Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
Natives In Prison: The Forgotten Ones
It is a fact that the national media seems to overlook. Of all ethnic groups in the United States, imprisoned Native American men compose the highest percentage of their group’s population. Just as television moguls have apparently forgotten that Native Americans exist, many Native Americans themselves seem to have forgotten that their incarcerated brothers and sisters exist.
Nearly every week, we come across stories about Natives across the country embroiled in legal battles to hold on to their sacred lands and ancient traditions. We applaud when a young college student stands up to academia over truth-telling in teaching events of history. Natives and non-Natives alike hold hope for the future as more and more see the beauty and wisdom of indigenous peoples’ time-honored connection to Mother Earth.
In the midst of this hopeful picture, however, sad statistics speak of continued history-making that is anything but hopeful. Despite the common belief that gambling casinos have created wealth among Native peoples, we know this is not the whole picture. Many tribal people, both on and off the reservations, struggle under circumstances of numbing poverty in a world fraught with alcoholism, drug abuse, youth suicide, domestic violence, and deadly diseases of epic proportion. One end result of this travesty is the alarming number of Native men and women, ending up in state and federal prison systems, lost and forsaken, with little hope for ever achieving a decent life.
Here in the Southeast, we have our own unique historical issues centered around the theft of the first peoples’ ancestral homeland and cultural heritage. More and more mixed-heritage descendants of those who managed to avoid removal are stepping up to learn, claim, and own their rightful Native heritage. Complicating this desire of the heart is the religious and racial prejudice deeply embedded in the character of many Southerners.
In today’s world, inter-tribal powwows, though not a tradition in Southeastern Native culture, have evolved over the past few decades into a unifying celebration for all Native peoples as well as an outreach for building better understanding within our society as a whole. The same can be said for spiritual groups within prison walls that promote unity among the diverse cultures of tribal peoples.
The focus in prisons centers around sweat lodge ceremonies and powwow-style drums, song, and dance. The struggle for the religious rights of Native peoples was fought largely from within prisons and culminated in the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993.
Across the country, in prisons located near large local populations of Native people, adherence to the law and cooperation by prison personnel is more consistent than in other parts of the country. Here in the southeast, ignorance of the law, resistance to change, and outright denial by prison staff is more the norm than the exception. Now, at this point, I must explain that even though I cannot speak from personal experience, I do have close contact with one who can.
For the past two years, I have had daily contact and extensive conversations with a Muscogee Creek/Cherokee Native (with Irish blue eyes) known as Ghost Dancer, or simply, Ghost (his legal name though not recognized by the Bureau of Prisons.) This association is not one I would ever have sought out, for I was as ignorant and indifferent as the next person to prisons and the people within them. A unique circumstance and conscience alone compelled me to embark on this journey and the lessons I have learned now compel me to help give voice to the forgotten ones.
Ghost has been an activist for Native rights his entire life and the consequence has been incarceration in prisons from Florida to California for more than 32 years. Over the years, he became a leader in organizing spiritual fellowships among Native populations within the prison system and has often found himself standing toe-to-toe with prison authorities, reading them the law in his fearless fight for justice.
Now crippled by health issues and confined to a wheelchair, Ghost continues his life’s work with a smile and unfailing dedication. I was honored when Ghost asked me to serve as his official Minister of Record (spiritual advisor) and join other advocates on the outside who support and watch over his interests. It is from Ghost’s wealth of experience and knowledge that I convey his message and plea on behalf of Native inmates everywhere and for the brothers at Talladega Federal Correctional Institution, Talladega, Alabama, in particular.
At Talladega FCI, as in other prisons, the Native spiritual community consists largely of men who lack the knowledge and self confidence to speak up or take leadership roles. Most have known only poverty and found little opportunity to learn and grow to their full potential. Most carry a burden of mental and emotional pain; guilt and sorrow for the mistakes they have made – and some have made terrible mistakes. Others have been meted out shockingly severe prison sentences for low-level drug-related offences. Down deep, if we choose to look without judgment, we will find these men to be fallible human beings, not much different than ourselves.
This circle of brothers who call themselves the “Wolf Pack,” have pledged to dedicate their lives to prayer, self sacrifice, living humbly in harmony and balance; striving to walk in beauty and love as they learn more about the stabilizing foundation of spiritual traditions of their own people as well as those of other tribes and practices.
Within the inipi – sweat lodge ceremonies and on their small sacred ground, the goal is to honor and learn from all Native traditions. As Ghost says, “We learn songs, dances, and ceremonial practices that help us become better humans, brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands – better men.” In no way are Native teachings on how to live like a true human being in conflict with the higher teachings of other religions.
When we become aware of the dynamics of prison culture, we can also understand the importance of the spiritual group at a deeper level. Prisons, by nature, are filled with troubled people, and some of them are truly evil and dangerous; hardened beyond redemption. Just as on the meanest streets outside, competing gang leaders rule and the weakest among the prison population live in jeopardy of becoming targets.
Statistically, among all minorities, the largest percentage of Native men end up in prison, yet they make up the tiniest and most vulnerable minority of the total prison population. Yes, prisons have their share of Natives who are hardened criminals, so the burning question arises, where is the vulnerable young Native man to turn if he does not want to be targeted as someone’s victim or forced into a gang? Even though a Native has been raised as a Christian, say, or has never even been exposed to any spiritual tradition, a community of, by, and for those who identify as Natives and truly seek to better themselves, is the only safe and fully encompassing refuge available to them.
To have an elder or anyone come in from the outside to share time with the Native community, Ghost tells us, would be a true blessing for all the brothers. Many of these men never have a visitor during their entire sentence. Many have lost all ties to family and friends since their incarceration and have no one on the outside to give them hope and encouragement. Just to see a friendly face; to talk to someone who is not a guard or another prisoner would mean so much to them, especially if the person is Native or Native descent.
The healing process these men are going through can be greatly enhanced by visits from people who do not judge or condemn them forever. Giving or receiving personal information is neither wise nor recommended. To simply listen, enjoy a positive experience, and truly care would be good medicine for the visitor as well as the inmate.
Another positive result of individuals or groups coming in to meet with the brothers on a regular basis is that it helps stabilize the group when the leadership is not strong. When the staff is aware of willing and committed outside support, we can naturally expect more cooperation in assisting the group to meet their needs.
For insights on the possibilities for positive impact individuals can make in the lives of the incarcerated, I heartily recommend taking a look at http://www.humankindness.org/bo-sita-lozoff/. Many years ago, the kindness of Bo Lozoff made a profound difference in Ghost’s life during some of his darkest hours. His book, We Are All Doing Time, also changed my life for the better.
The door is open; the invitation has been extended. If you love to drum and sing, consider coming to drum and sing with these forgotten brothers. You can pray with them, or even sweat in the lodge with them. If you conduct sweats on the outside, you would be welcome to conduct a sweat for the group.
Whatever your knowledge or skill, all these small acts of kindness will go a long way toward motivating these men to do even better, so that when they complete their sentences and return to the free world, they will be better prepared to become assets to their communities rather than burdens on society.
Individuals or groups wishing to arrange for visits with the Native Spiritual Group at Talladega must first apply through the Chaplain’s office. Background checks will be made before permission is granted. Please make inquiries to Chaplain James Bowen Phone: 256-315-4107 or Email: JBowen@bop.gov. Questions or feedback on interest or intent to apply will be appreciated. Please contact Edna Dixon at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Growing up in middle Georgia in the 1940’s and 50’s, Edna’s frequent visits to the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon captured her imagination and inspired her interest in the ancient people who once lived there. Unfortunately, through all her school days, she never learned the full and true story of the historical Creek people.
Her interest in Native people was fostered by her grandmother, Lois Taber Peirce, who shared memories of growing up on the Cheyenne reservation in Indian territory and the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina, where her Quaker parents served as teachers in the government schools. Later in life, after her children were grown, Edna returned to college and took every course she could find related to Indian history and culture. She has fond memories of a three-week field trip out west to study the ancient ruins of the Anasazi.
Following her retirement as a Registered Nurse, Edna reconnected via the internet with an old high school friend who happened to be a Creek Indian. In those days, he had kept this fact to himself because of the sting of prejudice he knew so well. Then, also retired, this man was continuing his life-long effort to teach others about his Creek heritage.
Edna quickly jumped at the chance to work with her old friend to further his vision and goals. For the next 15 years, until his death in 2013, Edna worked directly with Bobby Johns Bearheart, Chief of the Perdido Bay Tribe in Pensacola, Florida, to build his organization and expand his outreach. Little did she realize that these years of learning, organizing, teaching, and writing for PBT from her 500-mile office were preparing her for a continued journey that would take her into the realm of prisons and the justice system, and their impact on Native Americans.
Edna lives in rural east Tennessee with Jack, her husband of 56 years.