Native Prisoner Religious Rights Prevailing in Federal Courts

Apr 22nd, 2015

Over the last year there have been a series of federal court decisions that somewhat surprisingly, have come down against state corrections agencies that have denied Native inmates their human right to worship in various traditional tribal ways.

Yesterday the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a Navajo inmate enjoys the right to wear colorful headband while he prays and celebrate his tribe’s annual Ghost Feast with tacos containing venison rather than the beef stew prison officials offer.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals a matter involving a Native’s challenge to a warden’s order that he cut his hair, in the wake of the High Court’s decision Holt v. Hobbs.

Last September, a U.S. District Court judge in Kentucky ordered the Kentucky State Penitentiary to allow a group of death row inmates to hold an annual powwow with traditional foods after the prison chaplain tried to stop the ceremony.

Last August the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a U.S. District Court’s decision against the State of South Dakota for banning Native prisoners’ use of traditional tribal tobacco in worship.

Amidst perennial federal court hostility towards Indian rights, and the even harsher reality that Natives are incarcerated at 38% higher than the national rate, there is a glimmer of optimism to be felt for of our relatives who are down in Iron Houses.