DRAFT: 14 September 1999; for discussion purposes only.

Medicine Teachers Program for Prisons

Submitted To: ____________________________

Proposed Starting Date: Immediate

Duration of Project: Ongoing

Funding Requested: _________/year

Contact: _________________________

Proposal Summary

A regional program is needed to provide Native American spiritual guidance in prisons. The program would involve men and women from Pequot, Wampanoag, Narraganset, Nipmuc, and other Native American Nations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The program would enable Native Medicine Teachers to conduct spiritual ceremonies in prison. It would also support an association of spiritual leaders for continuing work with released prisoners. It would be a source of information for prison administrators and others.

The program would foster ongoing spiritual education among Medicine Teachers from all Nations involved in the project. The program would strengthen and enrich Medicine Teachings for the benefit of all persons, not only those in prisons.

The program would provide a prototype for other Native American communities and prison programs.

The idea for such a program grew from discussions with Slow Turtle and Medicine Story at gatherings of the Native American Spiritual Awareness Council in a state prison at Gardner, Massachusetts, and with Ed Sarabia and Mikki Aganstata, in the context of their work with Indian Affairs in Connecticut. This proposal was drafted by Peter d'Errico of Leverett, Massachusetts, one of a group of attorneys representing inmates in Massachusetts to extend and protect rights to Native American spiritual freedom.

Project Description

The Legal And Spiritual Situation

Courts and other legal institutions have explicitly recognized the significance of Native American spirituality at least since federal passage of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. This recognition has extended to jails and prisons across the country. Native Americans in prison are participating in a general resurgence of Native spiritual practices.

The law has moved to accommodate spirituality in state and federal prisons, but not without struggle and resistance. Many prison administrators are skeptical about Native American spirituality. They do not understand, for example, that Native spiritual teachings and practices are integrated into daily life, rather than reserved for a special day of the week. Administrators are often hesitant to permit use of sacred pipes and tobaccos, associating such items with a "drug culture." Beads and headbands, which have been recognized by courts as significant aspects of spiritual practice, are sometimes associated by prison officials with the insignia of gangs and considered contraband.

Experience shows that inmate involvement in Native American spirituality includes persons who do not have "recognized" status as Native Americans. Spiritual Circles are usually open to all persons, without regard to "blood quantum." This is as it should be in the eyes of Medicine Teachers, who take the view that Native American spirituality is a matter of values and attitudes, not genetics. This is also in accord with United States Constitutional law, which prohibits government from establishing, as well as from interfering with, religion.

A Twofold Problem

Native American spiritual freedom in prison is a twofold problem:

1. Prisoners need ongoing, regular access to native spiritual teachers;

2. Prison administrators need to be advised by native spiritual leaders.

These problems center on one factor: the availability of Medicine Teachers. Traditional medicine men and women are not usually on a prison payroll as chaplains. Many are not willing to be on a payroll. Traditional medicine people usually cannot afford on their own to travel regularly from prison to prison. Prisoners therefore have a difficult time finding and maintaining regular contact with spiritual advisors. Prison administrators are left with no one outside the inmate population to consult about Native spiritual practices.

The Regional Context

This region is one in which a program to support Medicine Teachers for prison work would be especially useful and practical. Connecticut is the only state in this region to permit a Purification ("sweat") lodge in prison (Over half the states across the country, and all provinces in Canada, permit lodges in prison.) In Massachusetts, Native American spiritual practices are currently the subject of state court action, which has resulted in a preliminary injunction in favor of inmates regarding possession of sacred items and access to the Circle. In both these states, one or two spiritual teachers volunteer their time to work with many inmates in state and federal prisons. Connecticut has hired a Native man to work as a chaplain within the system. This is a positive step, though the need is greater than a single person can handle.

The Proposed Solution

A program to support Medicine Teachers engaged in prison work would bring together spiritual teachers for learning and training. Their work together would strengthen spiritual practices in many communities, while providing for the specific needs of prisoners. Such a program would also become the basis for inmates released from prison to continue spiritual practices that have become part of their rehabilitation.

The program would enable Medicine People in the region to meet, consult, learn from each other and from Teachers from other regions, train new Teachers, and coordinate prison visits. The program would provide a credible source of information for prison administrations. Support would be provided for ongoing work with persons released from prison, with Purification lodges and other ceremonies conducted regularly throughout the region. Travel stipends would help defray costs of prison visits and other activities. Publications about the program and about Native American spirituality would be made available for all interested persons.

The administrative structure of the program would be built from a consortium of Native Nation offices in the region.

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