'Long Before the Prison Walls: Indigenous Imprisonment and the Rituals of Confinement'
(Reporting at Salinas Valley State Prison took place in late 2019 shortly before the pandemic)
Watch towers and barbed-wire break up the penal-jigsaw topography at a central California prison. It's a hot fall day, and because of the heat, few men walk the expanse of the yard. But my guide, his salt and pepper ponytail hanging down his back, barely breaks a sweat as he points out the skeletal wooden structure of what will become a sweat lodge. It's where he'll lead ceremony for incarcerated Indigenous men at Salinas Valley State Prison. The practice, Native American Spiritual Leader and Akimel O’otham Nation member, Shannon Rivers explains, “brings a sense of spiritual balance,” within the walls of this maximum-security prison. A confined space of daily routine cloaked in violence; this is where chaos makes its home. Indigenous rituals, however, can disrupt the penal repetition of brutality committed against -and amongst-Indigenous bodies and minds.
Past the yard and out of the sun, Rivers leads me into a cell block. “Hey, uncle” a young Indigenous man calls out to him, using the familial title as a term of respect. He is standing at a table with a small group in matching prison blues who are all peering into a small plastic container. Within the synthetic box, flickering greenish hues are eyed in one corner, and at the other end, a small black mass. Within these plastic walls, it’s an inter-species death match between a bright green praying mantis and a black widow. The Native who is rooting for the spider, is currently serving time for a murder he committed when he was in his teens but sentenced as an adult. Taking a break from the match, he explains that he is hoping to benefit from a California law that allows those who committed crimes under the age of 18, to have their sentences reviewed. Studies have shown that the brain does not fully develop until the age of twenty-five, including the prefrontal cortex  which impacts impulse control and decision making. The young man feels hopeful in getting his case re-heard and a reduced sentence so he can one day leave the walls of the prison. For now, he turns his attention back to the insects, hopeful again, that he will win this round at least within the walls of hard plastic.
The container housing the caged insects reflects a microcosm of confinement and chaos, a playback loop of the rituals of carnage on repeat. State-sanctioned violence committed against Native bodies is a nightmare version of Groundhog Day. A brutal mortality laundry list shows that per capita Natives experience the highest rates of incarceration as well as one of the highest rates of police killings . Just as importantly, violence too often exists within families and communities. A Harvard study showed that 50 percent of offenders (Native and non-Native alike) were victims of child abuse at the hands of their parents and 40 percent witnessed a killing in childhood. And much like the deadly insect sparring match, victims can perpetuate the cycle of violence they endured onto others. This is where chaplains like Rivers comes in, a concept only made real in modern times.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Native spiritual and ceremonial practices were outlawed by the U.S. government. It was not until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act enacted in 1978, that the ban was overturned. It was at this time, that Native chaplains could perform rituals and religious practices in prisons like the sweat lodge ceremony. Sheltered in intense heat in a covered hut, the rituals provide insight and healing. It is, Rivers explains, an act of purification, enhancing compassion and reducing violence.
In Rivers’ office, a San Quentin Prison wall calendar hangs opposite a hand drawn picture made by one of the incarcerated men of a gold trophy with the title “World’s Worst Prison Chaplain,” written above it, humor not lost in this Level 4 prison. Sitting straight as an arrow, hands folded together in his lap, Rivers talks about the challenges of working with the men. Penal repetition and ritual can manifest itself into group violence. Gang culture proliferates within the prison system which can impact the men’s spiritual practices. “The majority of these men that are in prison and do come from a gang culture is that they believe that is all they have,” a survival mechanism many have adopted. “We’ve had men who do come to ceremony and who have fallen back into the gang mentality” he explains “committing more crimes, selling drugs, doing bodily harm to other inmates”. However, Rivers contends, “for the most part, any prayer ceremony, any educational program has been marked as more on the positive side”. It is these spiritual practices that have existed well before gangs and prisons. And so has violence and subsequent survival. Native people’s history has been wrought with trauma and the rituals of colonial brutality.
Violence inflicted on Indigenous bodies began centuries before the modern prison “when Columbus landed and chopped off the forearm of the first Indigenous person,” Rivers contends. What followed was five hundred years of genocide, displacement, and land theft.
“Natives were imprisoned long before the walls,” he emphasizes. The justice system he states, is “based on the destruction of our traditional and cultural society.” He goes on to say “before non-Native people came, we didn’t have jails or prisons…that’s not to say that we didn’t fight amongst each other or we didn’t take our own captives”. Tribal nations responded to justice in varying ways including restitution by the offending party, corporal punishment, or banishment. Responses tended to be victim-centric allowing for the aggrieved party a say in the punishment.
That all changed during colonization. Violence as spatial confinement extended by way of land theft and colonial law. America’s justice system, Rivers states, is based on white supremacy that “wanted to destroy us, they wanted to take everything that we had. If you look at the land now, 90 percent of the land is gone. That’s not our land anymore. We know that it’s our land but it’s also, by their law, not our land”. And on this stolen land sits places of detention like Salinas Valley State Prison.
The very existence of Native chaplains and ceremonial sweat lodges on prison grounds is an act of resistance against the rituals of violence, both inside and outside the barbed wire fence. “The survival of these men who are in prison is the very fight to get them to understand that when they leave, if they ever leave, that their family, and their culture, and their society is stronger than this”. Ultimately, Rivers contends “The importance is that we’re still practicing, we’re still praying. We’re still doing our best to maintain and keep our culture alive because we are still here”.
 https://qz.com/392342/native-americans-are-the-unseen-victims-of-a-broken-us-justice-system/ , https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/10/us/native-lives-matter/index.html
 Deer, Sarah. The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. University of Minnesota Press. 2015.