May 2014 Bar Bulletin
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May 2014 Bar Bulletin

To Geneva with Love: Native Prisoners' Religious Rights Movement Goes Global

By Gabriel S. Galanda


"There is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country."1 Nor is there an iron curtain drawn between international human rights norms and American prisons, especially insofar as Native American prisoners - or internationally speaking, American indigenous prisoners - are concerned.

This article explains how a local, grassroots, Native prisoners' religious rights advocacy movement has ascended to national and international heights.

In the Beginning

On Easter Sunday in 2010, a Tulalip Indian man - a so-called native chaplain - was "walked off of the hill" at the State's Monroe Corrections Center when he attempted to bring tribal ceremonial tobacco into the prison for use during a Change of Seasons sweatlodge ceremony. As former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna formally observed, Native prisoners burn "various plants such as tobacco, sage, sweet grass, lavender and cedar ... to produce smoke" as part of traditional tribal worship.2

The smoke is believed to carry the prisoners' prayers up to the Creator or another tribal deity. Such "traditional Native American religious practices are a bona fide religion," which must be respected by government.3 But on that fateful Sunday, the tobacco was deemed "contraband" by corrections personnel and confiscated.

In the months that followed, Washington tribal leaders and advocates learned that the Easter Sunday incident and designation of traditional tobacco as "contraband" was part of sweeping state Department of Corrections (DOC) policy reforms that effectively barred almost all Native prisoners' religious practices.4 As previously detailed in the Bar Bulletin, by mid-2011 the DOC apologized for its transgressions and formally restored the various Native prisoners' religious rights.5

Yet, perhaps more profound than Washington's virtually unprecedented mea culpa and about-face regarding Indian rights is the resulting groundswell of momentum that has ensued, catapulting local, Native prisoners' religious concerns into national and international venues.

"See You Again"

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