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Native American Religious Rights Denied to Prisoners

6/4/14 under General News


General News



Indigenous peoples in the United States have the highest incarceration rate of any racial or ethic group, according to a report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee last fall jointly submitted by numerous Native American organizations including the National Congress of American Indians, the Native American Rights Fund and the National Native American Bar Association.

The report, submitted on behalf of indigenous peoples who are incarcerated in the U.S., asserts that in several states they are illegally being denied the ability to possess religious items, participate in religious ceremonies and engage in traditional religious practices.

NCAI President Brian Cladoosby wrote Secretary of State John Kerry in April regarding human rights violations occurring in the U.S., and specifically “the increasing number of state-level regulations that restrict the religious freedoms of Native American prisoners,” according to Indian Country Today.

The organization “Huy” was formed in 2012 to address that restriction and provide economic, educational, rehabilitative and religious support for Native America prisoners. In the traditional Coast Salish language of Lushootsee, Huy—pronounced “hoyt”—means “See you again/we never say goodbye.”

Huy board chairman Gabriel Galanda wrote in Indian Country Today that the issue was brought to the forefront in 2010 when a native chaplain tried to bring tribal ceremonial tobacco into a Washington state prison for use during a Change of Seasons sweatlodge ceremony. The tobacco was deemed contraband by state corrections personnel and confiscated.

This occurred even though federal courts have recognized that “tobacco plays a central role in sweat lodge ceremonies” and other Indian religious practices and affirmed its use in prison circles, Galanda wrote.

It was later learned that designating traditional tobacco as contraband was part of the state’s Department of Corrections sweeping policy reforms. However, following a concerted multi-tribal effort, the DOC apologized and restored the various Native prisoners’ religious rights.

However, Huy’s work continues as other states including California, Hawaii, Arizona, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Alabama have yet to grasp that Native inmates “do not forfeit all constitutional protections,” particularly First Amendment rights to religious freedom, wrote Galanda.

Huy is a tribally controlled non-profit corporation which partners with tribal governments, state government corrections and other agencies, higher educational institutions and other non-profit organizations to advocate on behalf of indigenous prisoners. For more information, visit the Huy website.

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