Sharing the Pipe of Peace with the Brothers in the South Dakota Penitentiary
By Richard Iron Cloud
"We invite you to come and hear some of our concerns". My trip to the prison in Sioux Falls, SD was prompted by an invitation from Philip Yellow Bird Steele, Chairman of the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota Spiritual Group at the Penitentiary. I visited the penitentiary on Friday, March 13, 2009, along with several other activists. We met with Mary Montoya, the volunteer coordinator for Native American prisoners. She greeted us with a warm smile as we went through the security gates. We met in the chapel in the Prison on the Hill. As the prisoners came in, they all came by and gave us a hand shake or a hug for a familiar face One of the Prisoners gave us gifts; beaded roses for the ladies, a beaded necklace for me.
We started with a prayer by the Pipe Keeper, then moved to introductions and started the meeting. A number of the prisoners talked about the blatant disregard and disrespect for Lakota Spirituality in comparison to other religions. They spoke about how they make grievances that go all the way up the chain of command to the Head of the SD Department of Corrections, and nothing seems to come of them. They asked with frustration: "How do we get our voices heard?" The drum keeper said that most of the time they have to keep their opinions to themselves. He once voiced his opinion and was sent to "the hole" (solitary confinement). One Lakota prisoner, who had been in prison since the 1980s, said the senior guards seem to disregard policy and make their own rules, which sets a bad example for the new guards that are just coming in, and they are not held accountable. The prisoners said that they started a legal committee in the prison. Two people are designated to keep track of the complaints that go to the officials. That way they have a copy of all the complaints. The prisoners said that when outside guests come the prison officials seem to straighten up and follow policy, but when the outside guests stop coming the officials go back to their old ways. They expressed their appreciation for us coming to visit them and we closed with a prayer.
After lunch we went to the Jamison Annex, the Maximum Security Prison, and met with the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Spiritual group there. One of the first statements by the prisoners was "the guards do not see the reverence that we have for the pipe and that we have our hearts into what we are doing. The guards just see us smoking the pipe and see us as a cult". Some of the prisoners said that the ceremonies have taught them tolerance for the guards and for a brief time they are no longer in prison. Some of the prisoners who are serving life for manslaughter are frustrated because they see the white people serving brief sentences like seven to eight years for first degree manslaughter compared to their life sentences. One prisoner expressed frustration with the Board of Pardons and Parole because a white prisoner with several write ups is given parole, while the Lakota prisoner with no write ups is turned down. One prisoner complained about the health care. He said if you are sick you have to let them know at 6:00 AM. Otherwise, if you get sick during the day, they will not help you. From health issues the conversation turned to finances.
Many of the inmates complained about missing money from their accounts. One young Lakota prisoner gets a large sum of money for land lease; he is only given a fraction of this amount for the privilege of having a television. The young prisoner does not complain because he is afraid to lose his television privilege.
The time seemed to pass quickly. Before we knew it the two hours were up. I was invited back that evening for a pipe ceremony. We all sat in a large circle in the chapel. I sat beside a young Lakota who was filling his pipe. He presented his pipe to me and I smoked it and he passed it on to his fellow prisoners. The leader asked the Pipe keeper to start with a prayer and afterward he asked me and another guest to say a few words. After we spoke, a young Lakota started singing prayer songs. We passed several pipes and I prayed with each pipe as it passed. After we had completed all the pipes, we sang the closing songs and completed the ceremony. Afterward I stood around and visited with the prisoners. Many of the prisoners expressed an interest in continuing with these spiritual ways when they returned to the outside world. I encouraged them to do so.