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  • Writer's pictureLarry Ballesteros

Letter to DOC Regarding Native Americans In Washington Prisons

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

MS. Nancy Dufrain

Department Of Corrections, Tribal Relations

PO Box 41101Olympia, WA. 98504-1101

Dear MS.Dufrain,

I hope this finds you in wellness today. I am concerned for my Native American and Alaskan Native relatives incarcerated at this time. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA) (42 U.S.C. § 1996.) protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites. Our Spirituality is woven by our oral traditions and is significant to who we are as a Peoples. I do not need to remind you of the generational traumas and the compounded crisis of the COVID19 pandemic. We need to protect our spiritual practices even now more than ever if we want to reduce recidivism rates of Native American and Alaskan Natives.

Please understand, that each Tribal Nation has their own unique Cultural practices and Spirituality, of which none can be compared to western/colonial religions. Our ceremonies and cultural practices are as unique as the stars in the night sky. Sweat Lodge is more common among what we now identify as “Plains Indian”, however, there are several Tribal cultures that also pray in Sweat Lodge as part of their ceremonial and spiritual practices. Sweat Lodge has also become traditional practice of Coastal Tribal Nations; however, due to abilities and funding to meet the unique needs of the vast diverse Tribal Cultures, the Sweat Lodge has become the “go to” throughout the Department of Corrections (DOC). Tribal Nations forbid audio/video recordings of any kind, including photographs of sacred ceremonies. This is to protect the Cultural and Ceremonial sensitivities of these ceremonies.

We understand that, for many non-Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, this is a difficult construct to understand. American society has been taught for generations that all “Indians” are the same. This has never been the case and we need to work together to remind people of the truth and build communication, in order to meet the needs of the incarcerated Native American Indians/Alaska Natives.

I have been told that anyone can sign up for sweat or ceremonies whether they are Native American Indians/Alaska Natives or not. Essentially, they have forced themselves into our ceremonies with the help of the state and the grievance process. This is an egregious mistake that White culture often justifies by using the “freedom of religion” argument. This is unacceptable and T.O.P. has a practical solution if you are open for discussion. We understand that many continue to fight for “political correctness”, however, Native American Indians/Alaska Natives have already been through so much trauma throughout history from the policies of the US and Washington State governments there should be a strict hands-off policy and we should be a considered a protected group. That is why we are so confused on why non-Native American Indians/Alaska Natives are allowed access to our sacred ceremonies?

I am being told that many of the men have lost faith in Wynonna. They feel that she does not have their best interest in her heart. I will be passing this email around to all the tribes so that they might know what is going on inside the institutions. We believe that our spiritual traditions and ways are part of finding ourselves and a key component to a successful reentry. Speaking of religious rights; we can clearly see that as Native American Indians/Alaska Natives don’t have freedom of religion or religious rights, we have permissions. Here is the definition of a right: “A right is the sanction of independent action. A right is that which can be exercised without anyone’s permission. If, before undertaking some action, you must obtain the permission of The State (DOC)—you are not free, whether such permission is granted to you or not. Only a slave acts on permission. A permission is not a right.” Wynonna does not understand this and is not on the side of those she represents but she represents the position of DOC very well. Regarding rights, I would venture to say that the state doesn’t believe in religious rights either. The Department of Corrections certainly is not on the side of the American Indians/Alaska Natives, or this letter would not be necessary.

Lastly, the Sweat Lodge being Sacred Space, we are requiring everyone to understand that audio and video recordings and photographing must STOP! Everyone needs to understand that Native American Indians/Alaska Native Peoples do not proselytize … you are either Native American Indians or Alaska Native or you are not.

All My Relations with Respect,

Larry Ballesteros

Vice President Transitioning Offenders Program (TOP)

Morongo Band of Mission Indians (Cahuilla)

cc: Solana Booth (Noooksack, Mohawk and Tysmsyan)

Executive Director and President of Transitioning Offenders Program

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