South Dakota State Penitentiary Stifles Native Prisoner Pow Wow Ceremonies

Mar 16th, 2015

Department’s latest policy seen as retaliation against Native inmates

who defeated the state in federal court over the religious use of tribal tobacco

The South Dakota State Penitentiary is denying Native American inmates religious accommodations for their quarterly pow wow ceremonies.  That after a U.S. District Court ruled that the state Department of Corrections had violated those inmates’ religious freedoms by banning their use of tobacco in prayer.

“The state’s latest action against Native inmates feels retaliatory,” said Huy Chairman Gabe Galanda.  “It’s as if prison officials are saying, ‘Fine, you got traditional tobacco back.  Now we’ll take pow wow ceremony from you.’”

At some point in late 2014, the Penitentiary decided that prison ceremonies that have historically accommodated as many as 200 people, primarily the Native inmates’ loved ones, should be trimmed back to only 80 people.

“It would be like cutting a catholic church in half, right down the middle aisle, and denying access to over half of Sunday churchgoers,” said Galanda.

The Penitentiary cites an unspecified “security concern” for the change in policy. Penitentiary officials, including Cultural Activities Coordinator Liz Vietta, refused to be more specific when asked by Huy officials.

Nor will Penitentiary officials provide any information at all to the Native prisoners, in explanation of their new policy.  That prevents the prisoners from grieving the abrupt policy change through administrative channels.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Holt v. Hobbs that prison officials are not entitled to “unquestioning deference” when they claim some form of security concern as a basis to restrain prisoners’ religious practices.  In other words, it is not enough for the Penitentiary to simply allege some general “security concern” to restrain Native pow wow ceremonies.

As Indian Country Today explains, federal law “requires prisons to recognize the spiritual needs of its Native American inmates, and pow wows are observed as part of their religious freedom.”

Pow wow religious ceremonies are accommodated by several state prison systems, including in California, Utah, Oregon and Washington, in part due to various court rulings that have been handed against prison officials.

“We will not sit idly by as the state of South Dakota kicks our Native relatives when they are down,” said Chase Iron Eyes of Last Real Indians.