WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Graysun Sherwood lay sprawled across his grandmother’s lap, a red Kool-Aid stain ringing his mouth.
A 3-year-old napping amid the sounds of powwow — the drumming, the singing, the jingling of bells that accompany a dancer’s every step or stomp — would be unremarkable anywhere else in Indian Country.
But in the visitors’ room at the Washington State Penitentiary, the mere presence of a sleeping toddler, along with a handful of other children, was like a spiritual salve, providing a rare dose of normalcy to the 15 or so maximum-security inmates who belong to one of four Native-American “circles” at the prison. Last week’s powwow, hosted by an inmates’ circle, marked the first time in years children were in attendance.
“Oh, man, forget about it. It was awesome, that feeling, I don’t even have words,” inmate Herbert Rice — known as “Chief” — said of watching the youngsters, dressed in their dance regalia, step through the thick, metal security doors. “It’s inspiring to us that they’re dancing and involved in their culture at such a young age …
“If I would’ve paid more attention to that, I wouldn’t be here,” said Rice, 41, who is serving two life sentences for the slayings of an elderly Yakima County couple during a 1988 robbery when he was 17.
Until recently, such a scene would have been impossible inside the walls of the state’s prisons. In Washington, an estimated 750 Native Americans are incarcerated — though Minty LongEarth, a prison program director for the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, believes the number is much higher, possibly double, given that many inmates don’t identify themselves as Native to prison officials. After months of discussions between tribal leaders and the Department of Corrections, Native-American inmates now can request that children be allowed to participate in significant, yearly religious or cultural events such as powwows.
Powwows — usually three-day events held during summer months — generally are loud, joyous social gatherings where song, dance and food reunite family members and old friends. Dancers often compete in various categories, such as traditional or fancy, each with a distinct style and dress. Dancers are accompanied by drum groups, and drummers take turns singing and beating out songs usually handed down through families or clans.
The inclusion of children is vital because they represent the future and are key to transmitting culture and identity through the generations.
During powwow, Rice said, “we let go of our masks that we wear in here.”
“People die inside themselves in here,” said Rice, who remembers teaching his son, now 20, how to grass dance in a prison visiting room. “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, especially these young kids here dancing.”
Most members of the circle to which Rich belongs are Native American, but the group also includes a handful of Pacific Islanders, who share similar cultural and spiritual beliefs, and Roy Towsend, 41, a Puerto Rican serving a 66-year prison term for first-degree murder.
“I was raised around the Native way, and I have family members who are Native,” including a younger brother who is also incarcerated, Towsend said as he set up a buffet table that would be laden with grilled salmon, wild rice, buffalo stew and fry bread — food paid for by the inmates and cooked by prison staff.
“I’ve been down (incarcerated) 17 years, and I’ve been through every circle where I’ve landed,” he said, referring to the usual movement of prisoners to various facilities over the course of their sentences. “Most of these older cats, like Rice, he’s like a big brother to me. He runs the circle like a family.”
It had been at least five years since some prison superintendents — each one decided individually — last allowed minors to attend Native American powwows inside the state’s 12 correctional facilities. And it’s been two years since the Department of Corrections (DOC) implemented sweeping changes that deemed as contraband the “sacred tobacco” used in Native American ceremonies, authorized hands-on property searches of ceremonial items that were reclassified as “nonsacred,” and curtailed sweat-lodge ceremonies due to the cost of firewood. As part of the change, barring children from religious or cultural events was codified in DOC policy.
While smoking tobacco was banned in state prisons in 2004, Native Americans still could burn tobacco during sweat-lodge ceremonies until the changes took effect.
“DOC, with basically a sweep of a pen, erased all these religious, tribal, spiritual and ceremonial rights,” said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle attorney who worked on behalf of Native inmates.
Galanda was expecting a battle when he and two tribal leaders met with then-state prisons Director Eldon Vail and other DOC brass in the spring of 2010 to discuss what they saw as violations of Native Americans’ religious and cultural rights behind the razor wire.
“Before we could basically take a legal or political position, Director Vail simply said he was sorry, the state had screwed up and they were committed to correcting the mistake,” recalled Galanda, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Mendocino County, Calif. Last June, almost everything that had been stripped away was signed back into DOC policy, not only for Native-American inmates, but for those who practice other minority faiths, such as Buddhists and Wiccans.
“It’s taken us two years, through a lot of diplomatic effort and patience, to get everything back,” Galanda said. The one thing still missing, however, was the inclusion of children — often referred to as “shorties” — at powwows.
Rice started writing and calling Galanda early last year, galvanizing the effort to bring children back to powwow. Originally from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Rice said his exposure to traditional spiritual practices inside prison changed his life.
“It brought the good person out of me,” Rice said. In turn, he has become a teacher to other incarcerated young men who, like him, grew up on the reservation amid dysfunction and alcoholism and then lost themselves to drugs, booze and crime. “Our culture changed me; it helped me face my scars in life.”
A few weeks ago, the DOC — after months of discussions about security and the need to protect children, especially from incarcerated sex offenders — decided to allow children to attend the first powwow of the summer season at the prison in Walla Walla. As a result of tribal leaders’ efforts, other religious groups — be they Catholics or Muslims — now can also request that children be allowed to participate in their annual religious or cultural events, Galanda said.
Scott Frakes, the deputy director of prisons who oversees six of the men’s prisons, including the Washington State Penitentiary, said DOC changed its policies to comply with the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which requires U.S. prisons to provide “equal and reasonable religious practices to all prisoners.”
Frakes, who was initially against the idea of allowing children to attend religious events, said it is far easier for corrections officers to ensure the safety of child visitors when they are seated at a table with an inmate and other adults.
Powwows, though, are far from static visiting sessions, and require additional security, said Frakes, noting that inmates and community members now pay for the extra staffing. Tuesday’s event, for instance, cost the circle about $250, he said.
The DOC decision didn’t come in time for the inmates of the Zone 2 circle — the prison is divided into four zones — to meet the 45-day clearance requirement to invite their children, nieces and nephews to last week’s powwow. But Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah, a spiritual adviser who has been working in the state’s prisons since the early 1990s, brought four of his 18 grandchildren. And Nora Numkena, a Spokane tribal member who has been volunteering at the state penitentiary for the past three years, brought her two grandchildren — Graysun and 9-year-old Amelia Seyler, who spun with her purple-and-pink shawl as she danced across the linoleum.
Though the smell of wood smoke and burning sage was absent, the powwow inside the Walla Walla prison had all the same energy — the excited greetings, the easy laughter — of a powwow on the outside. Six of the Pacific Islander men performed a warrior dance, stripping off their prison T-shirts and slapping their tattooed chests, thighs and biceps to howls from the crowd of about 70 people.
After the inmates had served their guests with paper plates piled high with traditional foods, Donald Carson began calling people one by one, handing out gifts that the men had made: hand drums, beadwork, moccasins, leather pouches.
Earlier in the day, Carson had danced his first powwow. His movements weren’t as fluid as those of the other men, and he leaned forward as he danced, as though watching his feet.
“It’s real spiritual, you know. I did a lot of praying on our ancestors,” said Carson, 32, also from the Colville Reservation. “It’s a real humbling feeling, being able to dance.”
A former drug user who has served six years of a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder, Carson is now a follower of Red Road, a spiritual tradition in which practitioners dedicate themselves to keeping their bodies, minds and souls pure through prayer and ceremony.
“I have 14 more years, but that’s 14 more years I can learn” about his traditions, Carson said. “I guarantee you I won’t be back here, because of my road. I’m on a natural high right now. Creator gives me happiness.”