Indigenous prisoner religious rights organization urges prayer for inmates
Indigenous inmates in Washington State have not seen family in person or been allowed to engage in group sweat-lodge worship since March. Advocates worry even more about them now that we are in the holiday season.
“COVID has caused us all to realize what life is like without family gatherings or religious ceremonies. But when family and spiritual contact are your only freedoms, the void is profound,” said Gabe Galanda, Chairman of Huy, a Seattle-based, Indigenous prisoner, religious rights organization. “We ask everyone to keep our incarcerated relatives in their thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.”
As COVID-19 has hit Tribal communities very hard, Indigenous inmates have not been able to either grieve with visiting family members or be released into community custody to return home for burial ceremonies as they normally would. Nor have they been allowed to lean on or mourn with other Indigenous inmates through group prison worship.
Last week Huy persuaded the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) to allow “modified religious services” for Indigenous inmates. In a statewide memo issued by the agency the day before Thanksgiving, the agency provided its Indigenous population the option to pray in an outdoor sweat-lodge area and near a small fire, but “outside of the inipi,” provided all participants social distance and wear masks.
The Washington State Department of Corrections cited federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) concerns about sweat-lodge gatherings generally.
Indigenous participants are allowed to offer “a small amount of tobacco” to the fire in prayer, yet cannot share tobacco in any pipe ceremony. Only a pipe carrier can hold the pipe. “It is not to be passed around and no actual smoking of the pipe will occur,” according to the Washington State Department of Corrections memo.
Although Indigenous inmates could engage in at least weekly sweat-lodge and pipe ceremonies prior to COVID-19, the Washington State Department of Corrections announced: “It may be that larger groups will have access only every other week.” Meanwhile, Western faith groups that gather for worship indoors—for example for Catholic mass—have been able to gather more frequently, with social distancing and mask wearing.
“These restrictions are far from ideal, but we will take what we can get for our relatives, especially during the holidays,” continued Galanda. “We hope they feel a modicum of religious freedom as they worship outside and by a sacred fire.”
On Friday, the Washington State Department of Corrections recognized its broader collaboration with Huy over the years in a blog titled “Indigenous Partnerships in 2020.” Soon before the pandemic, Galanda and past Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman and Huy Advisor Brian Cladoosby met with the agency’s top brass to discuss how historic trauma contributes to disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people as well as recidivism.
For the last ten years, Huy and the Washington State Department of Corrections have worked together to reduce Indigenous inmates' recidivism and increase their successful re-entry into Tribal and non-Tribal communities. For example, the two organizations collaborated this summer to announce a program that allows Indigenous inmates to grow, harvest, and pray with medicinal plantswithin Washington State prisons. Sage, sweet grass, and lavender are currently grown on "sacred ground" at three Washington State Department of Corrections prisons, with plans to expand the program statewide.