Indigenous Prisoner Religious Rights Organization Awarded $50,000 Grant

Oct 18th, 2021

Huy has received a $50,000 grant in recognition of its efforts to help rehabilitate Indigenous prisoners and prepare them for successful reentry into society. The award comes as Huy has catalyzed the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) to restore Indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies and expand other group spiritual opportunities statewide amid the pandemic.

“Coordinated Care is honored to support Huy’s advocacy work for Indigenous people within the confines of the prison system,” said Beth Johnson, President and CEO at Coordinated Care. “We have much to learn about the importance of staying connected to culture and spiritual practices as part of overall wellness for American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

For the first 17 months of the pandemic, Indigenous prisoners in the DOC went without any human contact with family and any opportunity for group worship.  Beginning in March of 2021, Huy joined forces with the ACLU of Washington to urge that DOC “provide for immediate access to Native American religious expression, including sweat lodge, smudging, talking circles, drum ceremony, and pipe ceremony with the least restrictive COVID-19 precautions necessary.”

Eleven Native nations joined Huy’s advocacy in July, writing to the DOC: “[O]ver the last seventeen months we have had to make very difficult decisions that balance public health and safety against our traditional and modern practices….Our people are again congregating and praying together in our sweat lodges, longhouses, and churches. It is time for our incarcerated relatives to also be allowed back into ceremony and traditional places of worship.”

By late summer, Indigenous prisoners were again allowed to engage in sweat-lodge ceremony and congregate for other religious activities, subject to acceptable health and safety restrictions.  As those Native nations explained to the DOC, such activities are protected by the American Religious Freedoms Act of 1978, among other federal laws as well as “Indigenous teachings and unwritten laws.”

All 21 “Circles”—as the Indigenous groups in each of the DOC’s twelve prisons call themselves—are now being allowed to participate in regularly scheduled sweat lodge ceremonies as well as a modified pow wow celebration this fall.

“We were able to resolve our differences with the DOC in a way that honored both Indigenous religious freedoms and COVID-related precautions,” said Gabe Galanda, Huy’s founder and Chairperson of the organization’s Board of Advisors. “It was not easy but we got there and we are grateful our relatives are worshiping again together.”

In partnership with Huy, the DOC has also rebuilt five sweat lodge structures and plans to rebuild four more in the near future. The two organizations are also collaborating on the development of sacred medicine gardens at all twelve DOC prisons. In those gardens, Indigenous prisoners will plant, nurture, and harvest plants that Indigenous peoples use in prayer and refer to as “medicines.”

The $50,000 gift from Coordinated Care will aid all of these prison reform efforts and “allow us to do even more to help our Indigenous relatives heal,” said Galanda. 

Coordinated Care provides free and low cost health insurance coverage to more than 280,000 Medicaid, Foster Care and marketplace members across Washington state. For American Indians and Alaska Natives who choose their plans, most reside away from their homelands and are not always able to return to their tribal clinic for care. Coordinated Care is committed to creating programs designed to comply with the federal health care protections for the Indigenous population.

“We believe in treating the whole person and connecting members to the care they want and need,” Coordinated Care said in a statement. That’s also Huy’s belief.