Inmate James Rousseau recalls the last powwow he attended at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, a few miles west of Spokane, Washington.
“I was here in 2019 before COVID hit,” he said. “I was here at the MSU (minimum security unit) camp and we had the powwow. We had a good turnout and a great time. It was good to be with my people.”
Rousseau grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Little did he know that this would be the last powwow he would attend in three years.
When the pandemic hit, the Washington prison powwow program was suspended, as were some of the other spiritual activities that Native American inmates had access to. It was deemed too dangerous to hold them back.
“We were very quick in 2020 to work with the state, on the advice of aboriginal elders, who realized that COVID and the sweat lodge, or COVID and anything that was done in a circle in confined spaces, wouldn’t be compatible,” said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle attorney and member of California’s Round Valley Indian Tribes.
Galanda is also the founder of Huy (pronounced HOYT), a Seattle nonprofit Indigenous rights group that works with the state to hold powwows behind prison walls.
For the past two and a half years, Washington prisons, like others around the country, have battled COVID outbreaks among inmates and staff. The state Department of Corrections reports more than 16,000 confirmed cases. Eighteen inmates died. Those who tested positive were separated into COVID units on the prison grounds. The most serious cases were evacuated to outside health facilities. The men and women who remained healthy were often isolated in their cells.
This isolation has taken its toll. As COVID became less of a threat, Galanda saw an opening.
“Through Huy, we have been advocating through the Department of Corrections to ease health restrictions as society pitches in around COVID to increase opportunities for worship. indigenous,” he said.
Galanda says correctional officials agreed it was time to start the powwows again. Earlier this year, negotiations began on how and when to do so. Both sides had hoped to bring the celebrations back behind prison walls in late spring or early summer to coincide with the area’s powwow season.
“It really came down to protocols and working with the Department of Health, working with our own epidemiologist and, really, we were threading a needle to make these powwows happen,” the Secretary of State said. corrections, Cheryl Strange.
Strange and Galanda say the negotiations have been difficult at times. They would make progress and then have to postpone their plans until further outbreaks subside, even as late as last summer, Galanda said.
Eventually, the agency agreed to hold about 20 powwows in September and October. The first was on the grounds of Walla Walla State Penitentiary on September 8.
The Airway Heights minimum security unit powwow is one of the last in the series. It’s late October and too cold to party outside, so the inmates gather in a large meeting room.
Prison officials had to work quickly to make this happen. There were a lot of logistical details, said Kay Heinrich, associate superintendent of programs at Airway Heights. Staff conduct background checks on visitors and arrange security measures for foreigners visiting the prison. They also work to ensure the ceremony is culturally appropriate, including the food.
“We have the buffalo stew, the salmon, which are all Native American upgrades that they don’t normally get,” she said.
Inmates are also making preparations. As soon as they learned they would be entitled to a pow-wow, Rousseau and other Native inmates set to work making gifts for the visitors.
“I made dreamcatchers. I made medallions. I made earrings,” Rousseau said.
Inmate Jason McIlwain of Forks, Washington, and a member of the Shoshone tribe, worked for weeks to create some of the intricate beaded pieces that now rest on a long table to the side of the room.
“Beading for me is almost like meditation. It’s where I find my happy place when I’m not inside the lodge,” he said.
When the powwow begins, the dancers make their grand entrance into the assembly hall. The first men carry large flags. Several dancers wear colorful badges and shake tiny bells on their costumes as they move to the beat of the small group of drummers in the center of the room. The dancers circle around them, each moving in their own way, some exerting great effort.
McIlwain and Rousseau are more restrained, both in their movements and in their dress. Both are dressed in brown t-shirts and beige pants.
Rousseau watches the others while he dances. At 55, he’s the eldest here and happy to let the younger men strut their stuff.
“Grass dancing and fantasy dancing are for young people,” he said. “Traditional men’s dance, stealth and chicken dance are all more or less for elders. Traditional, you don’t have to move around so much and jump around,” he laughed.
Richard Dennison is one of the youngest. He wears borrowed powder blue and white insignia and a blue bandana. He is from the Spokane tribe and grew up around powwows, but moved away from them as he got older.
“I didn’t really get into dancing and stuff until I got to jail because I was running around doing other things that I shouldn’t have done,” he said, in part for why he was assigned to Airway Heights while incarcerated. in 2019. It is expected to be released in 2026.
Several family members, including Dennison’s children, have traveled to the prison to celebrate the day with him, and he is nervous.
“My kids, my mom and my dad, no one’s ever really seen me dance like that before,” he said.
Dennison’s time behind bars allowed him to break a drug addiction and begin to rediscover his legacy. He says he participates in activities like the sweat lodge and looks forward to more spiritual options as health restrictions ease.
For years, powwows in Washington prisons have been funded by the Department of Corrections. But the state suffered budget cuts at the time of the Great Recession in 2008 and powwows have been eliminated.
Gabe Galanda and Huy stepped in to work with the state to reinstate the program in 2012. Every year since then, Huy has raised the funds to cover the costs of hosting the 22 powwows, or about $35,000 this year.
“We pay for things like food. A lot of these celebrations have salmon and even buffalo served. Wild rice rather than what would be staple food,” he said. “We pay for badges, beads and other things needed to sew and prepare gifts.”
Galanda says it’s money well spent. He was reminded of the value of powwows when he attended the celebration at Walla Walla.
“There were six men who had learned to sing and drum and dance and had sewn their badges for the first time in their lives and here they are in the circle, wearing the badges they had made and dancing the steps that they had learned the songs they had also learned,” he said. “It’s pretty miraculous to witness that kind of growth and rehabilitation, especially in a prison environment. Honestly it’s not something they would experience in the outside world because of the environment they were raised in and live in and it’s the environment that contributed to the error that they have committed.”
Kay Heinrich of the Airway Heights Corrections Center says powwows are an important motivational and behavioral tool.
“They change their behavior to make sure they can participate,” she said. “I just spoke to them a little while ago, they asked if they could do it again next year. And I was like, ‘Are you going to be okay?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah.’ It’s important because their families come. They’re always grateful. They always say thank you.”
Heinrich says powwows have another benefit as well.
“I think it’s helpful for all the staff, custodial and support staff, because I think they see the incarcerated in a different light, how important it is, how their family members come and how they interact in healthy prosocial ways,” she said.
James Rousseau has no visitors at the powwow, but he says he’s happy to see the other men enjoying their loved ones. He assumes his role of elder.
“I encourage young people. I see them and I say: ‘How are you?’ and I shake their hands. ‘Hey, are you doing anything for the powwow?’ ” he said. “I care about them and it makes me happy to be able to do this.”
Huy founder Galanda and Head of Correction Strange said they plan to bring the powwows back in 2023, perhaps closer to the traditional season.
“Fingers crossed we’ll keep going,” Strange said.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.