SECOND MESA, Ariz.—Testimony presented in Geneva before the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance alleges that racism and the denial of religious rights to American Indians remains rampant in the United States. In testimony before the world conference, Indian rights advocate Lenny Foster said that not only does racism exist, it is actually endorsed by state and federal governments, especially in the American prison systems. Foster is Dineh, and founded the Navajo Prison Project in an attempt to ensure religious rights of Indian prisoner in the United States.
“A paramount Native American human rights problem in the United States...is religious intolerance, the denial of the right to practice Native American tribal religion,” Foster testified in Geneva on May 4. He was part of a delegation from the International Indian Treaty Council consisting of Alberto Saldamando, general counsel for the IITC, former director of California Rural legal Assistance and a member of the Mission Band of California Indians; Esteban Castro, of the Kuma people of Panama; Mario Ibarra, a Mapuche from Chile, and Don Barnes, a Upit from Alaska.
In an interview with Foster upon his return from the session, he explained that the denial of religious rights is an affront to the United States Constitution, and that such denial is clear racism.
“There is a direct connection between racism, intolerance and the imprisonment of Native Americans,” Foster explained. “Imprisonment is a familiar way of life for many Native Americans. Most have known life as an incarcerated prisoner or have a family member who is or has been imprisoned.Indian people today are not born free
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like our ancestors in past times, yet we retain our ancient love of freedom. Now, we Native Americans must defend and protect our freedom in a human rights struggle to maintain traditional relations with the natural world. Native American incarceration rates are astounding, and these imprisoned people represent important human and cultural resources, irreplaceable to their nations, their communities and families.”
Foster explained that a “disproportionately high number of Native Americans are incarcerated due to racism, and its attendants poverty, alcoholism and drug abuse.” He said that in states like Montana and South Dakota, as much as 35%-40% of the prison population is Indian. In New Mexico and Arizona, it is 1%-3% of the total prison population. “That’s still high compared to the number of Indian people in the state,” Foster said. Arizona and New Mexico combined have about half about half a million indigenous people.
Once in the prison system, Foster explained that too many people are denied access to religious help.
“For many incarcerated Native Americans, rehabilitation must include the practice of traditional religion, including the prayers and purification of the sweat lodge,” Foster explained. “The tradition of wearing long hair is also important. Traditional purification and cleansing ceremonies have proven to be successful in changing attitudes and behaviors in Indian prisoners. Yet many state and federal prisons, while allowing and encouraging Christian ceremonies, systematically deny indigenous ceremonies to imprisoned Native Americans.”
Foster further pointed out that there are many indigenous prisoners facing execution. “As a result of continued United States implementation of the death penalty, many Indian people face execution,” Foster said. “These inmates need access to spiritual leaders, sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies and spiritual counseling in order to make amends to the Creator for wrongs committed. Yet, many prisons deny these last rites to condemned Native Americans,while allowing Christians and other state-sanctioned, “recognized” religions their last rites.”
One recent example of such a scenario was the case of Darrell Young Elk Rich. Rich was condemned to die at San Quentin on March 15 of this year. When the prison warden denied his request for a sweat lodge, her decision was upheld by the United States District and Federal Appellate Courts. The Supreme Court essentially condoned the decision by refusing review of the case. Foster maintains that such a double standard is racist.
“While we know that in the United States, we do not face as severe scenarios as many of our brothers and sisters in places like Guatamalea, China and Indonesia, we have much that needs to be addressed. We don’t as a matter of routine have disappearings and torture as part of the police state. We have a Constitution that is supposed to protect individuals from the excesses of the state. Included in our Constitutional protection is freedom of religion. We need to address these issues and make our country the best that it can be.”
Foster will meet with representatives of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on June 23, to further address religious freedom and Indian prisoners.