I have the honor to pour water in Inipi—Sweatlodge in Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility in Minnesota for our relatives who are incarcerated. When I am there, I see loving mothers, healers, grandmothers, and medicine women wanting to return back to our cultural way of life.
Each woman there in Inipi experienced child sexual abuse, sexual assault, or domestic violence. Many used drugs or alcohol as a means to cope with traumatic stress and memories. The self-medication is exacerbated by shame or guilt due to missing birthdays, holidays, births, and deaths of their loved ones. If they are fortunate, they may have access to treatment options during their incarceration, or a compassionate justice system response through drug courts, diversion, or court orders to attend long-term treatment.
This is how we at American Indian Prison Project Work Group (AIPPWG) view our incarcerated relatives. Our focus is towards social change, and we work to bring humanity and love to our incarcerated relatives and their families.
Few of our relatives have the privilege to heal. They may lack a place to live and a way to heal their connection to their children, themselves, and the earth.
Many struggle to find a job that pays a living wage, or find affordable housing but may not qualify for public housing due to a felony. They may struggle to get their children out of the child welfare system, all while fighting stigmatism and judgement of society as a failure.
What can we do as relatives, as communities, as a society to welcome them home? We need to provide all the opportunities to our cultural way of life, a safe home, and support services and to reunify them with their children.
I challenge each of you to change your views about our incarcerated relatives, and ask of your compassion and love, and to truly see our incarcerated relatives. Instead, let’s see them as mothers, aunties, sisters, grandmothers, nieces, nephews, fathers, brothers, and uncles.
Do we want to keep punishing them once they have served their sentences?
I started going into Red Wing Juvenile prison to do Inipi (Sweat Lodge), Pipe Ceremony, one on one reentry support sessions because my Ina (mother) asked me to when I was in my 20’s. When she first asked me, I was not sure if was going to do it or not, then I thought about my own childhood and my up bringing. I thought about growing up on the Rez and on southside where there are not too many male role models and most of my friends and I grew up with no fathers in our life. I was the lucky one because I was given a Ate (father) when I was 13. My Ate got me reconnected to my way of life by taking me down to his family place for Inipi. I went from stealing stuff and raising hell every weekend to wanting to go down to Inipi every weekend and be with him. That is what change my life and got me back on this red road. This also got me thinking what if everyone had someone like my Ate in their life talking them to Inipi and Sundance and someone to show them there is a much better life out there and you don’t need to have money to live that good life -you just needed someone to teach you about our ways of life and how to be a good relative.
Then I thought about both my Ina and Ate and how they showed us that the people always come first. Whenever they were called on to help the people that they always did what they were asked to do, no matter if they had plans to go to a Pow Wow or if it fell on their own birthday. They would always sacrifice their time and themselves to help the people, so how could I not do what I seen my Ina and Ate do their whole life?
When I started doing this work, I realized pretty quick that this is what I was meant to do because Wakan Tanka wanted me there to help my people. I also realized that I was getting more from these youth than I was giving. Sometimes on my 90 minute drive down to Red Wing I would think is this worth it? But, by the time I left I was always so grateful that I went. I just felt so great because those youth where all so happy and grateful that I was there to spent time with them. On every visit to MCF Red Wing one of the youth would always share a story with me about their life and how hard it was and they would say to me that the my words I shared with them helped them so much. Just knowing that I could help them see the world differently and give them hope that there is a better life out there for them if they wanted it.
Winter is a time of reflection and prayer. As we celebrate the new moon of the winter solstice and the beginning of a new year; we lay our tobacco (asema) down and give thanks. We give thanks to our indigenous ancestors who fought so hard for our existence as we now know it to be. We give thanks for their resiliency and strength. We give recognition and honor to our ancestors who walk with us from the unseen world and who gives us knowledge to walk in the seen world as we now know it today. This gives us HOPE.
The incarceration of our indigenous relatives is not new to us. We have been experiencing if for over 400 years. The historical trauma of mass incarceration, child removal, and the separation of our families continues to be passed down from generation to generation. But like our relatives that came before us we have found strength through prayer, songs, and ceremonies. We have found healing through dance, taking circles and our medicines. Our cultural traditions and practices has given us a vision of HOPE. Hope that one day there will no longer be the incarceration of our indigenous relatives. Hope that mothers and fathers will no longer be separated from their children. Hope that our indigenous relatives will one day reenter our communities without resistance and they will be provided with shelter, resources, education and employment without prejudice. This is our HOPE.
Though our visions gives us hope for the future we are still reminded of the reality of today. Our incarcerated relatives continue to struggle ever more to not be forgotten in this world as we now know it. The lockdowns and forced isolation, the ending of volunteer programs and reentry resources, as well as ending of family and child visitation due to the pandemic has brought on a new wave of disparities and trauma. We need not forget about our incarcerated relatives who are alone and scared that they too could be infected with the Covid-19 virus. We as loving relatives can assure them that they are not forgotten by sending frequent letters, cards, books, phone time and being available for video visits. For our relatives who are being released or who are in reentry, we need our families and communities to provide them with resources, employment and housing options. This will give our relatives restored HOPE.
Our prayer for this New Year is that we can all come together to be the strength and hope that our incarcerated relatives need. Our prayer today you will walk in love and light and remembrance of our people.
This is gives us our HOPE!
As 2020 draws to an end we would like to send our voice, love, and prayers to all of the Indigenous women, men, and youth who are locked behind the iron door in county jails and state/federal prisons across the country. While we are acutely aware of the hardships, pain, and grief that our communities are experiencing due to the pandemic it is crucial to note that our incarcerated friends, family, and community members have been furthered separated within the prisons by the county, state and federal prison lockdowns due to the pandemic. Community based programs and volunteers are no longer able to go into the prisons to provide classes and services, family and friends are no longer able to visit, the connection to the “outside” world has been virtually severed and compounded to that stress is the spread of Covid 19 within the county jails and prisons.
We urge each of you with a friend(s) or relative (s) in jails or prison - please write and send cards as communication from family and community is so needed at this time to balance the layered isolation and fear about the spread of Covid 19 within the prisons. Most importantly please remember our people that are incarcerated when you pray or participate in ceremony as your words and prayers are powerful….
Stephanie Autumn, Executive Director
American Indian Prison Project Working Group