“It Brought the Good Person Out in Me”: Powwows in Prison

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A great story in the Seattle Times details the successful efforts of Seattle attorney Gabe Galanda to persuade Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) administrators to accommodate the religious rights of Native American inmates at DOC facilities around the state. Most significantly, family members of Native inmates, including children, are now allowed to attend annual powwows. A central ritual of Native American culture, the powwow involves dancing, singing, socializing and communal dining.

"People die inside themselves in here," the Times notes Washington State Penitentiary inmate Herbert Rice as stating. "These elders here today remind us of who we are, they bring us back to who we are. And the kids, for us, remind us of what we used to be, and they remind us what tomorrow is going to be."

This most recent development has roots in ACLU advocacy on behalf of Native Americans with concerns that the passage of Initiative 901 (banning indoor smoking) would impair their rights to engage in the religious use of tobacco and in smudging ceremonies. In response to these concerns, Washington’s Attorney General issued an opinion that the smoking ban did not apply to such religious activities. Subsequently DOC prohibited tobacco from all of its facilities. The ACLU persuasively argued that a blanket ban was contrary to the spirit of the Attorney General’s opinion; DOC agreed and implemented new policies allowing for the use of small quantities of tobacco and herbs like kinnikinnick in religious ceremonies.

DOC’s reforms not only honor the religious rights of Native Americans –- they also promote strong family connections and support the efforts of inmates to mend their lives and move away from crime and towards recovery. DOC should be applauded for the positive steps it has taken to support the religious rights of prisoners – steps the ACLU has encouraged for some time as part of our efforts to protect religious freedoms of all Americans