February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Frebruary 2016 Bar Bulletin

Shared Faith: Tribal-State Indian Religious Rights Reform

By Gabriel S. Galanda


In May 2014, I wrote a Bar Bulletin article detailing “how a local, grassroots, Native American prisoners’ religious rights advocacy movement has ascended to national and international heights.”1 As I explained, that movement was born from state transgressions at the Monroe Correctional Complex on Easter Sunday in 2010, revealing statewide Native American religious rights violations; that movement was then catalyzed by Washington’s “virtually unprecedented mea culpa and about-face” in 2011.2

Today I write to share news of several profound reforms accomplished by local Native leaders and the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), which enhance Native offenders’ opportunity to obtain spiritual rehabilitation. I also highlight a current concern about a for-profit prison scheme in Washington that impedes that opportunity.

Those reforms were recently the subject of remarks made by Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community chairman and National Congress of American Indians president, to his fellow Washington tribal chairpersons and Gov. Jay Inslee. Chairman Cladoosby said that “Washington Tribes and the Washington State Department of Corrections have collaborated in ways that epitomize” symbiotic tribal-state relations.

That collaboration also epitomizes a shared faith regarding the value of religious freedom in rehabilitating Native offenders and preparing them to re-enter society.

Spheres of Influence

Each of Washington’s 12 prisons hosts Native “Circles,” comprised of the Native inmate population in each prison block. In Indian culture, the Circle represents the continuum of life; without beginning or end. In prison, the symbolism of the Circle is apt. It provides hope — a sense that there is no ending, even for those who may never leave prison; a sense that their time “down” is only part of their continuum.

As the DOC recently blogged in “Tribal Circle Provides Connections, Peace for Native American Offenders:”

[T]ribal circle[s help] keep them grounded and motivated them to change their behavior while incarcerated.

“Getting lost in the fast life is what got me here,” said 27-year-old
DeShawn Little Eagle. “It (the tribal circle) means everything to us. When we were out there, we got sidetracked before we came to prison.” 

George Farrell, 32, said tribal circle has helped him stop using drugs and changed his way of thinking. “It’s like being rescued. People find some foundation here.”3 

Two local Native-run nonprofits are helping rescue Circle members. United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, through a services contract with the DOC, provides the Circles with Native spiritual counselors. Native community members drive to the most remote locales in Washington to facilitate Circle religious activities such as the sweatlodge ceremony and drumming circle.

Huy, headquartered in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood, provides religious, educational and other support for Native offenders near and far. In the traditional Coast Salish language of Lushootseed, and consistent with the symbol and spirit of the prison Circle, Huy (pronounced “hoyt”) means: “See you again/we never say goodbye.”

The Circles are also aided by the Washington Tribes. The Muckleshoot, Swinomish, Nisqually, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, Tulalip, Squaxin Island, Kalispel and Spokane tribes have collectively donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Circles, via Huy, in support of their religious needs. Amazingly, Muckleshoot alone has gifted more than $100,000 directly to the Circles over the last few years.

Through this philanthropy, local Native people are putting their monies where their mouths are, in love for those who are generally forgotten by the outside world.

Collaborative Reformation

Local Native leaders are also expending their political capital, achieving the following prison reforms in collaboration with the DOC.

DOC policy was rewritten to allow Native children to attend prison pow wow ceremonies. For Native offenders — and really, any faith group — there is nothing spiritual about a family-based ceremony without children. For the DOC, prison security is of paramount concern when children are brought behind the barbed-wire and chain-link fencing. And with increased security come increased personnel costs.

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