For the first time in many years, the yearly powwows at Washington state penitentiaries included children.
As Seattle Times reporter Sara Jean Green reports, the addition of kids – or “shorties” – to the celebrations provided a time of great reflection for Native inmates like Herbert Rice, who watched the kids dance during last week’s powwow at the Washington State Penitentiary.
“If I would’ve paid more attention to that, I wouldn’t be here,” said Rice, 41, who is serving two life sentences for the slayings of an elderly Yakima County couple during a 1988 robbery when he was 17.
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Until recently, such a scene would have been impossible inside the walls of the state’s prisons. In Washington, an estimated 750 Native Americans are incarcerated — though Minty LongEarth, a prison program director for the Seattle-based United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, believes the number is much higher, possibly double, given that many inmates don’t identify themselves as Native to prison officials. After months of discussions between tribal leaders and the Department of Corrections, Native-American inmates now can request that children be allowed to participate in significant, yearly religious or cultural events such as powwows.
Powwows — usually three-day events held during summer months — generally are loud, joyous social gatherings where song, dance and food reunite family members and old friends. Dancers often compete in various categories, such as traditional or fancy, each with a distinct style and dress. Dancers are accompanied by drum groups, and drummers take turns singing and beating out songs usually handed down through families or clans.
As Green reports, several inmates’ rights groups have worked in the past years to secure different religious rights for the Native population in jail in Washington.
“It’s taken us two years, through a lot of diplomatic effort and patience, to get everything back,” (attorny Gabe) Galanda said. The one thing still missing, however, was the inclusion of children — often referred to as “shorties” — at powwows.
Rice started writing and calling Galanda early last year, galvanizing the effort to bring children back to powwow. Originally from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Rice said his exposure to traditional spiritual practices inside prison changed his life.
“It brought the good person out of me,” Rice said. In turn, he has become a teacher to other incarcerated young men who, like him, grew up on the reservation amid dysfunction and alcoholism and then lost themselves to drugs, booze and crime. “Our culture changed me; it helped me face my scars in life.”