Native Americans make up a disproportionately high percentage of inmates in the United States. Experiencing prison life can quickly strip oneself of the important things that make up identity. Recently, however, Native inmates have taken steps to celebrate their culture and bring awareness to their situation through a pow wow held behind bars.
Within the walls and in the courtyard of the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on a bright October day, there was no anger or resentment for these Native inmates; just celebration and hope. The event, which hasn’t happened since 2019 due to COVID-19, has been hailed as a success and provides hope for future positive change in the criminal justice system.
Dressed in regalia, with instruments in hand and family and friends surrounding them, inmates sang, danced, and celebrated.
What is symbolic about this event?
Even behind bars, where many things have been stripped from their lives, Indigenous inmates found a way to preserve what is most important to them: their culture and identity. Participating in traditional ceremonies such as this is a way to heal and, for most, to repent for what they have done in the past. In an interview on King 5 News, Native inmates show off their beadwork proudly and speak of prayer.
Right now, they are taking things “one beat at a time.”
One man takes on a huge problem
This opportunity came to the inmates because Jeremy Garretson, a convicted felon who now mentors recently released prisoners, advocated for his people. He says, “Being able to have a moment, to brush all of that off, and have a moment with your family to look your loved ones in the eye and be together: it’s priceless, man,” he expressed in an interview with King 5 News.
He touched on the problematic recidivism rate of Native individuals, which is what drives him to mentor. In America, the
Overall, his mission is to keep this group from returning to prison. “It’s a perpetual wheel that has to stop,” he stated. Garretson helped himself by turning away from gang violence and drugs and leaning on culture, ceremonies, and medicine to heal and change for the better.
In America, the recidivism rate for the general population is 32%, while the rate of Indigenous inmates returning one or more times to prison is 45.3%, making them the demographic with the highest rate.
Allowing inmates to experience traditional, cultural, and religious celebrations paired with a mentorship program are ways Garretson and others are trying to tackle the obstacle.
Through the penitentiary pow wow, these Indigenous inmates can remember who they are and where they come from. They can reflect on the positive aspects of their culture and let go of the anger and hatred that got them incarcerated in the first place. It is a time for forgiveness, hope, healing, and reconciliation. We should all support and celebrate Native culture whenever we can because it helps us remember the importance of family, friends, tradition, and positivity, no matter the circumstances.