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Prison powwows in Washington state restart after a 2-year break because of COVID

Dancers make their grand entry into a meeting room at the start of a powwow in late October at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane, Wash.
Doug Nadvornik
Doug Nadvornik
Dancers make their grand entry into a meeting room at the start of a powwow in late October at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane, Wash.

AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Wash. — Inmate James Rousseau remembers the last powwow he attended at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, a few miles west of Spokane, Wash.

"I was here in 2019 before the COVID hit," he said. "I was here at MSU (minimum security unit) camp and we had the powwow. We had a good turnout and a really good time. It felt good to be around my people."

Rousseau grew up on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Little did he know that would be the last powwow he would attend for three years.

When the pandemic hit, Washington's prison powwow program was put on hold, as were some of the other spiritual activities to which Native American inmates had access. It was considered too dangerous to hold them.

"We were very quick in 2020 to work with the state, upon the advice of indigenous elders, who realized that COVID and sweat lodge, or COVID and anything done in a circle in close confines, would not be compatible," said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle attorney and member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California.

Galanda is also the founder of Huy (pronounced HOYT), a Seattle non-profit indigenous rights group that works with the state to organize powwows behind prison walls.

Throughout the last two-and-a-half years, Washington's prisons, like others around the country, battled COVID outbreaks among inmates and staff members. The state Department of Corrections reports more than 16,000 confirmed cases. Eighteen inmates have died. Those who tested positive were segregated in COVID units on prison grounds. More serious cases were evacuated to outside health care facilities. The men and women who remained healthy were often isolated in their cells.

That isolation has taken its toll. As COVID became less of a threat, Galanda saw an opening.

"Through Huy, we have advocated, through the Department of Corrections, to alleviate health restrictions, as society got its hands and arms around COVID, to increase opportunities for indigenous worship," he said.

Galanda says correctional officials agreed it was time to restart the powwows. Earlier this year, negotiations began about how and when to do it. The two sides had hoped to bring the celebrations back behind prison walls in late spring or early summer to coincide with the region's powwow season.

"It really did boil down to the protocols and working with the Department of Health, working with our own epidemiologist and, really, we were threading through a needle to make these powwows go," said state Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange.

Strange and Galanda say the negotiations were sometimes difficult. They would make progress, then have to postpone their plans until new outbreaks subsided, even as recently as last summer, Galanda said.

Eventually, the agency agreed to stage about 20 powwows in September and October. The first was held on the grounds of the state penitentiary in Walla Walla on Sept. 8.

The powwow in the Airway Heights minimum security unit is one of the last in the series. It's late October and too cold to celebrate outside, so the inmates gather in a large meeting room.

Prison officials had to work quickly to make it happen. There were a lot of logistical details, said Kay Heinrich, the associate superintendent of programs at Airway Heights. The staff perform background checks on visitors and make security arrangements for the outsiders who visit the prison. They also work to make sure the ceremony is culturally appropriate, including the food.

"We have the buffalo stew, the salmon, which is all Native American enhancements that they do not normally get," she said.

The inmates make preparations as well. As soon as they learned they would be granted a powwow, Rousseau and other Native inmates got to work making gifts for visitors.

"I made some dreamcatchers. I made some medallions. I made some earrings," Rousseau said.

Among the jewelry at the powwow were intricate beaded pieces made by inmate Jason McIlwain from Forks, Wash.
Doug Nadvornick / Doug Nadvornik
Doug Nadvornik
Among the jewelry at the powwow were intricate beaded pieces made by inmate Jason McIlwain from Forks, Wash.

Inmate Jason McIlwain from Forks, Wash., and a member of the Shoshone Tribe, worked for weeks to create some of the intricate beaded pieces that now sit on a long table on the side of the room.

"For me, beading is almost like a meditation. That'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 entry into the meeting room. The first few men carry large flags. Several dancers wear colorful regalia and shake tiny bells on their costumes as they move to the beat set by 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 amounts of effort.

McIlwain and Rousseau are more restrained, both in movement and attire. The two are dressed in maroon t-shirts and tan pants.

Rousseau watches the others as he dances. At 55, he's the elder here and happy to let the younger men strut their stuff.

"The grass dancing and the fancy dancing is for the youngsters," he said. "The men's traditional and the sneak up and the chicken dance are all more or less for the elders to dance to. Traditional, you don't have to move around so much and jump around," he said with a chuckle.

Richard Dennison is one of the younger men. He wears borrowed powder blue and white regalia and a blue bandanna. He's from the Spokane Tribe and grew up around powwows, but drifted away from them as he got older.

"I didn't really get into dancing and stuff until I came to prison because I was running around, doing other things I shouldn't have been doing," he said, part of the reason why he was assigned to Airway Heights when incarcerated in 2019. He's due to be released in 2026.

Several family members, including Dennison's children, have driven to the prison to celebrate this day with him, and he's nervous.

"My kids and my mom and dad, nobody's ever really seen me dance like this before," he said.

Dennison's time behind bars has allowed him to break a drug habit and begin to rediscover his heritage. He says he participates in activities like sweat lodge and looks forward to more spiritual options as health restrictions are lessened.

For years, prison powwows in Washington were funded by the Department of Corrections. But the state went through budget cuts around the time of the Great Recession in 2008 and the powwows were eliminated.

Gabe Galanda and Huy stepped in to work with the state to reinstate the program in 2012. Each year since then, Huy has raised the money needed to cover the costs of putting on the 22 powwows, about $35,000 this year.

"We pay for things like food. Many of these celebrations have salmon and even buffalo served. Wild rice rather than what would be commodity food," he said. "We pay for the regalia and beads and other things that are needed to sew and prepare giveaways."

Galanda says it's money well-spent. He was reminded about the value of the powwows when he attended the celebration in Walla Walla.

"There were six men who had learned to sing, drum and dance and had sewed their regalia for the first time in their lives and there they were in the circle, wearing the regalia they had made and dancing the steps that they had learned to the songs that they had also learned," he said. "It's quite miraculous to witness that type of growth and rehabilitation, especially in a prison environment. It honestly is not something they would experience in the outside world because of the environment that they have been reared in and are living in and that's the environment that contributed to the mistake they made."

Kay Heinrich from the Airway Heights Corrections Center says the powwows are an important motivational and behavioral tool.

"They change their behavior to make sure that they can participate," she said. "Just talking to them a little bit ago, they ask if they can do this again next year. And I'm like, 'You guys going to behave?' And they're like, 'Oh yeah.' It's important because their families come. They're always appreciative. They always say thank you."

Heinrich says the powwows have one other benefit too.

"I think it's helpful for all staff, custody and support staff, because I think they see the incarcerates in a different light, how important it is, how their family members come and how they interact in a healthy prosocial manner," she said.

James Rousseau doesn't have a visitor at the powwow, but he says he's happy seeing the other men enjoy their loved ones. He embraces his role as an elder.

"I encourage the youngsters. I see them and I say, 'How you doin'?' and I shake their hand. 'Hey, you making anything for the powwow?' " he said. "I care for them and it makes me happy to able to do that."

Huy founder Galanda and Correction official Strange say they plan to bring the powwows back in 2023, perhaps closer to the traditional season.

"Fingers crossed, we'll keep going," Strange said.

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Doug Nadvornick