On November 28, 1990, Glenda Taylor, at the request of a prison chaplain, addressed the assembled staff of the federal prison at Bryan, Texas, speaking on the subject of “Native American Spirituality.” The substance of her talk follows.
Thank you, Chaplain, for inviting me to speak today to the staff here at the Bryan, Texas Federal Prison about Native American spirituality. And thank all of you–warden, officers, captains, medical staff, secretaries, whoever you are here today– I thank you for being willing to open your minds and hearts to listen to me for these few moments.
This is, I think, an historic occasion. You are doing something today that, so far as I know, has not been done before. If it has, it has been extremely rare. So you are to be commended for this occasion, which to you may seem not very important. But think about it for a moment from my perspective.
You see, for several hundred years, immigrants to this land and the descendants of these immigrants–the English people, Spanish people, French people, and even some African People–have systematically incarcerated native people of this land, people who have mistakenly been called “Indians” (when they weren’t being called something like savages, heathens, or vermin).
In addition to being put in prisons such as this one for crimes they have actually committed, Native Americans have been imprisoned on reservations for no other reason than being Native American or, more specifically, for fighting back when their land was being taken away from them or their way of life was being destroyed.
This has gone on for several hundred years.
And in all that long time, I know of no instance such as this one today, when the authorities in charge of Native American prisoners voluntarily asked a Native American spiritual leader to come and talk to them about Native American spirituality, with the goal of actually increasing the jailers’ understanding and appreciation of Native American culture, as well as learning something new about their prisoners so that they could better serve them as human beings. I know that the law now mandates that you must allow Native Americans and all other people in prison to practice their religion. But this today is a step beyond that, a step toward increased communication between the Native American and the dominant culture. So, for me, this is an historic moment. And I am grateful to you for your willingness to have me here.
I want to say to you, first of all, that I will speak in a general way about Native American spirituality, but I can only speak for myself. For there are many strands of Native American spirituality; each tribe has its own variation. I am in much the same position that one of you might be in if someone asked you to stand up and speak about Christianity. If you happen to be a Roman Catholic, and you give your version of Christianity and talk about limbo or the mass, then some Pentecostal person might stand up and say “That’s not what we believe at all, we believe in speaking in tongues!” So even though Catholics and Pentecostals as well as Baptists, Presbyterians, Greek Orthodox, etc. are all Christians, there are differences between them. Just so, there are differences between Navajo, Hopi, Cheyenne and other tribes, even though they all have a common grounding in what I will today call Native American spirituality.
I, by the way, am a Cherokee breed. Perhaps you would be more comfortable with me if I looked more like your idea of a Native American, since you may be confused by the fact that I have very white skin and blue eyes, just as some of the prisoners do. Some of the prisoners have told me that they have been challenged about whether or not they really are Native Americans. But you see, for many generations there has been, in this culture that you call a “melting pot,” intermarriage between natives and non-natives. There are many of us who do not have dark skin or brown eyes who are nonetheless native, both genetically and spiritually. And interestingly enough for your purposes, a woman coming into prison does not have to prove genetically that she is Native American in order to be allowed to participate in our circle; she has only to state that her “religious preference” is Native American.
As you no doubt know, with the help of the Chaplain, I and the Native American women prisoners have within the past few months built a sweat lodge here on the prison grounds, and we have been having sweat lodge ceremonies monthly. The chaplain has asked me to talk to you a little bit about that. She has also asked me to talk a bit about the Native American’s curious and to some of you worrisome habit of carrying or wearing these little “bundles” that they insist are sacred to them and so should not be subject to search. I’ll start with that.
The notion of the sacred, that there is something–some place, some person, some dimension–that is sacred is common to all spiritual traditions.
The main difference between Native Americans and other religious traditions is in what Native Americans consider sacred.
I dare say that any of you who go to church on Sunday to receive communion, let us say, would not want someone to come in and handle your communion wafers in a sacrilegious way. Or you would not want them to make sarcastic remarks about a crucifix you may be wearing around your neck. To you, that crucifix or those communion wafers have a special meaning; they are a connection to your spiritual awareness; they are sacred to you. You would not want them profaned.
Or perhaps some of you here are Jewish. If so, you have no doubt heard of the times in your history when Christians or Arabs or Russians or someone came into your synagogues and defaced them, or insulted or abused one of your people because he was wearing a little skull cap or something else that showed that he was a practicing Jew. You no doubt feel outraged at such prejudice or ignorance or cruelty.
Native Americans feel the same way. There are things that are sacred to Native American people too.
The problem for you, as their jailers, is, I am sure, in figuring out what it is that is supposed to be sacred. One day, a woman prisoner tells one of you officers that this little bag around her neck is sacred; when you insist on searching it, despite the prisoner’s outrage or despair, you find in the pouch only a rock and a little bit of dirt. The next day another woman prisoner says that you should not make her pull off her headband because that is sacred to her. Or again, you take a stick or a piece of wood away from a prisoner as contraband, and she objects that she is making this piece of wood into a medicine object for her Native American circle and therefore you have no right to take it away from her. Or, on the day when we built the sweat lodge, some of you were out there nearby playing softball with some of the other non-native prisoners, and when you started to walk back across the field, you were shocked.
Suddenly the Chaplain was standing out there waving her arms at you and telling you to “Go around, go around, this is sacred ground!”
Sacred ground? “Since when?” you ask yourself, while you wonder what in the world the Chaplain, who is Black and Baptist, after all, is talking about. I can sympathize with your confusion, really I can. And that’s why I am here.
The question of what is sacred to a Native American can perhaps be answered by comparison and contrast to the more familiar religious views you are all accustomed to. The majority of you here are probably Christians or Jews. You would probably say that anything is sacred that has to do with God. But how do you define who or what has to do with God?
You have many names for God. You may recognize God, for example, by the name of Yahweh or Jehovah, if you are Jewish, or by the name of Lord or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or Heavenly Father if you are Christian–and if you speak English. If you are Spanish, you speak of God as Dios, if you are French, as Dieu. So for you, God has many different names, a different one perhaps for each different language, but, whatever name is used, you would probably say that God is a spirit that is the creator and sustainer of life and all that is.
A Native American would understand that perfectly well. Native Americans, too, have many names for the creator, a different name for each tribe or language. But translated into English, these different names mean about the same thing: All Creator, Great Mystery, the One Spirit that pervades everything. White translators of native languages finally just generalized all the Native American names for this into the expression “the Great Spirit.”
This one universal Spirit, however, has many aspects, both for the Christian, Jew, and Native American. A Christian, for example, speaks of “God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” So to the Christian, God takes different forms. A Native American would agree that Spirit takes different forms, but it is when the Christian and the Native American start to talk about these different forms that everything gets confused. Imagine, for example, a conversation between your average Christian and your average Native American. The Christian speaks of “God the Father.” The Native American might be confused and ask if the Christian really thinks that “God the Father” is an old man living off somewhere with a lot of children.
The thoughtful Christian might say, “Well, no, not exactly; God the Father is, well, a mystery that we can’t really explain, and it’s a blasphemy if we try to define it exactly, but we think of God as a sort of divine “fatherly” type of spirit, a vast creative force, lovingly providing and protecting and maintaining creation from his abode in heaven.”
“Ah,” the Native American says, “like Father Sun.”
“No, of course not!” replies the confused Christian. “How can you call the sun father? Do you think the sun is an old man with children up there in the sky?”
“Why, no,” says the Native American. “Do you think we are so stupid that we think the sun is actually a man? For us to say ‘Father Sun’ is a way of expressing our relationship to this vast and powerful “fatherly” type of energy that is the sun that provides light and heat that creates and sustains life from the heavens. We respect the powerful and important presence of Spirit in the sun, and we are grateful for all that it faithfully does every day. So we think of it as a “fatherly” power and call it Father Sun.”
“But,” says the Christian, “we call God father, you call the sun father. The sun is not God, the sun was only created by God. God is much more vast and powerful than the sun. God is the Infinite.”
“Ah,” says the Native American. “Grandfather Spirit. The Great Spirit.” If the Native American in our dialogue happened to be Lakota, let’s say, he might utter his name for this spirit, Wakan Tanka–which means something like “That Which is Most Holy and Most Mysterious.” Now, for the moment, we are close to agreement. For to the Christian, the Jew, and the Native American, the Infinite Spirit is that which is most holy and most mysterious.
So the Christian moves, in our imaginary dialogue, on to other aspects of his idea of God. God the Holy Spirit. “How,” the Native American might ask “is this holy spirit different from the Great Spirit who is most holy, from what you call God the Father? How is the Holy Spirit different from God the Father?”
“Well,” the Christian might respond, “the Holy Spirit is sort of the energy or mind or spirit of God that moves in everything. It is in each of us. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I like to sing. When my mother in law is filled with the Holy Spirit she goes out and takes food to the homeless. People do different things when they are filled with the Holy Spirit. It might act differently in different people, or it might say different things through different people. But the Holy Spirit is the Infinite Spirit sort of spread out, living in each of us, and in everything else.”
Now this the Native American would have no trouble with at all. This is a prominent aspect of Native American spirituality, and the aspect that is perhaps most important for you here at the prison to understand. To the Native American, the Great Spirit is, in fact, not just in theory, but is in fact present in everything.
Just as the Christian theologian might say that God is immanent in creation, meaning that God is actually present in all of creation, so too the Native American says that everything–a rock, a tree, a bird–everything is sacred because everything is inspirited.
And just as the Christian, who calls God his Father, says that we are all children of God, so too the Native American calls everything his brother or sister, and says that everything is related to him. The deer is my brother, the wind is my relative, the earth is my mother. This is a figure of speech, of course, but more importantly, it is an attitude of mind.
And even though it seems that the Christian and the Native American are saying and believing the same things, they don’t necessarily act on their beliefs in the same way. The traditional Native American person actually practices the belief that all things are invested with a holy Spirit, and so he or she behaves toward all things with reverence and respect, acknowledging that all things have a right to their own existence because they are sacred aspects of creation, not just because they benefit human beings. The natural world is the Native American’s cathedral.
It has often been pointed out that Native Americans lived on this continent for many thousands of years before the coming of the white man, and when the white man came, he wrote in his letters back home to Europe that this continent was, and I quote, “an unspoiled wilderness paradise.” The white man has only been here for about 500 years, and it is definitely no longer unspoiled. Why? What is the difference in the way traditional Native Americans relate to nature and the way non-natives relate to nature? I would say that the difference is that Native Americans take seriously this idea that Spirit is present in everything and so everything is sacred, whereas non-natives do not behave as though they really believe that.
Native Americans assume that everything has its own unique share, so to speak, of the power and wisdom of God, everything has its own particular wise way of being. A hawk, for example, knows how to fly up high and get a vast perspective, to see the big picture; that is the special wisdom and power of the hawk. The mouse, on the other hand, never gets up high to see the big picture, but is great with little details, right in front of its tiny whiskers, up close and personal; that is the mouses’s special wisdom. The owl can see in the dark; that is part of the owl’s special wisdom. The tree knows how to be still and be patient and put down roots; that is part of the tree’s special wisdom. So each thing has its own wisdom, its own natural power. When a Native person wears or uses an eagle feather, he or she is trying to harmonize with the special power of an eagle. When a Native person wears a bear claw, he or she is attempting to share the great strength and heart of a bear. When I moved from California back to Texas, I kept a carving of a turtle near me; the turtle knows how to carry his home around with him wherever he goes, and I needed that wisdom while I was moving.
So all things have their own unique and powerful place in the great circle of life. Humans, too, according to the Native view, are part of this great wheel of life. Humans have their own wisdom, their own place. But Native Americans do not see themselves as more important than any other aspect of creation. Their spiritual life has to do in large part with staying in right relation or balance or harmony with all the rest of the Great Spirit’s creation.
Native American spiritual practice is in resonating and communicating in a respectful and reciprocal way with everything around them, not only with what you might call the “transcendent” spirit of God the Father, but also with the “immanent” holy spirit of everything visible and invisible around them.
Now, you may say skeptically, “Glenda Little Hawk, do you really mean that you try to communicate with a bird or a tree? That you believe that these have spirit?” Yes. I do. I think that the Great or Holy or Mysterious Spirit of All That Is manifests itself in many forms. I believe that all things, not just humans, are made, as you Christians say, in the image of God. And I believe that it is my job to live in harmony with all of them. How can I do that if I don’t communicate with them? So I talk, I sing, I chant, I drum, I dance; I do all of these things as prayers to get the attention of and communicate with “All My Relatives,” all the rest of the spiritual energy of creation.
More importantly, I listen. I listen for the Spirit that speaks to me from everything around me. I am never alone. I am never forsaken by Spirit. It reaches out to me lovingly and wisely from the wind, from clouds, from dreams, from visions–just as in the Bible it is said that God spoke to the ancient people through burning bushes and lightening and out of clouds. The Great Spirit is, I believe, one spirit, but it shows itself in many, many ways, all of which are sacred to me.
In the Pipe Ceremony, which is an ancient and traditional ceremony among Native American people, and which I share here with Native American prisoners, tobacco is placed in a pipe and smoked, but in a very special and ceremonial way. Every pinch of tobacco that goes into the pipe is named as representing some aspect of life–a pinch for the earth, a pinch for the plants, a pinch for the animals, a pinch for the minerals, a pinch for the sun, a pinch for one’s family etc., until, at last, when the pipe is completely packed, everything in the universe is represented by the tobacco in that pipe. All that there is, anywhere in creation, is in that pipe in the form of tobacco. So then, when the Native American prisoner smokes the pipe, she joins her own breath with the smoke from the tobacco, thus joining with, combining with, all that is. Every breath, every puff of smoke is a prayer. Through this ceremony, one makes contact with all that is, with the Great Spirit, with all one’s relations. You can see that this a very special and sacred form of communion for Native Americans, a special way of acknowledging the great wheel of life and the balance and harmony of life.
The need to be in right relation to all of life shows itself in very practical ways for Native Americans, not just in words and not just at ceremonial times.
A familiar native American prayer is “Let me live that I may serve Life.” Serve life. Not just take life. To the Native American all life is sacred and not to be taken lightly, not to be abused or appropriated for our own use without thought.
When the traditional Native American, for example, gathers wild plants to eat, he or she first of all, says a few words of thanksgiving to the plant for “giving away” itself to provide food for humans and animals and birds. Then the Native American picks or pulls up only some of the plants; he or she always leaves the strongest and best plant, so that that plant can be reseeded and multiply, so that there will always be more plants coming along.
The buffalo sustained Native Americans all over this continent for thousands of years, until the white man came, because the native people killed only what they needed to eat. When a Native American hunted, he said a prayer something like this: “Thank you, my brother deer, for this give away of your life force to me. I will take your energy into myself when I eat you. I will honor you among my people. I, in turn, will give away my energy to serve life as long as I live,, and when I die, my body will feed other life, as your body feeds mine.”
No traditional Native American kills “for sport.” I know one Native American medicine man who lives in California who told me that when he was a little boy he got his first pocket knife, and he was so proud of it that he killed a lizard with it; when his father saw this he asked the boy whether or not he was going to cook the lizard before he ate it, because of course you never killed something unless you were hungry and planned to eat it. And my friend said that, in fact, he had to eat that lizard. He never forgot that lesson.
It is a lesson that says that humankind is not more important to the Creator than any other form of life. It is a lesson that says that all of life is sacred. It is a lesson about right relationship, about balance and harmony among all the creatures of the earth. It is a lesson non-natives have not understood and so they are destroying the ecological balance of the planet. But in the end it is they who will be destroyed. Traditional Native Americans take all of this very seriously. I cannot tell you strongly enough how seriously.
Native American people believe, for example, that illness is the result of being out of harmony, out of balance. Non-natives know this too, of course. The word disease means dis-ease, not easy, not being in right relation to oneself or one’s surroundings. We know that stress over something going on in one’s environment can cause a heart attack or other illness. Native Americans realize that sometimes what cures an illness is not medicine in the form of a pill, but figuring out what caused an illness in the first place and setting it straight.
And “medicine” for a native person is that which puts things back into right relation, into balance, into harmony.
You hear about medicine men and medicine women and medicine pouches and medicine objects. Well, you see, anything could be medicine, depending on the circumstances. A hug might be medicine. A headband or a folded bandanna tied around someone’s head, symbolically stating that that person is Native American, or a piece of jewelry that reminds someone of his or her origins and culture, this can be medicine. A feather from a bird–a bird that can fly freely where he wants to fly–might be medicine to a prisoner who can’t move freely at all right now.
Most Native American prisoners recognize that they are here in prison because they let something get out of balance in their lives or because the mainstream culture is so clearly out of balance that it is hard to stay in balance in this culture. You can imagine how hard it is for them to feel in balance and harmony with life here in prison. So their medicine objects are extremely important to them.
The earth itself is the most powerful kind of medicine for a Native person. The Native American thinks of the earth as “mother,” Mother Earth, Mother Nature. She is the giver of life of all kinds, plant life, animal life, human life, fish life, bird life, etc. So Mother Earth is to be revered, protected, honored–not violated or polluted or destroyed. For the Native American, the land, the very dirt, is sacred, especially sacred.
No one can own the land, the land owns us. We belong to the earth, not the other way around. A little pouch full of dirt from the Pueblo where one was born, for example, might be carried around one’s neck all of one’s life, as a powerful reminder of one’s origins, a reminder of one’s connection to the land of the ancestors, a reminder of one’s connection to Mother Earth and to all of life, a reminder that one will someday return to earth and so one must live to serve life. Such a little pouch with just a little dirt in it would be very sacred, you see, to a Native American person. And if you, as an officer, opened it and spilled it, it would be a horrible thing for that prisoner.
So everything is seen as sacred to Native Americans, not just what to you would be normal “religious objects” or what non-natives normally think of as “living” things. To native people the minerals, the water, the wind, these are just as essential to life as the so-called living plants and animals. And so the native person reveres all things, relates to all things, and tries to live in balance with all things.
And so, to repeat, a rock, a tooth, a scrap of wood, a piece of paper–anything could conceivably be a sacred object to a native person. But obviously some things are more special to a person than others. Often a native person has been given certain ceremonial objects at birth, or at the time of his or her vision quest or at the time when he or she was given a special medicine name, etc. Because of the special ceremonial nature of these objects, they are considered sources of great power to a native person because they are the objects that directly connect that person to Spirit. They have to do with the person’s own medicine, the person’s own spirit. Some native people believe that if these objects are touched by someone else or taken away from them it will cause the person himself or herself to lose power, and that that can actually produce illness or death.
I hope these comments help you to understand the emotional turmoil that Native American prisoners feel when their sacred objects are touched or taken away or searched. The day I first came here to meet with the prisoners, before I had received my clearance and badge, I was, of course, stopped at the main gate. I told the officer that the chaplain had said that I would not be searched. But the officer began to go through the basket of my own sacred objects I had brought; he asked me sarcastically if there were any buffalo chips in there. And then he reached for my bag that contains my medicine pipe, used for the pipe ceremony which, as I said, is one of the most sacred of Native American ceremonies.
The guard asked me, “Will Wazzie Woozie strike me dead for touching this?”
“Perhaps,” I said calmly, allowing his disdain to roll over me and fall away. Fortunately, the chaplain arrived on the scene and told him that the pipe was not to be touched. But I was initiated. I knew how the woman prisoners that I would be working with felt.
Now I just want to say a few words about the sweat lodge and the sweat ceremonies we are holding. The sweat lodge ceremony is a cleansing and purification ceremony for native people.
From the most ancient of times, all over the world, people have participated in ceremonies of cleansing and purification. The earliest written accounts in human history mention ‘ritual baths’ in which the participants seek spiritual renewal in their lives. The Biblical accounts of the baptisms performed by John the Baptist mention them as cleansing ceremonies in which people were “washed of their sins” in the Jordan River. Christian hymns speak of being “washed in the blood” of Jesus and made whiter than snow. In Africa, Asia, Europe and in all parts of the Americas, people have performed variations of such purification rites.
Native Americans are no exception. They hold frequent, often monthly, ceremonies for purification. These ceremonies take place in tiny little structures that are, in fact, saunas, steam baths, or as Native Americans call them, sweat baths. Rocks are heated in a fire until they are red hot and then are placed inside the little sweat lodge; the people who enter into the sweat lodge spend time praying together, one by one, for themselves, for others, and for the cleansing or healing of the earth itself. While they pray, the steam from water poured on the hot rocks causes them to sweat, releasing toxins and impurities out of the body. Thus not only the surface of the body, but the “inner person” as well is cleansed; not only the body, but the mind, emotions and spirit of the participant is purified through this ancient ritual of prayer. When they leave the sweat lodge, participants enter into a creek or a lake (or in our case here at prison into a stream of water from a hose) to wash away the sweat and the poisons that have been released.
Persons who enter into the sweat lodge do so, as many Christians do in baptism, stripped down, without jewelry, clothes, or any other finery, but wrapped only in a sheet or towel, just themselves, as the Great Spirit created them. They bend low to the ground in order to enter the little sweat lodge, expressing their humility. When the door of the lodge is closed there is absolute darkness, so that each person is aware of the infinity of the Spirit in which their life occurs. The darkness of the tiny lodge is like the darkness of the womb, and indeed, part of the symbolism of the ceremony is the entering again into the “womb” of the earth to be reborn, a new person, free of the past.
The prayers and songs said and sung in the sweat lodge are prayers in confidence, not repeated, not commented upon; each person respects the confidentiality of other participants and adds their support to the person who is praying.
You may be interested to know that in every sweat ceremony we have had the women prisoners have prayed for all of you, over and over, every time, often specifically by name, always as a group, for your guidance, for your health, for your wisdom, for your patience, for you to have the blessings of Spirit.
Sometimes the heat from the rocks is extremely hot, and although the ceremony is not meant to be a punishment or a suffering, the willingness to endure the cramped space and the heat while everyone has a chance to speak is an offering that requires sincere commitment and is not undertaken lightly.
Many healings have taken place as a result of sweat lodge experiences, healings of body, mind and spirit. To Native Americans, the sweat lodge ceremony is one of the most ancient and most universal of their many rituals. People from one tribe who did not speak the language of another tribe nevertheless joined together in the sweat lodge for common purification.
It is an incredible thing to build a sweat lodge in a prison facility. I am grateful for the opportunity. The women prisoners who participate are to be respected for their sincerity and commitment. I pray that each of you will hold them in your thoughts and prayers as they seek to renew their spiritual lives in the ancient ways of their people.
While to some, the sweat lodge may be seen as ‘primitive,’ hopefully to most it will be seen as refreshingly simple and natural. To some, this ceremony may be ‘heathen paganism;’ a woman prisoner ignorant of our ways told one of the Native American women that by having sweat lodge ceremonies we were bringing in evil spirits to the prison; if anything, it is just the opposite!. Hopefully, to most of you, however, this ceremony can be seen as a sincere and humble striving for wholeness that can be honored for what it is.
There are many other aspects of Native American spirituality, but I have used up the time you allowed me today. So, I will conclude by saying that it is my belief that the “Great Spirit” is One Spirit, called by many names and sought in many ways. Understanding helps to avoid prejudice and needless suffering and conflict. The federal government has agreed that Native Americans have the right to practice their spiritual life in the manner of their choosing, just like everyone else, and so there is no official objection to the sweat lodge, the pipe ceremony, the drumming or dancing prayers, or to the spiritual life of Native American prisoners here at FPC Bryan; it is legal and will be allowed. However, I hope for more than that. I hope and pray that these ceremonies will not only be tolerated but also appreciated, not only observed as a curiosity but also supported as a sacred event.
In short, your prayers are requested for the Native American women at Bryan FPC tomorrow morning when we will be holding our monthly sweat ceremony, and at all future sweat lodge ceremonies. I thank you for listening. I want you to know that I pray for all of you every day. I thank you for allowing your own spiritual wisdom and compassion to inform your work with Native American prisoners.
A few questions came up after the talk. Here are two.
Q. What is a vision quest?
A. Native Americans believe that Spirit constantly provides us with “vision,” with the means by which to see what our lives should be, guidance for living. But Native Americans have a special ceremony for seeking important vision at special times in life. For example, when one is young, an adolescent perhaps, ready to take on adult status in the community, needing to know “what to do with the rest of my life.” Or when one realizes that what one has been doing with one’s life is off track, or when one is confused about some aspect of one’s life. Or when one is facing a major life-altering change. At these times, native people, working usually but not always with a medicine person, remove themselves from ordinary life, go through the sweat lodge cleansing ceremony, and then go to some solitary place in
nature–to a mountain top, to a secluded spot beside the river, usually to some place long considered sacred–and there the person stays for a period of time, fasting and praying and waiting for vision. The period of time may be a few days or even an extended period of time, up to several weeks in rare cases of medicine people seeking vision. The vision may come in the form of dreams, or “waking dreams,” visionary images or sounds or smells, or in the person of animals or birds or other creatures. Each person’s vision is unique and personal, a message from Spirit. The vision questor is taught beforehand not to be egotistical in his or her expectation about what might come. It might be as simple as seeing a little bug that comes into one’s sacred space, or as dramatic as a the vision of a great thundering herd of horses in the sky. But whatever comes is received with gratitude. Then this vision is discussed with the medicine person, in order to interpret its meaning for the person’s life. Often the wisdom received on vision quest is the “medicine” that lasts for the rest of that individual’s life.
Q. If everything is sacred to Native Americans, how do we as officers determine what we have the right to touch or what the prisoners have a right to have with them?
A. It is my understanding that a prisoner can have as medicine objects anything that is not potentially a physical danger to her or to other prisoners; she is not allowed to have anything that would threaten the security of the prison. Obviously knives or guns or things like that are not going to be allowed. But how can a little piece of wood or a rock or a bandanna threaten security? I know you are concerned about drugs in the medicine pouches. If you have any specific reason to suspect that about a specific prisoner (not just some generalized concern without any evidence to suggest that the woman acts, for example, like she is on drugs or something like that), if you have such doubts about a prisoner, I would ask you to go to the chaplain and ask her to deal with whatever issue you have in regard to searching the prisoner’s medicine bundles. The chaplain has gained the respect of these women; she will know how to deal with this question, hopefully to your satisfaction and the prisoners, or she will call me.
I am grateful to Chaplain Browder for all that she has done to help us to practice our spirituality here in this prison. I know that some prisons are resisting allowing sweat lodges to be built and are not so willing to listen as you have been today. Again, I thank you for that, and I hope that my words have been helpful in promoting mutual compassion in what is always going to be a challenging place to live and work, a federal prison. As I said, you, as well as all the prisoners here, are daily in my prayers.