Recently, the Washington Department of Corrections and Native American advocates negotiated a solution to a state gaffe that violated the rights of Native Americans to practice their religion in prison. Guest columnist Gabriel S. Galanda writes about the precedent-setting process.
IN early 2010, the state Department of Corrections stripped the American Indians incarcerated in its 12 prisons of virtually everything that makes them tribal. Agency policies were changed, ostensibly to help balance the state’s budget. Tribal religious ideology and spiritual practices were cast aside.
Washington state has never been capable of grasping Indian religion or spirituality. The Boldt litigation now continues toward its fifth decade. The state Department of Transportation graving yard fiasco at Tse-Whit-zen Village in Port Angeles is a not-too-distant memory. Counties still prosecute Indians for hunting in ancestral areas.
Nontribal society and government are innately unable to understand, let alone accept, Indian spiritual practices and sacred places. They just don’t or can’t get it.
Thankfully, this story did not end there or also result in state-tribal dispute. Instead, trust and faith prevailed.
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From DOC headquarters, a religious programs manager outlawed tribal sacred medicines, including tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and lavender. He barred fry bread and salmon, preventing the prisoners from traditionally breaking four-day fasts during Change of Seasons rituals. He scaled back Sunday sweat-lodge ceremonies — akin to canceling Catholic masses. He altered what an inmate could store in his sacred items shoebox, causing feather fans and beadwork to be disrespected by corrections officers.
Consequently, the attitude of officers toward native prisoners also changed to passive aggression, if not outright disdain — resulting in confrontation during tribal ceremonies and the desecration of sweat-lodge grounds.
A year later, the DOC has restored traditional tribal medicines, foods, patrimony and ceremonies, and related protections, though attitudinal change in each state prison is still needed for incarcerated Indians to worship without discrimination or repercussion.
On June 9, Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail signed various Indian religious-freedom reforms into agency policy — and law — before Gov. Chris Gregoire and tribal leaders. That coincided with the agency’s partnership with United Indians of All Tribes Foundation to facilitate tribal religious services statewide. Remarkably, the state not only corrected its gaffe, but also embraced the notion of Indian self-determination as a solution.
The unexpected turnaround began, quite surprisingly, with an apology. Last summer after eight tribes wrote the governor decrying the discriminatory practices, Vail met with tribal leaders. Instead of blaming the state budget crisis or mincing First Amendment law, he simply said he was sorry. He and his agency made a mistake. He promised to fix that mistake.
Vail’s unequivocal apology and commitment were pivotal. How often do state Cabinet-level officials simply admit wrong and pledge to make things right? And how often do they do so in regard to tribal religion or spiritual practices? His mea culpa set the tone for genuine reform.
To make right, the DOC worked with and deferred to tribal advocates on the reforms, and the agency’s embrace of Indian self-determination is profound, if not unprecedented.
Nez Percé Indian law professor Doug Nash provided historical perspective at a recent Seattle University Law School forum. In 40 years of representing Northwest tribes, frequently against state government, he could not recall another situation in which tribal and state leaders resolved their differences with an apology followed by a concerted joint effort to fix the situation — in other words, not via federal or state court litigation catalyzed by discord.
Indeed, while state and tribal officials increasingly negotiate resolution to regulatory and economic disagreements, they often remain diametrically opposed when tribes defend against the state’s interference with traditional practices or sacred lands. Yet what prevailed here was faith toward the other; and on the part of the state, faith in the authenticity of the religious and spiritual beliefs espoused by Northwest tribal people.
So this story goes: The state erred. A courageous state leader apologized. Tribal leaders accepted his apology. They took each other on faith and rectified the situation. History was made. A precedent was set.
The circle, as tribal folks say, is complete.
Gabriel S. Galanda, an enrolled Round Valley Indian Tribal member, is a partner at Galanda Broadman.