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Nebraska Native American Prisoners' Religious Program Reinstated

by John E. Dannenberg

Native American prisoners and Nebraska's then Director of Corrections, Harold Clarke, reached a settlement agreement on March 15, 2005 in U.S. District Court (D. Neb.) to reinstate the Native American prisoners' club (Native American Spiritual and Cultural Awareness) (NASCA) and to permit medicine men and other religious volunteers to attend Native American spiritual meetings at the 1,200-prisoner Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP). In so doing, the parties agreed to the termination (with prejudice) of prior consent decrees from 1974 and 1976.

Up until two years ago, NSP's 43 Native American prisoners had enjoyed NASCA associational, long hair, sweat lodge (inipi) and ceremonial privileges granted in the 1974 consent decree. However, NSP disbanded the program when complaints were received about membership discrimination wherein NASCA had adopted a policy of not permitting blood-line qualified" non-Native prisoners to be club members and/or officers.

Richard Walker, a Winnebago serving 10-life for second degree murder, then filed the lawsuit complaining that NSP was not permitting Native Americans to practice their religion.

With the agreement, NASCA modified (and NSP approved) its bylaws to remove the objectionable language restricting membership or creating sub-classes of membership based upon Native American blood quantum." Specifically, all interested NSP prisoners must now be permitted to attend NASCA activities, subject to disruptive visitors being reviewed by administration for restriction.

NSP officials averred that they value religion on prison grounds. NSP spokesman Win Barber noted that I've met a large number of inmates, rather hard customers if you look at their record, who I think genuinely have a sense of atonement for what they've done and are genuinely looking for some kind of forgiveness. ... We try to give each faith group a reasonably equitable opportunity to practice their faith....

Community volunteer Bill Achord, who works with NASCA, said that he sees the challenges to prisoners when they seek such simple things as more wood for their sweat lodge or getting medicine men and tribal elders to come to the prison.

Nonetheless, he believes that American Indian spirituality gives the prisoners a way to connect with something outside of themselves and helps them cope in the difficult NSP environment. These men, whatever crimes they've committed, ... , when they purify ...[and] go through the ceremony, ... come out reborn. In a sense, [they have] come out of the mother's womb. All [their criminal past] is washed away." Lifer Jan Amaya agreed, saying that the American Indian culture he was introduced to has helped him come to terms with life in prison. It keeps your mind and spirit free. In here, that's all we've got.

For NSP Native American prisoners, the reinstated practice now includes each having a prayer feather, pipe and medicine bag containing sacred herbs which guards agree not to touch (subject only to security needs). They also get two pow-wows per year, one of which may be a ceremonial banquet including traditional foods of fry bread, corn, berry dish, water and beef.
Additional foods may be permitted provided they are based upon theological tenets of the faith group, community standards of that faith group, and do not require special handling unavailable in the prison context. They are permitted two sweat lodge ceremonies per week in their lodge built of willow branches. Although tobacco is banned in prison by state law, the Native Americans may smoke Chinshasha (made from the bark of the red willow tree) at the end of each sweat. Importantly, they may meet as a club for religious and cultural education, where they may gain counsel of outside volunteers from their spiritual communities. The agreement further provides that any remaining Chinshasha stashes shall be divided among Native American prisoners requesting it for ceremonial use. Thereafter, Chinshasha may only be donated by outside agencies or individuals to the faith group for use in ceremonies. Their first post-settlement pow-wow, on September 30, 2005, included drum ceremonies and songs of their ancestors, fry bread, wojapi and Chinshasha.

The settlement also waived the plaintiff prisoners' attorney fees and costs. The NASCA prisoners were represented by Omaha attorneys Bassel F. Kasaby and Jonathan M. Cohn. See: Indian Inmates of the Nebraska Penal and Correctional Complex v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 4:72-CV-156.

Other source: Lincoln World-Herald Bureau.


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Related legal case

Indian Inmates of the Nebraska Penal and Correctio