How ancestral knowledge can help incarcerated Natives

After the Department of Corrections stripped imprisoned Indigenous people of religious freedoms in 2010, the organization Huy stepped in to advocate for them.

HEAL for Reentry executive director Winona Stevens

HEAL for Reentry executive director Winona Stevens shows a painting she keeps in her office, sent to her by a Washington State inmate. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

“I got out of prison at 40 and I guess my life up until then, I really didn't take it seriously,” said Osceola Fortner, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, who was released in March 2020. After serving seven years he was released from Cedar Creek Corrections Center where he served the last 4 of those years. 

This was the fourth time in his life he was released from a long prison sentence, but this time he was determined to break the cycle. He successfully obtained his driver's license and his own apartment — two things he had never done before. Six months after his release, the state saw him fit to have custody of his 6-year-old son and his 4-year-old granddaughter. “What brings me joy is having the means to take care of somebody else because before I was always in survival mode,” Fortner said. 

Winona Stevens, right, executive director of HEAL for Reentry, speaks with Doni Sumner, who was recently released from prison and has been assisted by HEAL for several weeks as he works on things like getting a phone, car insurance and securing employment. HEAL is a program dedicated to helping Indigenous people reenter the community after incarceration. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Indigenous religious freedoms

He attributes his newfound purpose in life to Huy, an Indigenous religious freedoms advocacy organization, which last month commemorated the first decade of its human rights work in prisons and with formerly incarcerated people in Washington and other states. Huy — (pronounced hoyt), meaning “see you again” or “we never say goodbye” in Lushootseed — acts as a watchdog of Indigenous human rights violations through legal advocacy in partnership with the Native American Rights Fund. Huy also allocates direct funding for Indigenous religious services provided through its sister entity, Native American Reentry Services or NARS. 

Huy’s work transcends Washington’s borders, helping an Indigenous prisoner successfully challenge the Massachusetts Department Corrections’ closure of a sweat lodge in a case that went to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In 2016, Huy represented Native Hawaiians incarcerated in a private prison in Arizona to affirm their right to possess sacred items and engage in traditional ceremonies. Huy has helped win lawsuits for Indigenous religious freedom all over the country, including Connecticut, South Dakota, Washington and Oklahoma. 

“We try to make sure that those men and women have an opportunity to be Indigenous and to use their traditional religion as a way to rehabilitate and that they're successful in their reentry,” said Gabe Galanda, an enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of Covelo, California; partner at Galanda Broadman, an American Indian majority-owned law firm; and Huy founder and chairman. 

Left: Osceola Fortner fills a bag with sage, sweetgrass, lavender, bitter root, cedar and other Native medicines as a care package for a client. Right: Photos from each of Washington’s 12 prisons form a clock on the wall at the HEAL for Reentry offices in Tacoma. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Supporting relatives in reentry

In 2010, the religious programs manager Greg Garringer of the Washington Department of Corrections banned all tribal sacred medicines and cut back Sunday sweat lodges, which are spiritual purification ceremonies, akin to religious services of any denomination. With Galanda’s guidance, a government-to-government consultation with Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail was made possible and resulted in the restoration of Indigenous inmates’ religious rights and the founding of Huy. 

Huy negotiated a memorandum of understanding for religious ceremonial funding, in addition to the first American Indian Alaska Native Religious Services contract between the Washington Department of Corrections and Indigenous agencies to provide religious and cultural services for incarcerated Indigenous people at prisons statewide in 2013. 

United Indians of All Tribes Foundation was the first contractor for the new American Indian Alaska Native Religious Services contract led by Minty LongEarth of the Santee, Creek and Choctaw Nations. When LongEarth became executive director of the United Indians organization, she hired Winona Stevens, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, as the program manager to fulfill the contract in 2013. 

“Because of the work that I was doing on the contract, one thing became clear pretty quickly, there needed to be a reciprocal program in the community that supported our relatives when they came home,” said Stevens, who is also a member of the Huy board. 

Stevens founded Native American Reentry Services a year later in 2014 to bridge the gap of needed community support for previously incarcerated Indigenous people reentering society. At this time, NARS wasn’t a full-time job for Stevens but it was her passion, so she did this work on her own time without compensation.

NARS took over the prison services contract in 2016 and has provided connection to culture and community through sweat lodges, drum and dance circles and teachings given by elders and annual powwows. It also facilitates Indigenous methods of addressing addiction through the Iron House Medicine Wheel and 12-step classes led by White Bison-certified contractors or trained peer facilitators.  

This year, Unkitawa, a new Indigenous-led reentry nonprofit, holds the contract. “It's not a moneymaker,” Stevens said. “You have to make sacrifices, you know, even financially, even though it's funded by the state.” 

Twenty-one groups known as “Hoops'' have formed across the 12 Washington prisons through which traditional religious services are provided. The state doesn’t pay travel expenses for the contract staff members who facilitate the traditional spiritual practices, and it doesn’t compensate them for the time it takes to do things like gather grandfather stones and willows for 21 sweat lodges across the state. Prisons are in remote areas and gas is expensive. 

“We've had contractors who use their vacation leave and sick leave in order to provide services,” Stevens said. “There was a lot of sacrifice on the part of so many people to do this type of work. Nothing gets done without this community”

Executive director Winona Stevens, center, and program managers Leandru Willie, left, and Osceola Fortner are the three staff members of Heal for Reentry, a program dedicated to helping Indigenous people reenter the community after incarceration. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Overrepresented in prisons

For Stevens, being able to provide these services is personal. Stevens has family members who have been in and out of jail and prison systems all her life. “I felt like this is a way that I can help,” she said. “I might not be able to directly help my loved one, but I could certainly help other people from our community because we're overrepresented in the incarcerated population.”

Biased policing of Indigenous people and communities has largely contributed to a revolving door of Indigenous people in the state’s correctional facilities. Washington State Patrol troopers were found to have searched Native Americans at a rate more than five times higher than white motorists in 2019, even though white motorists were more likely to have drugs. Not much has changed since. 

When Stevens started working with incarcerated Natives, she was shocked by the number of Indigenous women who were incarcerated. “The majority of our mothers, aunties, grandmothers, daughters are all incarcerated in this one place and to see so many Native women incarcerated there was jarring for me,” Stevens said of the Washington Correction Center for Women in Gig Harbor. 

Indigenous women have the highest rate of imprisonment of any race of women, according to Department of Justice statistics. In 2020, Indigenous women 30 to 39 years old were more than four times as likely as white women the same age to be in prison. Young Indigenous women 18 to19 years old were over five times more likely than white women the same age to be in state or federal prison. Indigenous incarceration outside of tribal lands has gone up an astronomical 85% since 2000 and up 61% on tribal lands nationally. 

“I couldn't tell you how many times I've been in and out of county [jail],” said Leandru Willie, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. “After so long, it just becomes a way of life.” Within three years of their release 43% of Indigenous people are reincarcerated in Washington.

Case manager Osceola Fortner (Winnebago Tribe) talks on the phone in the HEAL for Reentry offices, June 20, 2022. Fortner, who has spent time in and out of prison for most of his adult life, was released from in 2020 after a seven year stint at Cedar Creek Corrections Center. He began working for HEAL earlier this year where he helps former inmates like himself successfully reenter into their community. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Disease of despair

“Drugs play a huge role,” said Willie. “A lot of a lot of people, including myself, we all probably wouldn't have ended up in prison if it weren’t for drugs.” Indigenous people were almost 50% more likely to die of an opioid overdose between 2006 and 2014, and the pandemic has only exacerbated what people have called the “disease of despair:” drug addiction. 

Addiction issues for Indigenous people have been directly linked to policies meant to strip Indigenous people of their culture, language and spiritual beliefs, according to research by the National Library of Medicine. The study attributes things like Indian boarding schools, which tore families apart, abused the children and had lasting psychological and generational effects. Willie says he is grateful for the Medicine Wheel and White Bison program, which focuses on culturally based healing through what is called Wellbriety. Wellbriety focuses on sobriety and recovery as well as overall wellness of the mind, body and spirit.   

White Bison started as a pilot program at Washington’s minimum security prisons but quickly became popular, with staff asking for it to expand to the higher security state prisons. Stevens trained more than 60 peer facilitators from at least 40 different Native nations from 2014 to 2019. The peer facilitators are currently incarcerated people who facilitate the program to their peers in the prison.

Willie wasn’t interested in becoming involved with the Hoops at Olympic Corrections Center at first because of some contention he had with another person who attended. When peer facilitators reached out to him about approaching things with more compassion, things changed. “Just that word ‘compassion,’ that just got me thinking,” Willie said. “Some very good people got me thinking in a whole different way, and then I started getting back into cultural aspects and learning more about my own people.”

Heal for Reentry program manager Leandru Willie, right, says goodbye to Doni Sumner at the HEAL offices in Tacoma after giving him a bag of Native medicines including sage, lavender, copol, cedar, sweet grass, bitter root and bear root, June 20, 2020. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Walking the red road

Willie was released in 2015, making this the longest he has been out of state custody or not under any supervision since he was 13. He credits that success  to the Hoops and HEAL for reentry. “There's no way I could have done it on my own,” Willie said. “I tried that before and it doesn't work.”

So when the program manager position opened up in August of 2021 at the Iron House medicine program, he was excited about the opportunity. “For somebody with my criminal history to be allowed to go back into [the Department of Corrections] to serve the brothers and sisters, that's huge,” Willie said. 

Willie facilitated and managed all 21 Hoops at Washington's 12 prisons helping others reconnect with their cultures and the traditions that helped him begin to “walk the red road,” or walking a life path of positive change and using ancestral medicines and knowledge to get there. 

“I love the work,” Willie said. “I love who I work with. I love the people that we serve. It also shows people, brothers and sisters that are getting out that this is possible.” In 2018, Willie started college courses and is contemplating going to law school after finishing his degree in law and policy, with a minor in human rights, from the University of Washington Tacoma.

In January, Willie transitioned to the role of program manager of the HEAL reentry program at NARS. In this role, he works to connect recently released Indigenous people with resources and support. Willie understands this on a personal level because of his own struggles finding housing and work when he was released. Now he is able to use the resources he was afforded through NARS and the connections he has made on his own to support others. 

Fortner was one of three Native people who became certified White Bison facilitators at Cedar Creek Corrections Center in 2016. He led future White Bison groups. Fortner led White Bison for four years at Cedar Creek until his release in 2020.

After his release he volunteered his time with HEAL for Reentry, supporting the Tacoma reentry sweat lodge, and a beading circle at Royal Life Treatment Center, where he was asked to lead White Bison. In January, he was hired at NARS as a reentry case manager. Fortner is also Stevens’ brother and a major part of the reason she got involved with reentry work. Now, they work together to support Indigenous people reentering their communities post-incarceration. 

For both Fortner and Willie, surrounding themselves with people from similar backgrounds and experience successfully transitioning back into the community was pivotal to their success. Now, being able to be that support for someone else has brought each of them a lot of joy and has strengthened their spiritual and cultural connections. The full circle of healing for Fortner and Willie has been Stevens’ dream for NARS. She hopes to continue to be able to hire people who have been previously incarcerated, who have been walking the red road, to end the cycle of recidivism and bring more Indigenous people home. 

Executive director Winona Stevens, right, and program manager Leandru Willie and case manager Osceola Fortner are the three staff members of Heal for Reentry, a program dedicated to helping Native and AAPI people reentry the community after incarceration. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

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