WALLA WALLA – For four hours, May 5, tribal inmates within the walls of the Washington State Department of Correction’s Washington State Penitentiary, here, had freedom – as if the guards simply lay down their weapons, opened the heavy metal doors and allowed a brief escape.
But the escape, the freedom came inside the walls of Washington’s oldest prison in operation – inside what was once a former territorial prison, tribal inmates tell, where Plateau tribal members were sent over a century ago – in form of a pow wow, hosted by the men of WSP’s medium security area. Legally, the pow wow was an expression of their religious right, and for those hours, the men were far from the walls, the barbed wire and chainlink fence.
They were back home, back at the Fourth of July Pow wow in Nespelem, at the Stampede Powwow in Omak and at any other powwow they had been to before detention.
There was a friendship dance, which included guards, guests and inmates, and there were several inter-tribal dances. There was a spotlight dance featuring young Kalispel tribal member Colby White Jr., a fancy-dancer.
There were couples and families – including children – and increased security because of the children, according to the penitentiary superintendent Don Holbrook.
Bringing the children of inmates to the annual event was a big change in recent years – facilitated through the staff, the penitentiary’s leadership, tribal attorney Gabe Galanda and Colville tribal inmate Herbert Alvin ‘Chief’ Rice, said Holbrook.
There were guests who danced in regalia carefully screened for contraband and there were inmates who danced in regalia most often made in a program called ‘Cultural Crafts.’
Families and spouses sat together, visiting as Kalispel tribal member J.R. Bluff worked as the director of ceremonies for the event. Some held hands.
The powwow is one of the most intimate visits tribal members inside the medium security portion of the penitentiary at Walla Walla are afforded through a year, according to WSP’s Cheri Hall, who explained during regular visitations, visitors and prisoners are only allowed a brief embrace before they sit on opposite sides of at a metal table.
At the powwow, which as held in a visitation room that’s roughly 100 square-feet with cinderblock walls the same color as the men’s pants and a tile floor to match, the families were allowed to be together for four hours.
“It’s kind of Christmas, birthdays and Thanksgiving all rolled into one,” said Doris Knight, Rice’s godmother.
There are four drums, one of which is the WSP drum, ‘Rez Boyz.’ Another is Ironhorse, which recorded an album inside the prison with Rice previously. The other two drums are the Kalispel Reservation’s Frog Island and the Spokane Reservation’s Singing River (formerly known as Loot meet).
To the staff, it is one of 40 ‘events,’ which is afforded the prisoners of different religions as a religious right. Specifically, this powwow is made possible through the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which requires prisons to provide tribal inmates with access to practice their religion.
To the staff, the event adds stress, with concerns of smuggling (“When you start bringing entities in, it’s a lot of work… There’s always a concern of contraband exchange. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in,” said Holbrook) but it is a learning experience as well and a chance for to better know the men inside.
While the state prison cannot deny the men a chance to practice their religion, the event is a privilege, said Holbrook.
To the visitors, it’s a chance to see family and celebrate native culture with those inside.
To the 24 tribal inmates allowed to attend this year, it serves as a reminder for many of their traditions, for others of their home and even others of their humanity — in short, it’s a brief escape.
“It just gives me that feeling of being back home, like at the Stampede Grounds,” said Colville tribal member Gordon Dick Jr. “My grandma used to run concessions at the Stampede…and I’d go to sleep listening to that drumming. That drum’s my heart, my heritage. It just makes me happy. All we’re missing is the stick game songs.”
“We’re still human beings. A lot of people don’t realize that.”
While many attribute the pow wow’s success to Rice, who the inmates call ‘Chief’ and who does all his work from inside, Rice points to Kalispel elder Francis Cullooyah’s leadership. No one could remember if and when he had missed the pow wow before this year, but struggling with illness the elder was absent as were Kalispel elders Fred Gabourie and Vaughn Lodge, who often come with him.
Colville tribal elders Soy Redthunder, John GrosVenor and Tlingit elder Frank Quinto attended – as they had for several years.
Cullooyah’s wife, Roma, summed up her husband’s absence in a practical way: “When it’s our turn to step up, that’s what happens, nature makes us step up and do it,” she said. She attended along with her children and a number of grandchildren. She had been coming since her children were the age of her grandchildren, she said, more than 20 years.
She labeled herself as an elder-in-training – 17 years Francis’ junior – along with Bluff – who noted he couldn’t replace Francis as the event’s master of ceremonies – and Rice.
Francis had been a chaplain employed by the Washington State Department of Corrections. He is the vice chair of Huy, a nonprofit corporation with the stated mission to provide ‘economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for American Indian, Alaska Native and other indigenous prisoners in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States.”
Galanda, who Rice and superintendent Holbrook credited for maintaining tribal rights within the prison, is chair of Huy.
“The Indians back in the 1970s, they fought for our rights inside,” said Rice. “That was before my time… [They] got sweat lodges, got pow wows, traditional foods and events. We have to continue to fight for that stuff, on a continuous basis… It’s been a struggle. It’s been part of my struggle. We’ve lost a lot, but we didn’t lose this.
“Francis, he’s been a main person that fought for us. Before him, the teachings were mostly Lakota. When he came onboard, he brought the Plateau ways.”
Holbrook summed up Cullooyah’s presence at the prison with a single story:
The staff and inmates were building a sweat lodge. Holbrook did not think it was much, but when he showed Cullooyah the tribal elder’s response was simple and without drama: “That will do,” Cullooyah told the superintendent.
The same story has a second purpose for Rice: When a new sweat was needed last fall, Rice was forced to take the lead on building it – for the first time without Culloyah’s help. An elder-in-training, Rice, 46, found himself passing the tradition to the younger inmates.
The population of the medium security portion of the penitentiary is 512 and Hall estimated 6 to 7 percent identify as tribal members – between 30 and 36. Rice was one of the eldest.
Like Holbrook’s staff, Rice says his goal is to improve the tribal inmates’ rehabilitation and ready them to return to their communities.
“When given the opportunity to learn about the power of our culture, it changes lives,” said Rice.
“A lot of the natives who come in are concrete Indians,” said Colville tribal member Donald Carson. “They don’t know their traditions because they’re whitewashed. They know nothing about our walk. They haven’t known the traditions. That’s why we carry ourselves in the right way. We lead by example. It’s about how you hold yourself. It’s a tough life, but we want them to succeed.”
Carson, who was sentenced in 2007 to 20 years for first-degree murder, has become an elder – helping younger inmates learn traditions along with Rice.
“It’s getting tough to not see [those elders who were absent] not come through the door after all these years,” said Rice. “But we have new people coming through the door.”
What goes unstated is some won’t leave.
During a naming ceremony, Colville tribal member Shelly Boyd gave Rice the name Klamtiws – which is a location, outside of the prison, near Addy on the Columbia River.
“When you come here as an inmate, we come with you,” said Boyd. “You also leave with us. Your spirits, your heart, your strengths.”
Our prayer for you
To end the day, the inmates gave gifts to each of the guests – paintings, hand drums, a blanket and other items made inside.
Families began to part with hard, long goodbyes in a final embrace before the men lined up against one wall and the guards counted and recounted.
“The things we’ve learned and the things they’ve taught me, I can never put a price on it,” said Ryan Moody, Klamath-Modoc. “I’m so honored to have met these brothers. In everything I do outside, I’m going to be walking with them.”
“It gives them something to look forward together,” said Wynona Moody, Ryan Moody’s mother who was honored with a blanket during the give-away. “If one person walks into a room, that’s amazing, but if you have the collection walking together, it’s healing.”
In his final address to the men, Redthunder offered a prayer.
“Most of us get to leave,” said Redthunder. “Many of us have to stay, but we want these words to stay with you. Maybe when we come back next year, you won’t be here. That’s our prayer for you.”