to the left ankle of the inmate next to me. In the front of the bus, behind the driver, a uniformed corrections officer sat glaring at us, a loaded shotgun at the ready.
That was 1992. Now, 25 years later, I was making the same journey from Seattle to Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington, this time to attend a sweat lodge ceremony with the Tribal Sons, the Native inmate spirituality group in which I’d once been a member.
As the car silently turned into the prison parking lot, I remembered how noisy the chain bus was 25 years earlier, whining and puffing as the driver geared down. Back then, all eyes were on the prison as the bus pulled in. I’d never seen a prison before except in the movies.
Now, in 2017, the prison looked exactly the same as I remembered, and as I gazed at the fences and guard towers, my chest tightened the same as it did in 1992.
“You ready for this?” my friend Jeff asked.
“Yeah, man,” I finally said, “I’ll call you when it’s over.”
Jeff left to go fishing and I trudged toward the visitor’s entrance, each step moving me back in time, to the Tribal Sons Sweat Lodge, where I was reborn 25 years before.
Becoming a Tribal Son
I’m not sure exactly when I became a Tribal Son. I guess it started when I met a Native inmate named Bruce in the King County Jail. I was there behind seven forgery charges and two “Vos-ka” charges. Vos-kas were drug charges, Violation of the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, “VUC-SA,” actually, but in jailhouse parlance it was pronounced “Vos-ka,” as in, “I got popped downtown on a Vos-ka.”
Bruce was already in prison and had been brought back to county to face some sort of additional charge. He was a big guy, looking a lot like the character Hoss on the old TV show “Bonanza.” When I told him I was Tlingit he said he belonged to an Indian group at Shelton called the Tribal Sons.
“It’s great because you get to wear a headband if you want, and you can wear a medicine bag. We get together to drum and sing Native songs and pray. And the first Sunday of each month we have sweat lodge.”
I got transferred into a different tank not long after that and lost touch with Bruce. A month and a half later, all my court business was done and I was sent to Shelton, which is what inmates call Washington Corrections Center.
Once I got into general population I ran into Bruce again. In the chow hall he introduced me to Richard, the chief of the Tribal Sons, and Jim, the pipe carrier.
Richard was short, with long, gray hair going down his back. Jim was a white guy with long, brown hair. His leathery hands and deeply tanned face were evidence of his inmate job as a groundskeeper.
“Bruce says you’re Tlingit,” Jim said.
“Yeah. My mom was full-blooded.”
“I was adopted into the Ojibwe tribe.”
Richard leaned forward and smiled.
“You ever been in a Native circle before?” he asked.
“No, never have.”
“It’s a lot different than God and Jesus and all them guys.”
“I got no problem with that,” I said.
Jim and Richard both laughed and nodded to each other.
“Ok, come to the Talking Circle tonight at 7. I’ll have the guards put your name on the list and you can walk over there with us. I’ll introduce you to the brothers.”
That was it. Easy peasy. I had no idea I’d just performed a time-honored act of indigenous defiance and rebellion.
The Fight for Native Religious Rights
I remember feeling guilty after I became a Tribal Son. I’m Tlingit, a coastal tribe from Southeast Alaska, but the Tribal Sons followed the spiritual traditions of the Northern Plains tribes, in particular the Lakota, or Western Sioux.
Although I knew little about my Tlingit heritage, I was pretty sure we didn’t have sweat lodge ceremonies or smoke a sacred pipe. As I grew to appreciate and love these practices, I also grew increasingly conflicted. Finally, one night in the Talking Circle, I brought it up.
“I’ve been feeling guilty. I’m Tlingit. We have different practices. I don’t know what they are. I mean, I was raised to be white. But my mom was full-blooded and she used to take me to Indian meetings when I was little. She was in the Alaska Native Sisterhood. I didn’t understand it, but I saw how important it was to her. Anyway, shouldn’t I be doing Tlingit things instead of Lakota things? Don’t get me wrong. I love the Lakota traditions. They’re a part of me now. But I’m Tlingit. Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m doing something wrong.”
I passed the talking stick. To my surprise, almost all the brothers admitted they sometimes had similar feelings. The brothers in the circle came from over a dozen different tribes, each with its own culture, language and traditions. Most of us knew nothing of our tribe’s history, having been displaced into big cities and separated from our ancestral homelands when we were children or sometimes before we were born.
“I know this is a lot different than what I remember,” Patrick, a Yup’ik from Alaska said. “But I like this, what we do. Being together, having this circle, it makes our prayers strong.”
“Aho!” called out the rest of the circle.
What I didn’t know was Native spirituality of any kind was pretty much banned in U.S. prisons until the 1970s. Then, inspired by uprisings like the Native takeovers of Alcatraz in San Francisco and Fort Lawton in Seattle, Native inmates in various federal and state prisons began organizing and petitioning prison officials for their first amendment right to freedom of religion, demanding Native sponsors be allowed into the prison to help meet their spiritual needs.
The inmates resented how chaplains were employed by prisons, and also how priests and rabbis were routinely allowed in, but Native sponsors practicing traditional ceremonies were not. They weren’t even considered practitioners of a valid religion. Native rituals such as the sweat lodge ceremony were considered primitive and were not allowed, while Christian rituals, such as the Catholic Mass, were allowed without question.
Early leaders of the American Indian Movement, the United Indians of All Tribes, and other Native groups, took as one of their first tasks making traditional Native spirituality available to Native inmates.
In May 1972, Gabriel Horn, a pipe carrier and teacher in AIM’s Red School House, went into Stillwater state prison, officially known as Minnesota Correctional Facility, and held the very first Native American pipe ceremony for the Native inmates.
In his book, Native Heart: An American Indian Odyssey, (1993, New World Library) Horn describes how it took months of contentious negotiations with Stillwater’s warden before permission to hold a pipe ceremony inside the prison was granted. In one early meeting, the warden was openly hostile toward Horn.
“You’re no medicine man,” he told him. “You’re a con artist.”
Horn describes how, before he was allowed to enter where the Native inmates were waiting, he had to submit the sacred pipe for inspection by a prison guard.
“When was the last time you inspected a bible?” Horn asked as he unwrapped the stem and showed it to the guard. “How often have you inspected the communion a priest brings in?” He took the unattached bowl out of a beaded bag and let the guard inspect it. “I suppose you check the holy water too.”
Horn then describes how the Native inmates reacted when they saw him:
“When the Indian prisoners saw me walking down the aisle holding the pipe, accompanied by the chief and Tuffy they turned or stood and looked up in silent recognition that the pipe and I had really made it. Some walked toward me and greeted me with handshakes or touched my arms, leading me onto the stage…. Orenda was everywhere.”
Horn defines “Orenda” as “that collective spirit of the ancestors.”
What I didn’t understand in 1992 was how difficult it was to bring any authentic Native spiritual practice into the prison system. Getting just a few Native ceremonies approved was a major victory. How could I expect the prison to accommodate all the nuances of my Tlingit heritage, or for that matter the nuances of all the other tribes represented in the prison system?
Jim, our pipe carrier, said it best back in 1992:
“I don’t think you should feel guilty,” he said. “Your ancestors understand. They ain’t gonna be mad just ‘cause you’re praying at them like a Lakota! They’re just glad you’re praying!”
“Aho!” the brothers called out. I looked at the circle and found them all looking back at me. I smiled.
“Aho!” I called out.
Getting Ready to Meet the Tribal Sons
I walked into the visitor’s entrance and saw two men in street clothes talking to a couple guards. One was Bob Bouchard of the Cowlitz tribe who was the official Native sponsor of today’s sweat lodge ceremony. The other was the prison chaplain, Greg Garringer.
“You Frank?” Bob asked. “I’m Bob. Nice to meet you.”
Bob was a big guy, older like me, with salt and pepper hair and a laid-back demeanor I found comforting. Chaplain Garringer was just as tall as Bob, but much bigger around, with gray hair and a beard.
I was nervous. I wore a black T-shirt with the words “Indigenous Bastard” stenciled on the front. I put my iPad, keys and belt into a plastic tray and stepped through the metal detector.
“Put your things in one of those lockers over there,” a guard said.
“Winona cleared him to bring in that iPad,” Bob told the guard. “He’s writing a magazine article. He’s going to take pictures.”
The guard looked at his clipboard.
“Right. You’re good to go. See the officer right through there for an ID badge.”
Winona Stevens, of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, got permission for me to go inside the prison as a media representative. The Founder and Executive Director of Native American Reentry Services, and HEAL (Helping Enhance Aboriginal Lives) for Reentry, Winona helps ensure the religious rights of Native inmates in Washington state prisons are upheld.
She got me cleared to go in, even though I’m a convicted felon. The prison superintendent Daniel White, who just took the job in February, was anxious to see an article come out about the prison’s Native American religious program. He personally granted permission for me and my iPad to go in and attend the sweat.
It was nearly eight and the sun was already hot. Bob, Chaplain Garringer and I left the administration building and made our way to the gym where the brothers were waiting. The place looked deserted. All the inmates were inside the concrete buildings.
As I walked, I remembered another time I crossed these grounds. It was in 1993 when I was an inmate. The guards sent me to the admin building to sign for some registered mail that had come for me. It turned out to be a letter notifying me of a court hearing in which another man would be adopting my children.
A couple years before, I told my ex-wife that her new husband should adopt our kids. That way I wouldn’t have to pay child support. I was heartless and self-centered. I had no concern for how my children would feel. I only cared about myself.
In 1993, as I walked back to my cell with the notice in my hand, I could feel my selfishness choking me. How could I do that? How could I give them up?
In 2017, as I walked the grounds again, I could still feel the weight of those legal papers in my hands, invisible to everyone but me. My kids were grown now and only one would speak to me, my son Andy.
“Hello, Frank,” he wrote to me the previous April. “I am your son Andy. I would like a chance to get to know you. I have no anger towards you, simply would like to know more about my heritage.”
We met once and everything was nice. I started feeling like a dad. Then I pushed too hard and asked him to come with me to the Tribal Sons sweat lodge. I had a grand vision of apologizing to him after we had smoked the sacred pipe. What a great ending for my article. But he turned me down, saying he wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.
I slept for what seemed like days. Visiting with Andy had reawakened the dream I’d held inside for years, that I would someday be welcomed back into the family, forgiven for all the hurt I’d caused.
But it doesn’t work that way and, what’s worse, I had no idea how it did work. I wondered as Bob, Chaplain Garringer and I walked to where the Tribal Sons were waiting, just what was I looking for?
The Tribal Sons Circle
We walked to where the brothers were corralled inside a fenced area just outside the gym. As we approached, the brothers stared at us. I wondered if they would still accept me.
“Hey! Check out that guy’s T-shirt,” said a brother with a long, black braid of hair going down his back.
Other brothers looked. Some stood and approached me, their faces breaking into smiles when they read my shirt.
“Indigenous Bastard! That’s crazy!”
“This is Frank,” Chaplain Garringer said. “He was an inmate here a long time ago. He was a Tribal Son. He’s writing an article about the sweat lodge.”
They were mostly in their mid-to-late 20s, although some looked like teenagers. They wore state-issued white sweatshirts or T-shirts and gray sweatpants or sweatshorts. Many were buff from years of daily weightlifting, blue tattoo ink popping from their muscles.
We left Chaplain Garringer at the gym and walked to the southwest corner of the prison property. One brother pushed a cart covered with tattered blue and gray jailhouse blankets.
Now it was just us Indians. The brothers laughed and talked with each other. I hung back, shy as always. The loss of freedom is a feeling that never leaves you when you’re incarcerated. As a visitor, I couldn’t feel what they were feeling. I could go home after I left. They couldn’t. I kept my mouth shut out of respect for their suffering.
We finally came to a small field covered with greenish-brown grass, bounded by prison fences, and watched over by a guard in a tower. The sweat lodge looked just as I remembered, a dome-shaped frame of willow branches lashed together with leather thongs, about 12 or 15 feet across with a small pit in the center.
The brothers got busy gathering stones for the fire, raking the fireplace outside the lodge where the stones would be heated and draping blankets over the frame of the sweat lodge. One brother sat on the dry grass by himself, quietly enjoying the sun. I nodded to him.
“Kinda feel like I should be doing something to help,” I said.
“You’re alright,” he said. “These guys can handle it. I’m Robert.”
“I’m Frank,” I said, sitting down by him.
“You were here before?”
“Yeah, back in ‘92. I remember I was always trying to look tough back then, but I wasn’t any good at it. The Tribal Sons didn’t care. They just accepted me,” I said.
“Yeah, everyone tries to be tough when they get here. But I always tell people, just be yourself.”
As I got to know Robert over the next several weeks, I was impressed by how strongly he himself lived by that advice.
“You can ask me anything you want,” he told me a couple weeks later at the Tribal Sons powwow.
“Just don’t ask him about his hairline,” a brother named Douglas joked.
Robert told me a powerful story of transformation, of going from street criminality to Native spirituality, that was so moving, I asked him to write it down. He later sent me this through the prison’s secure email system:
I was born in 1987. I am the oldest of three. My parents were a part of the drug life, so there were always people coming and going.
My parents were always fighting. I was old enough to remember those times. When I was 6 years old my parents got locked-up. At first my grandmother took us in and told my mother she would take care of us. My mother went to federal prison and my father went to a mental hospital. My grandmother later put us kids into foster care and we were passed around for close to a year and a half.
I hated the world! I was kept from my siblings most of the time. They treated us bad in most places. Then in 1994, I was adopted. At first I was happy because I was finally with my brother and sister and my adopted parents were very nice people. But I was a troubled child.
When I was a teen I found the dope game. I swear the game was so easy to me, it was like it ran in my blood. In 2008 my girl got pregnant and I got arrested and while I was waiting to go to prison my daughter Annie was born. I got to see her a few times while in prison until she was taken from me by her mother.
I was struggling, and my Native bros brought me in, but I was still not ready to learn my people’s ways. I didn’t listen. I got out of prison for a short period of time and tried to get in touch with my daughter, but was denied by her mother and stepdad.
I wound up going back to prison, and I knew I had to do something to change my ways if I wanted to see my daughter. Her mother lost her, and I had to fight to be in her life. On her mother’s side of the family, her uncle and his wife adopted my daughter in an open adoption because I have shown how much I changed my life.
My Native brothers have taught me so much and now I am in the process of teaching my daughter our culture. The medicine is real!
Robert’s daughter Annie is 9, but she’ll be 19 when her father is released. Golden-brown hair swirls down to her shoulders and her eyes playfully peek around it. She seems cautious and quiet, until you smile at her. Then she smiles back through little black-framed glasses.
I spoke with many other Tribal Sons like Keith, a Tlingit like me and a former gang member, and Cheney from Mexico and Douglas from Montana. All of them had Native blood and got caught up in crime due to a mysterious anger they seemed to inherit. This anger followed them everywhere.
I thought about my children, in particular my son Andy. I saw how even in my life, anger and pain traveled across generations. How can it be stopped?
The Sweat Lodge
The door to the sweat lodge closed and I couldn’t see anything. Although 20 of us sat around the central pit, I felt alone, almost as if I were floating disembodied in the darkness. The drum sounded and the wheel man sang. Water splashed and the heated rocks hissed, coming to life. The heat bit into my skin. Another splash and more hissing. A million little teeth bit into me as each ladle of water splashed. The rocks were Grandmother Earth and the hiss was the fire of Grandfather, Wakan-Tanka within them.
I buried my face in the ground as the heat grew. The singing kept hold of me. My breath became shallow and quick. I was a young man when I first experienced the sweat lodge, but now I was old and weak. I was afraid and felt panic nearby. I fought to hold on.
I thought of all my problems, my son, how I’d hurt him and his sisters by abandoning them. I was passing on the pain I’d inherited from my parents onto them, just as pain was passed down in the families of all the other brothers. When would it end? How many generations will it last?
I moaned. The heat held me down. This is too much, I thought. Too much. My son was such a cute kid. He loved me, but I only loved myself. Please stop, I thought. I can’t take anymore.
Other voices moaned, coming from the ground just like mine. The wheel man sang, calling for Grandfather. Suddenly, He came, Tunkashila, Wakan-Tanka, the Great Mystery. I felt his presence.
Only then did I see it. The heat was the same for all of us, exactly the same. We all suffered. Seeing this made our pain easier to bear. A switch flipped. I understood. This thing I protected my whole life, this “me,” this “I,” was a burden I didn’t need. This “I” had been trying to control my son, saying when and where we met and what we did. Now, with the burden of self lifted, I saw what I had to do. I had to let him tell me what he needed. I had to listen. I had to stop getting in the way. That was the medicine, and as Robert said, the medicine is real!
I only lasted two rounds of the sweat. The last two rounds I sat out. I spoke with Bob, the outside sponsor, as the other brothers finished the last two rounds themselves. I told Bob about my son and how he’d pulled away.
“You gotta take baby steps,” Bob said.
A week later, I got a call from my son Andy. He’d gotten a promotion where he worked. He just wanted to share that with me. He saw the pictures I’d posted online from my visit to the Tribal Sons, how I’d been fatherly to them, and he decided to share his joy with me. I cried. I felt like a real dad, maybe for the first time in my life.
Later, I called and asked if he’d like to go to dinner to celebrate his new job. I didn’t suggest when or where, I just told him it’d be my treat. He agreed and told me what would work out best for him. It was a baby step, but I realized I was still his dad.
After the sweat I took a group photo of the Tribal Sons. The guard in the tower saw me hand my iPad to the brothers so they could see the picture. Within a few minutes a truck filled with guards pulled up and confiscated my iPad. Inmates are not allowed to hold outside electronic items. I got pissed. The brothers could tell.
As we walked back to the gym, the brothers apologized for what happened. They said it wasn’t my fault. That’s just how the guards are. I wound up raising a big stink and finally got my iPad back, but before that, when I told the brothers goodbye, they all shook my hand, Tribal Sons style, grabbing my forearm. I was proud to be one of them, a brother, a Tribal Son.