The Ongoing War on Native American Religious Practices

Religious freedom is a fundamental right of all, including American Indians, yet the struggle to preserve and protect our religion has always been a difficult one. More so when incarcerated Native Americans are concerned who tend to be given second rate acknowledgement by prison officials and mainstream faiths.

In 1984 Robert Wilson, (Standing Deer) Albert Garza and I fasted for 42 days to draw worldwide attention to the deplorable conditions at the USP Marion and to no longer allow the United States to continue denying Native American brothers and sisters the right to practice our religion.

For over 500 years our religion has been trampled on and disrespected by those who invaded our lands, and who have tried to take away our culture, our traditions, our language, our history, and our religion. When we fasted for 42 days we did not fast out of depression or despair, but with a joyful commitment of total love and dedication to our people. We were willing to fast until we were granted our constitutional right to practice our religion or until we returned to our Creator.

In retaliation for our 42 day fast we were held in solitary isolation for 15 months with nothing in our “cages” (cell) except for a steel bunk and toilet. The door to the “cage” (cell) was never opened unless we were handcuffed behind our backs, and four guards with clubs were present to supervise our every move.

After a year of confinement attorney Margaret Gold filed a lawsuit against the Federal Bureau of Prisons that secured in having each one of us transferred to a separate maximum security prison where we were allowed to practice our religion.

In 1985 I was transferred to USP Leavenworth; Alfred went to USP Lewisburg and Standing Deer to USP Lompoc.

As of August 15, 2005 I have been at USP Lewisburg and since November 2006 I have not attended an inipi ceremony (sweat lodge). When I say I have not attended an inipi ceremony, I must add I have refused to attend an inipi ceremony, as my way of refusing to participate in the ongoing disrespect for our religion and sacred ceremonies by the USP prison system.

I can not allow the United States to continue denying Native American brothers and sisters the right to practice our religion. The trend within the past several years throughout the United States prison system has been to restrict the traditional spiritual practices of Native Americans. Nationwide the current trend of prison officials is to limit the amount of time Indian prisoners can participate in inipi ceremonies, talking circles and spiritual gatherings.

The new restrictions in U.S. prisons are racist and undermine the sacredness of our traditional ceremonies. Those restrictions include time limits and the rationing of firewood for the inipi and an English-only mandate. Mandating the English-only requirement for the ceremony is discrimination and racist, because the Native language is used and needed for the songs and prayers to be blessed by the Creator.

The new restrictions include a four-hour time limit on the sweat lodge ceremony, which is unrealistic since the inipi includes the heating of the stones, which takes two hours, and two hours for the actual ceremony. The stones need to be heated for at least two hours, otherwise they are cold and the ceremony is neither complete nor beneficial to the healing and prayers.

The rationing of firewood in U.S. prisons has deliberately undermined the heating of the stones for ceremony. Rushing through an ancient ceremony is not proper, it is very sacred.

The deliberate attempt to shorten the hours and circumvent the ceremony is sacrilegious and undermining the seriousness and sacredness of the spiritual healing and blessings. Traditional ceremonies are to be held in the ancient and sacred way and manner. Prison chaplains continue to oversee American Indian ceremonies. The supervision of our inipi by the chaplain is not necessary, because it takes time away from other spiritual and cultural activities. These include talking circles, drumming sessions and Pipe ceremonies that also mandate the presence of the chaplain. During the inipi Ceremony, tobacco, or kinnikinnick (a mixture of sage, cedar and sweet grass) is used for our sacred pipe or Canupa. Very limited amounts of tobacco are allowed for our sacred pipe ceremony.

I am a pipe carrier and am not allowed to smoke my pipe with tobacco, kinnikinnick is also not available. I have asked to smoke my pipe in the sacred lodge area and have been told that while the present Chaplain is working for the USP Lewisburg, I will not have access to my pipe.

A part of the ceremony is having a meal after the ceremony has been completed. The USP prison system is denying us the right, to eat this meal after our ceremony. The Native American brothers are the only group that receives just two meals on the day we have our ceremony. This also changes the way our inipi ceremony has been taught to us by our ancestors.

I ask that those of you who can practice your religion freely do so and keep those of us who continue to fight for our religious freedom, preservation of our Culture, traditions, language, history and dignity in your thoughts and prayers.

Yours in the struggle,

Until freedom is won,

# 89637-132
U.S.P. Lewisburg,
P.O. Box 1000,
Lewisburg, PA USA 17837

LEONARD PELTIER Defense Committee Website