When the Smoke Clears (It’s Just Medicine)

When the Smoke Clears (It’s Just Medicine)
Boston Woodard

“I come to powwow to be an Indian to get a sense of myself. This is part of Indian spirituality, to help each other and to celebrate with each other. When I come to powwows, I gain strength to carry on with my life.”–Rachel Snow, Assiniboin

My first experience with Native Americans in California occurred in January 1976 while I was in the San Francisco County Jail. At that time, I was in a six-person cell (aka “tank”) with five other prisoners who were waiting for trial or to be released on bond. One of those prisoners was Dennis Banks, a highly respected leader (with Russell Means and Leonard Peltier) with the American Indian Movement (AIM).

AIM members were inextricably linked to the Native Americans’ struggle for rights and survival of their people. It was an honor for me to meet a man as dedicated to a cause, the Native American spirit and nobility, as was Banks. Shortly after Banks was arrested for several alleged offenses, the late actor Marlon Brando posted bond for Banks’ release on bail.

Soon after my arrival into the California Department of Corrections (CDC), I learned that Native American prisoners had small allotments of designated land (usually in a corner of the main prison yard or juxtaposed behind a security fence) that are court-sanctioned “grounds” on which to hold sacred ceremonial services. Laws governing the religious rights of prisoners (all denominations) are codified in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (known as the RLUIPA; OF 2000, 42 2000CC
ET Seq.).

The institutional “Indian grounds,” in compliance with the RLUIPA and other laws, accommodate the “integrity” of prison “safety and security.” At the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, prison authorities issue copies of the Departmental Operations Manual (DOM), Chapter 10, Article 6, 101060.5, “Religious Program Activities,” to participating members of all
religious groups, including Native Americans.

There are specific rules overseeing the Native Americans and what “ceremonial” necessities are allowed on their sacred grounds. These rules are tailored to oblige the security concerns of each institution.

According to the DOM, the following items and “medicines” are approved to service and comply with innate traditional Native American sacred ceremonies: sage (an aromatic, leafy plant used to “chase bad spirits” away), Kinnicknick (medicine for sacred pipe), sweet grass (burned to “bring in spirits”), copal (also used to “bring in spirits”), wood logs (to heat sacred rocks) and, at various times, cedar/spruce and juniper are burned for ceremonial purposes. These are all approved necessities.

In preparation of the centuries-old traditional ceremonies, a litany of intrinsic rituals are carried out with austere attention to institutional policy and protocol. The Native American habitues are keenly aware that in order to participate during ceremonies, they must be clean of mind (e.g., drug and alcohol free) and without hatred in their hearts before and while on sacred grounds, or they cannot participate in the sweat lodge ceremony. The sweat lodge is where personal introspection and prayer are indulged. Any individual not in adherence with these ultra-strict Native American laws will be debarred from the sacred grounds until purged of all impurities.

On March 27, 2010, the CCC’s Native American prisoners were participating in their weekly ceremony on the sacred grounds, a solemnity that occurs in most (if not all) of California’s 33 state prisons every week.

A significant wood (log) fire was built (to heat sacred rocks), which emits large volumes of smoke in and around the area. Large quantities of sage were burned to cleanse and ward off evil spirits. An abundance of sweet grass braids were also burning for spiritual purposes. Copal (sprinkled on hot rocks) was used to invoke the spirits during the sweat ceremony.

This amalgamation of burning wood and multiple medicines forms a significant amount of smoke and aromas that permeate the immediate surrounding area. These scents and aromas are foreign to the unaware or those untrained in traditional Native American practices and can be understandably mistaken for other substances that might not be approved by prison policy.

On March 27, possibly due to error and confusion, a mistake was made by a uniformed guard, untrained in Native American rites and customs, during the weekly ceremony here in Susanville. According to Jerome Salgado, prison guard J. Rice claimed she “smelled marijuana” being burned in the vicinity of the “Indian grounds.” (According to an informed source, prison guards are not trained in olfactory perception training to determine what marijuana “smells” like. Prison guards are also not trained to identify the many aromas and smells that abound during Native American sacred spiritual ceremonies, according to the source.)

A supervising “custody” sergeant was notified of the presumptive claim by Rice that she smelled marijuana near the sacred grounds. According to Hotoa-I “Buffalo Bull,” the remainder of the ceremony was curtly truncated, a highly disrespectful act according to Buffalo and other Native Americans. “Everybody was pulled out and rudely told we had to be searched for metal,” said Salgado.

The participating Indians were removed from the sacred grounds, “stripped naked, searched and ran through a metal detector,” explained Buffalo, with negative results. No explanation was given as to why a “metal” search was conducted for an alleged claim of marijuana smoke. All the Native Americans on the grounds (on the day in question) offered to submit to a urinalysis/drug test to prove guard Rice wrong. Prison officials told them “no” and declined to test them.

The Native Americans also offered to “burn” the medicines and necessities in order to educate guard Rice and other custody staff on ceremonial practices (including smells) so this “detrimental and extremely disrespectful” confusion would not be repeated during future ceremonies. According to Salgado, a lieutenant and sergeant both agreed that burning the medicines for educational purposes would be a “good idea.” After presumably parlaying with guard Rice, all bets were off. The exculpatory medicine burning demonstration would not be conducted, and CDC-115 (serious) Rules Violation Reports were issued to all who were present during the March 27 ceremony.

The disciplinary action was put on the fast track and expeditiously carried out by officials even though it wasn’t a matter of exigency. The accused Native Americans had little or no time to prepare an adequate defense against these bogus charges. They were all found guilty of “refusing to provide urine sample for testing.”

It wasn’t until three days after guard Rice’s misidentification of what she thought she smelled that officials decided to drug test not only those in attendance on March 27 but also some who were not at the ceremony, according to Rick Emory.

Because they felt harassed and disrespected by prison officials, and after days of “lies” and “false accusations,” the Native American prisoners, as a united people, opted not to subject themselves to repeated harassment or potential verbal attacks and declined to provide urine samples.

The Native Americans were found guilty by the senior hearing officer (SHO), who they felt was judge, jury and hangman. “The merits of our hurried defense were ignored and dismissed,” according to Buffalo. Loss of good-time credits, contact visits and phone, canteen (prison commissary) and quarterly package program privileges were all taken as a result of the unjust guilty verdict.

The CCC in Susanville is home to approximately 50 Native Americans of various “nations.” Their staid beliefs in traditional ceremonial practices far outweigh the flagrant insolence and maltreatment they suffer at the hands of their oppressors.

The CDC is soulless and debauch, which all the spiritual cleansing from many “nations” combined could not purify.

The Native Americans of Susanville State Prison will continue to practice their beliefs and skills during scared ceremonies (as they have through the centuries), despite the possibility of being wrongfully accused of participating in forbidden, unlawful activities on sacred grounds.

Input from the following Native Americans was essential to complete this article: Jerome Salgado (Cahuillo), Wayne IS’Wet Cortez (Cahuillo), Hotoa-I “Buffalo Bull” (Cheyenne), Steven “Puma” Wilbanks (Cherokee), Rick Emory (Cherokee), Nat Simmons (Natoma) and Eero “Two Mirrors” Herrick (Klamath).


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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