Inmates get cultural education

Jim Largo
2/25/04

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION, S.C. - Medicine Man John George feels that if the American Indians in the South Carolina prisons now knew about their native cultures, they may not be serving time for crimes they committed.

At one time, he and a volunteer worker were talking, George said. "[The volunteer] said, if these guys have been practicing their cultures to start with, they wouldn't be in prison now," George explained. "That's true. These guys that we actually service in the Department of Corrections basically know nothing of their cultures."

George heads a statewide cultural education program for inmates who are of American Indian ancestry. The Native American Prison Program of South Carolina has existed since the year 2000. George started the program after an Indian lady talked to him about her daughter being in prison.

"I got a call from a lady in western South Carolina about her daughter," George recalled. The lady's daughter was in a cell at Greenville. She asked, 'If we could do anything for her,'" George said. "I said, I'll check into it and find out what we could do for her."

About a week later, Waccamaw Chief Harold Hatcher called George. "He basically had the same request. He said I got some Indian guys who are in prison. He wanted to know if we could do anything for them," said George.

George asked himself, "Can we? What can we do?"

Not long after, a Catawba social worker held a meeting with state mental health department representatives. The department had some money set aside for Indian people in the state. "They wanted to know how it could be used; how best it could be used," George recalled.

After a presentation was completed by the social worker, George approached the representatives about a prison program. They liked his ideas, and they funded him $1,500 seed money that year. "They wanted to see how we could get this thing into the prison system, if we could at all," he said.

That year George met with state mental health representatives in Columbia, wrestling with ideas about what the program would be. "Maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that," George said. "Nobody really knew, because nobody knew how the prison system was going to react to this stuff."

Nearly a year later George went to visit the woman inmate in Greenville. While visiting her, he also met a prison chaplain who told him he should speak with the head chaplain about his program. George called the head chaplain by tselephone. Chaplain Glen Sherman of South Carolina Department of Corrections wasn't sure what to do. "This was something new. He had never heard of anything like this," George said.

George invited him to his monthly meeting. George and other volunteers discussed a program of "basic cultural things." They were Indian beliefs involving the four directions, use of the drums and feathers, smudging, and pipe ceremony. Chaplain Sherman was skeptical about the approach.

"He said, let me check into it to see what we could do," George recalled. "He said, we're going to have to figure out some way of how we can get this through." After the meeting George pulled the chaplain to the side and told him, "Don't promise something that you can't deliver. I know you can't make these decision yourself, but don't tell us you're going to check on something and don't do it."

The chaplain was true to his promise. "He will tell us that he would check on something. He will check on it, and he will come back to the next meeting and report on it," George said. As a result, Chaplain Sherman "rewrote some of the policies and procedures for the Indian people in prisons in the State of South Carolina."

American Indian inmates now are allowed to have medicine bags attached to their clothes. "We can't do sweats [sweat lodge]. We can do smudging ceremonies for them. We can talk in circles. We can do pipe ceremonies. They can't have dream catchers and things like that. They can't have eagle feathers, because they are not of federal tribes, most of them," George said.

George said, "The State won't let us do sweats. If it was a federal prison, we can do it. They couldn't stop it, because of the Freedom of Religion Act." Eventually the State may allow sweat lodge ceremonies. "It has been said, don't count us out," George said. George acknowledged that State has come a long way in accepting the inmate program.

George's goal is to divide South Carolina into districts for his program. "I'd like to like to be able to divide the state up into sections, and not have to have a certain person [volunteer] spend a half day to get somewhere to visit the brothers and sisters in prisons."

Chaplain Sherman and other prison chaplains go to a retreat every three months. George was invited to one of these retreats where he explained his program. George said, "I had to explain what a smudging ceremony was, what a pipe ceremony was."

At this meeting one of the chaplains complained, "Looks like we are kind of making special privileges for these Native American people that's in prison here," George said. Chaplain Sherman told them, "We are not giving them special privileges. We are only giving them what they justly deserve. These are something they have the right to," George explained. "This is something we are going to do." At that point the other chaplains join in, George said.

South Carolina has nearly 40 prisons in the state. George has not been to all of them, so some of the American Indian inmates in some of the prisons have not received George's program. "I, myself, have been to seven prisons," George said. He was preparing to visit his eighth facility.

His group has plans to continue the program for inmates who leave the prison system and who stay in the area. The Indian ex-offenders may get halfway houses, and George's group would try to get jobs for them. The group is also trying to put together a prison library system of donated books.

These books would help them in a six-month educational program which the Indian inmates are required to attend. George said, "We teach them their basic culture, the four directions, what do the directions mean and the colors associated with them. I know of the number of tribes, the diversity of tribes, the diversity of cultures. You can't teach everything, but we can teach the basic things. We teach them how they are used, how to respect the feathers, how to use the pipe, respect it, and respecting the tobacco."

George explained that smudging is a cleansing ceremony. "I use a clay bowl. I fill it with cedar, sage, sweet grass, and tobacco," he said. He lights it and lets it smoke. "I take the eagle feather through the smoke four times. Then I put the smoke all around the area where they work to drive bad spirits out. Then I do each one of the inmates."

Most inmates have no idea what these ceremonies are, George said. "They don't know what it's about, why we're doing it." For that reason, he conducts his six-month program, he said. "The study group is to familiarize them with what's going on, so they won't have blank looks on the faces."

Currently, he does not know the Indian inmate population in the state, but he knows that the program is growing. He and his volunteers have nearly 40 prisons and a number of chaplains to work with. "With the number of facilities in the state and the limited number of volunteers, we can only get to go to one prison a month," George said. They have been funded only $1,500 per year by the State.

"$1,500 don't go a long way, not with the prices of gas going up, and the price of books and materials. You have to deal with phone calls," George added.

He has received his federal identification number, making his program tax exempt. "We can apply for grants and things of that nature," George said.

"Right now, we really need some more support here in the state. We have some good support. We have seven groups that meet on regular basis once per month. We have our quarterly meetings, and we try to shift them around the state, so it is not an inconvenience to everybody to have to come to one place all of the time. We do need a lot more support than we got now," George said.

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