Wambli Sina Win: Oklahoma Indian inmates need our help

How often in our busy lives do we take time to reflect upon the simple things in life that are taken for granted? Our freedom is “priceless.” No amount of frog skins, “maza ska” or money can ever compensate for the loss of freedom. Over the years, how many of our ancestral leaders, Chiefs and warriors were imprisoned or lost their lives for their beliefs? Do we today among our Red people have those who are “forsaken and forgotten”?

Several of our ancestors who were imprisoned include, the great Heyoka Chief Crazy Horse, who was murdered while in U.S. military custody; Chief Sitting Bull who was a captive at Ft. Yates before he was assassinated while being arrested by Indian police who worked for the U.S. government; the fearless and great Heyoka Chief Rain-in-the-Face who was held captive by soldiers for a time and shackled to a ball and chain before he made a daring escape.

However, it wasn’t just the Northern Plains warriors or chiefs who were imprisoned or died in captivity. The great patriot of the Southwest, Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache Chief, died in a military prison in Oklahoma, far from his beloved homeland. Most of us know of Chief Geronimo but how many are aware that there were innocent Apache children who were also imprisoned by the U.S. government? In 1997 Mildred Cleghorn, the distinguished matriarchal Chairperson of the Chiricahua Apache Tribe passed on. She had the distinction of being the last Native American child to be born in captivity in 1910 as a U.S. “prisoner of war.”

My grandfather taught that a true leader holds sacred the breath of all Lakota (Indian) people regardless of tribal affiliation. I have learned that this spirit of generosity is why the Lakota so freely welcomed and adopted the captives who were members of other tribes into the Lakota Oyate through the sacred “making of relatives ceremony,” the Hunka Ceremony. Chief Sitting Bull adopted an Assiniboine captive later named “Jumping Bull” as his brother and this brave man was killed along with Chief Sitting Bull in 1890.

According to traditional Lakota teaching, every person from the Chief on down to the youngest child was valued equally. From an early age, the elders taught the virtues of courage, fortitude, humility, honesty, generosity and wisdom to the youth and invested a substantial time teaching, nurturing, mentoring and preparing them for adulthood. Only the bravest and most virtuous of the young men who had proven themselves were invited to join the Akicita Warrior Societies.

As a result, our warriors were known for their courage and fearlessness and were regarded as formidable adversaries. During and after battle, the warriors risked their lives to retrieve those who had fallen, for the men were valued even in death. It took a courageous and strong leader to retrieve those who had fallen.

Our traditional Lakota leaders and warriors served without pay, living a life of sacrifice and public service to the people. If a leader or warrior was cowardly, unwise, unjust, or dishonest, the people removed him from his position. True leadership entailed providing for and looking out for those who were the most vulnerable, including the young, the sick, the widows and the elderly.

I have learned from my Heyoka grandfather and Heyoka son that according to Native American spiritual teaching, there are no inferiors among our people. Each person deserves respect and is equal, male or female, including those deemed “outcasts” by society. We cannot judge others for the Great Spirit made all of us and loves us all equally. Redemption is found not through another’s sacrifice or suffering but through one’s own individual effort and reconciliation with the Great Spirit. It has never been the Lakota way to exclude a person who has committed a wrong from participating in one of our sacred ceremonies.

The life of a traditional Lakota is one of a continual search to make things right with the creator. Our sweat lodge ceremony, one of seven sacred rites, allows us to purify ourselves and to pray, seek forgiveness and deal with guilt or other issues. In the sweat lodge ceremony, it is not perfection that counts but intention and sincerity that only the Great Spirit sees and reveals through changed lives. Before we try to judge, remember that according to Native American spirituality, spiritual laws supersede man’s laws which are imperfect. Just because a secular rule or law is legal does not mean that it is just or moral.

As humans, we are selfish but the sacred sweat lodge ceremony allows us to give not only from the body but also from the spirit. What leaves our bodies are impurities, our “wrong doings.” We give back through our presence and prayers, our love and support for one another. The sweat lodge has helped many who face a life of incarceration to have hope and to seek forgiveness. The sweat lodge is relevant to rehabilitation which is faith based.

Today in Oklahoma, those of our Red brothers and sisters who have “fallen” and who say they are often treated as if they are dead, number approximately 2,232 or about 8.8 percent of the prison population. Five currently on death row are identified as Native Americans.

It is sad that in these Oklahoma prisons, we have young people who are giving up. I heard a young man say “If you are Red, you are dead.” Some of them have told me that they feel condemned for one mistake and judged for the rest of their lives. I hear them talk about being forgotten and abandoned by their tribes.

This is not in accordance with traditional Native American spiritual beliefs and neither should this be a Christian attitude. It takes a courageous leader to acknowledge that anybody can make a mistake and that we all have an obligation to extend a hand to help these fallen warriors. We should not kick somebody when they are down. Most importantly, Native American prisoners who are tribal members retain their tribal identity while they are in prison.

In 2005, before he passed, a traditional Lakota spiritual leader, John Around Him, spoke of a dream that he had which was to turn the tide of incarceration around. As Lakota we often speak about how we are all related, “Mitakuye Oyasin” and our kinship is a spiritual relationship which man’s laws cannot sever. Mr. Around Him was right when he said “we all have relatives who are in prison.”

Tribal leadership should note that there are at least 2,232 Native American offenders who are in need of help. Nowhere in any tribal Constitution does it say that a person is deprived of their tribal identity when they enter prison. Moreover, each tribe counts these enrolled tribal members as part of their statistics when applying for grants or federal funding and they are tribal members. Even if these offenders are not enrolled with your tribe, it is the spiritual way to help those who are down and out. How many tribal leaders have a heart big enough to include those who are outside of their own tribal affiliation?

These men and women need tribally sponsored re-entry programs, jobs, not discrimination by their own people when they get out. While in prison, they need Native American volunteers for religious services, cultural and educational activities and mentoring. Many Native Americans use the sweat lodges as part of their rehabilitation. They need donations on a regular basis for the wood, stones, sage, sweet grass, tarps and other supplies, not on a one time basis.

Due to budgetary constraints, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is operating at about 2/3 of its staffing levels. Six prisons are without Chaplains. It is the Chaplains who oversee and deal with the religious needs of all offenders so this is an area where you can really make a difference. At the present time there is a noticeable absence of Native American volunteers at the DOC facilities and this should not be the case.

Our Native American people are generous and giving and may not be aware of this situation. I ask that you contact Chaplain Leo Brown, Director of Religious Services & Volunteer Programs at (405)962-6107 or write to him at 2901 N. Classen, Suite 200, Oklahoma City 73106 for more information on how to help. I’ve been involved with trying to protect the religious rights of our people since 2005. Pila maya ye (thank you) for helping make sure that those who have fallen are not “forsaken or forgotten.”

Wambli Sina Win (Eagle Shawl Woman) is currently an Associate Professor and Director of the Bacone College Criminal Justice Studies Department in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Her grandfather was John Fire, Chief Lame Deer Tahca Uste, a well known Lakota Holy Man from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota. One of her sons is also a medicine man. She has served as a Tribal Judge for the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney, a Tribal Attorney and as a legal Instructor for the U.S. Indian Police Academy at Artesia, N.M. You may contact Wambli Sina Win, J.D. at wamblisinawin@yahoo.com She can be reached at wamblisinawin@yahoo.com.

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