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Tribal Circle Provides Connections, Peace for Native American Offenders
By Rachel Friederich, Washington Department of Corrections
Published: 12/14/2015

Wa_doc_tribe_pic LITTLEROCK – Aaron Abrahamson pounded out a powerful, upbeat tempo on a leather drum painted with the image of a bald eagle and was joined by three other tribal members.

As the men played their drum, they sang about their ancestors’ connection to the eagle, their words reverberating on the walls around them. Wanbli, Wanbli, Wechasha, Kiyon, Upelo.

The tribal circle ceremony is a familiar one for Native Americans, but this setting is not. It’s inside the Cedar Creek Corrections Center, a minimum security prison that houses 480 male offenders.

The men, all inmates at the prison, are part of a Native American tribal circle run as part of faith-based programming at Cedar Creek. About 4.6 percent of offenders in Washington state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) prisons identify as American Indians or Alaska Natives.

The circle at Cedar Creek has about 35 active members, which represent around 50 tribes, according to Jeffrey Jones, a chaplain at the prison. In addition to playing drums and singing songs, offenders often spend time creating beaded medallions, necklaces and other regalia. Much of it is reserved for an annual pow-wow, to which family members are often invited. There is also an on-site sweat lodge – a hut made from natural materials used for steam baths and prayer in some Native cultures.

The department has found that allowing tribal circles has an impact on offender behavior while they’re incarcerated.

“It changes their morale,” Jones said. “There are fewer discipline problems and it instills a great sense of camaraderie. It has a positive effect on native offenders.”

The four men playing drums were convicted of violent crimes including robbery, attempted rape and second degree murder. The men, who are from the Salish, Lakota, Chippewa, Cree, Navajo, Yakama, Mexica, and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, all said that tribal circle has helped keep them grounded and motivated them to change their behavior while incarcerated.

“Getting lost in the fast life is what got me here,” said 27-year-old DeShawn Little Eagle. “It (the tribal circle) means everything to us. When we were out there, we got sidetracked before we came to prison.”

George Farrell, 32, said tribal circle has helped him stop using drugs and changed his way of thinking. “It’s like being rescued. People find some foundation here.”

Abrahamson, who has an earned released date in 2016, adds learning about his ancestry gave him a renewed sense of purpose. He wants to change his behavior so that when he is eventually released from prison, he can use the customs he’s learned to teach them to his 6-year-old daughter and demonstrate the progress he’s made so his family can feel proud of him again.

One of the customs he’s learned is making beaded gifts for family.

“I hope they can look at that,” the 28-year-old Abrahamson said, pointing to one of his colorful beaded necklaces. “It shows what I’ve done for so long…When I first got in here (prison), I didn’t know anything about my culture. I never learned what my people had given up or what they obtained through songs, sweat and prayers. Having these opportunities betters ourselves and betters others coming in (to prison).”

Members of the tribal circle have used their culture to benefit the community and charitable organizations, according to Chaplain Jones. For example, members of the tribal circle have made and donated medallions to the Squaxin Tribe to raise money for a fundraiser for cancer research. And earlier this year, offenders made 41 dreamcatchers for graduating students at Lincoln High School, located in Pierce County.

He adds offenders in the tribal circle devote a lot of their time learning the songs and dances of various ethnic and religious groups. For example, there are a handful of offenders at the prison who identify as Asian or Pacific Islander and members of the tribal circle often learn their dances and dance with them during on-site cultural events.

“They love to invite people to learn about who they are and their culture. They have no problem sharing and giving of themselves,” Jones said.

Rachel Friederich is a Communications Consultant for the Washington State Department of Corrections. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Central Washington University. She has worked communications and public relations for various Washington non-profit organizations as well as a reporter at newspapers and radio stations across Washington including The Daily World, Yakima Herald-Republic, and KGY-AM in Olympia.


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