Pow Wow Allows Inmates to Reconnect with Their Roots

Posted By Toyacoyah Brown December 18th, 2014 Last Updated on: December 18th, 2014

Utah Department of Corrections

Utah Department of Corrections

There might not be the smell of frybread wafting in the air or rows of vendors selling their wares, but the familiar sound of the drumbeat is there.

Native American inmates at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison held a pow wow in November to celebrate their culture and reconnect with their traditional roots. The theme was “Many Tribes … One Nation” and organized by inmate Wendell Navanick Jr.

Inmate Arthur Martinez, a member of the Shoshone (Northwestern Band, Washakie Reservation) Nation offers a song during the Fall Powwow

According to the Utah Department of Corrections, a federal lawsuit affirmed the right of Utah’s Native American inmates to engage in traditional spiritual practices while incarcerated. There are now several sweat lodge yards at each prison, providing inmates an opportunity to participate in spiritual sweats at least monthly. Volunteers also supervise pipe and talking circle gatherings several times a month.

“This means everything to them,” said Jim Pritchard, a Native American spiritual leader who volunteers at both the Gunnison and Draper prisons. “They look forward to this — being able to present their culture, to be able to interact socially on this level.”

Sometimes the members of different tribes are antagonist to each other, but “today they are not,” said Pritchard, who is Cherokee. “It really helps them as people and it helps the administration on the inside [of the prison] by calming them down, helping them become less stressed in this environment.”

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About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

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How can i help?


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Geraldine Bellanger

My son is in prison in Rush city Mn. and I try to get sage,tobacco and finally got our tribe to buy the inmates there a couple cords of wood .I even had to get and drive 4 hours to delivery poles for their sweat lodge and now I have been trying to find a 2 sided drum for them as theirs fell apart to be donated so they can keep up their culture,but I can’t seem to find any.They even try to pool there money together on what small wages they get to buy their rock.It seems like I’am the only one who tries to help them.

Rossie Longhair

I was in the Utah State Women’s Prison in Draper, utah. We had the Sweat Lodge too and i turned to that to help me through the hardest time in my life. I spent 2 years trying to find my way and tey to find myself and get back to my beliefs and remembering the way i was taught and raised by my father n family it also helped me get back on the right path. I would always look towards the west from star4 and seeing the men get their sweat lodge up n have a ceremony i also would hear them sing powwow songs too. Their voices made me feel better and made my mind stronger to hold on a little more and i will be free. Now im out of prison 2 yrs i got off parole with good time, Im happily married and i have all 3 of my children with me. I pray for everyone thats going through a hard time and i do hope the men and women behind bars keep with their traditions in there cause when all else fails and no one is by your side because it does happen that way our traditions and prayers are always there to get us through the hard time. Just thought i would share this if i said anything wrong i apologize.

Lynda Duke

Caroline: I agree that the NA must have their ceremonies and community support. I am in El Paso, and know that there is a group of people in involved in Prison Visits for spiritual study. You can contact Auralynn at the Unitarian Universalist Church in El Paso, on Byron and Taylor. There was a call for any pagan ministers to serve the needs of La Tuna last year.

Scott Sands

This is very good to hear about – Keep the Circle Strong my Relations!!!
One thing I would like to say however! We are not “Native Americans” there is no such thing as an “american”- that is a colonial construct. We are the Original Peoples, the descendants of the First Man here on Turtle Island …. I am Anishinaabe or more personal – Bodewad’mi ( Potawatomi) let’s all Decolonize our minds!!!


Jerri Paulk: I agree with you, however, with not all Native American’s living on the Rez to be exposed to their culture, I also feel that the Tribes should help those who are incarcerated. Teach them the way, guide them, counsel them, so when they come back into society they will be drawn to their roots and their people for support. Many released inmates are looked down upon by their Tribes instead of being supported and up lifted. So, their only contact with their roots comes from those in prison who have maybe grown up on the Rez and are able to help them along. My son had no contact with other Native Americans until he was in prison. I realize that is mostly my fault but I didn’t know any better and he got zero from his father (who is Native American). Wish I hadn’t been so uneducated (naive).


I don’t know anything about Texas DOC but you should check to see if the Native Americans are allowed to have powwows. The law suit was based on the fact that a powwow is a religious (spiritual) ceremony. You might check with the prison to see if there is a chaplain for the Native Americans (there should be one). I (and others) donate items for smudging, etc. through the chaplain. Doubt if they’d allow tobacco though. You can read my post in the comments on this article which will tell you what the inmates at the prison my son is in are doing and allowed. Main thing is “good behavior”. Good Luck!

Jerri Paulk

I have found here in Montana that many times inmates have not been involved in their culture before going to prison and maybe that is part of the reason they are where they are. Not having that sense of belonging other than to a gang or drugs or alcohol. We as a people need to get our young people involved in dance or drumming or something constructive having to do with their culture. Not only here in urban areas but on the Rez as well.


I have had family members lost n lock up, we all need support, how can I help?

Diane Masuo

Oregon DOC allows one powwow per year to the Native Americans incarcerated. Again, a law suit brought this about. My son, at Snake River Correctional Institute, is Native American and very involved with others incarcerated there. They are allowed sweats also. They work for a year to make,donate, and provide funds to sponsor their powwow. They are allowed 2 guests each (must be approved) and powwow starts about 9:00 AM and ends about 3:00 PM. They also work all year to made gifts (art work, beading, wood work, etc.) for the attendees and have a drawing for people to pick out their own gift. They have a salmon, buffalo, flat bread feed that they cook themselves. Salmon is buried in coals in traditional way. The have drumming, performing groups (music), grass and fancy dance exhibitions, and all are allowed to participate. They are from many different tribes and work together all year to sponsor their powwow. In prison is where my son has found his heritage. I know they have made DVD’s of the powwows but I haven’t seen any. If interested, you could contact their chaplain, Steve Brabb,SRCI,Ontario,OR. My son’s father has never participated in tribal activities or in his son’s life so prison has been his only exposure to the culture,practices,and spirituality of his Native American heritage. I am glad to see this article and clips since there are so many Native Americans in our prisons who need help while incarcerated and support has they try to return to their communities upon release. I feel that the Tribes do not invest any time in their members who are incarcerated and I’m not sure why. I guess they are like everybody else who feels that it’s better to just lock them up (they’re criminals after all) and throw away the key. Those who are imprisoned are your brothers and sisters as well and most are trying to turn their lives around. They need the love and support of their full communities.


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