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Washington State Penitentiary Indigenous Incarcerated Individuals Rebuild Inípi

June 15, 2022

By Rochelle Stephens Department of Corrections
Inípi built by Indigenous incarcerated individuals

The brand new Inípi built by Indigenous incarcerated individuals for the Washington State Penitentiary’s West Complex sweat lodge. (Photo courtesy of Shell Stephens, WSP)

WALLA WALLA – On Monday, June 6th the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) was visited by an Elder from the Kalispel tribe for the ceremonial burn and rebuild of its West Complex Inípi, otherwise known as the sweat lodge. For nearly 30 years, the highly regarded Elder has been a driving force for Inípis and Indigenous practices in the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) with support from organizations like HUY, a tribal non-profit corporation, and Indigenous Rights Attorney, Gabe Galanda.

Before the ceremony began the group was also visited by Jeremy Garretson, who is the new Reentry Program Manager for Indigenous incarcerated individuals. As a formerly incarcerated individual himself, he offers a unique perspective on the needs of incarcerated Indigenous people. He and his team were welcomed by the group as a fresh face and resource for those in DOC’s custody and care. The Unkitawa Organization is a far-reaching non-profit that is dedicated to Indigenous wellness, and programs that include re-entry, Indigenous youth, veterans, and community engagement.

This ceremony could be best described as one of honor, brotherhood, tradition, and support among many native backgrounds. As with many incarcerated individuals, most who participated in this group echo that they come from a place of trauma in their lives. It’s a common story among this group, and the level of solace found while attending these events is almost palpable. The ground dedicated to this traditional practice is so sacred that they forbid those who arrive to the grounds under any kind of substance influence from attending. The use of foul language is prohibited and there is an expectation of behavior and conduct that honors spirituality and pride. In an opening prayer the Elder addressed the group with words of wisdom, song and spoke of the importance of keeping Indigenous traditions heavily guarded in their hearts as sacred, to pass them along to future generations, and to use them as a guide forward to a better, and more meaningful life.

You could see the pride and ownership in the efforts of the group as they mindfully took apart the old sweat lodge and moved the pieces to the fire, while others prepared the ground where the new Inípi would be constructed. The willows used to create the new structure were provided by the Elder in attendance; a spiritual source that contributes to the importance and authenticity of their ceremony. Special care was taken to slowly bend the willows in such a way to loosen the fibers in the whip, without breaking or cracking it. In a matter of hours, the group had the old structure completely burned, and the new one erected with the trajectory of the spiritual guidance set forth by previous generations. Sweat practices and ceremonies are an important part of the prayer and belief system of Indigenous people, and a sacred pathway for healing. The process to rebuild is so sacred in fact that a decision was made to not obtain photos of the construction process out of spiritual precaution and respect for not compromising the spirit of the Inípi itself. The Elder in attendance did provide his blessing for a photo upon completion with the hopes of encouraging its implementation and existence in other areas that need an outlet for Indigenous practices and healing.

Typically, Inípis or sweat lodges are replaced on a yearly basis. Throughout the state this year, there have been a few of these ceremonies to burn the old Inípi and build and bless a new structure. Although each tribe member, some from across the United States has their own tribe specific tradition, sweat lodges are a way to bring all Indigenous individuals together to align spiritually, and find healing to promote a better life going forward and hopefully impact future generations in a positive way. Several individuals provided personal testimony as to how the sweat lodge has changed their lives for the better because of the practices they have learned while they have been incarcerated. They share speculation that their life choices may have been different had they developed the connection to their roots and these practices in their youth. When asked about a possible solution to stop the cycle of activity that this group becomes incarcerated for, the suggestion received most often by incarcerated adults is early intervention. Many of these individuals attribute a better outlook on life and their own choices to their participation in Indigenous practices. There is value in bringing young Indigenous people closer to their roots and helping them develop pride and ownership in the beliefs and principles of their respective tribes.

In recent months DOC has collaborated with sister agencies including the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF) to provide guidance and supplies for Indigenous medicine gardens. The Washington State Penitentiary looks forward to continuing its partnerships with special interest groups like those involved in the medicine gardens, Inípi ceremonies and reentry to promote healing, positivity, and safety throughout the state.