“Ceremony is life,” says Winona Stevens, M.S.W., founder and executive director of Native American Reentry Services (NARS). “It’s something that we all need to do. Ceremony is a time to be Indigenous and, for a moment, step away from the confinement of prison or work release, or whatever your custody situation is. It’s not only our right through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, but it’s our responsibility to keep our sacred ceremonies alive,” Stevens explains. “They’re very important in all that we do.” Stevens is a member of the Ho-Chunk tribe of Wisconsin and has had family members who are incarcerated.

NARS runs two programs. The first, Helping Enhance Aboriginal Lives (HEAL) for Reentry is a NARS volunteer effort. Its mission is to encourage successful reentry back into the community with the use of Indigenous traditions, ceremony, and values, Stevens says. In addition, NARS has a contract with the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) to run the Iron House Medicine program at 21 sites in 12 prisons. The Iron House Medicine program administers religious services to the DOC statewide, with contractors who facilitate sweat lodge services, teaching, and drum and dance circles.

This work is critical, Stevens believes, given the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Washington State prisons. “In Washington State, American Indians and Alaska Natives are 6 percent of the prison population, but we’re only 1.8 percent of the state population,” Stevens notes. She continues, “We’ve got high incidences of depression, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], anger, suicide, hypervigilance, and self-destructive behavior like substance abuse. It’s a pretty vicious cycle, and I can’t help but notice how much it mirrors institutionalization.”

While pursuing her graduate degree, Stevens came across the work of Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. “She found that using education and sharing the effects of trauma and grief resolution through collective mourning and healing disrupts the hold intergenerational trauma has on our community,” Stevens explains. “We strive to do that in our work with the DOC, with our incarcerated relatives, and with our people who are coming home.”

NARS is a true community effort, with support from many partners, including from Huy (pronounced Hoyt), a tribally controlled nonprofit that provides economic, educational, rehabilitative, and religious support for Indigenous people who are incarcerated in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the United States. Huy helps NARS support 21 annual DOC powwows held across Washington State. Together, Huy (which means “see you again/we never say goodbye”) and local tribes have given over $50,000 annually to support these events, allowing the purchase of regalia, food, and giveaways. “We invite guests from the community, and it’s the one time a year our brothers and sisters are able to come together and dance and sing and celebrate being native,” Stevens says.

NARS also has the support of Don Coyhis and his White Bison organization, which supplies the Wellbriety programming used by the Iron House Medicine program. “Our Iron House Medicine peer facilitators lead the medicine wheel and 12-step classes in DOC. To date, with the support of White Bison, the OC, and the prison Religious Coordinators, we’ve trained over 60 incarcerated relatives that represent Indigenous people from over 40 tribes and several countries,” says Stevens.

Local tribes also support NARS programming, supplying funds for a computer lab, traditional medicines, and regalia. “We have a HEAL Warrior Down Advisory Committee, and it consists of four formerly incarcerated people, brothers who represent the Dine’/Navajo, Hawaiian, Northern Arapaho, and Winnebago/Ho-Chunk people,” Stephens explains.  NARS even has the support of former DOC staffers, including two former DOC secretaries and a former deputy director of prisons, who help advise NARS in its work and communications with the DOC.

With the support of a grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce, NARS will hire a dedicated program manager for the reentry program. To expand the reentry program, Stevens hopes to increase the use of formerly incarcerated peers. “Right now, we’re creating a training program for our HEAL Warrior Down recovery coaches, and those are going to be the people that connect in the community to our brothers and sisters who are coming home,” Stevens says. “They’ve walked the talk, and they’ve gone through the challenges of reentry, so they’re the best people to help those who walk out the prison door.”

Many reentry programs are focused solely on resources and support, but that is only half of what the HEAL for Reentry peers will be doing. “The other half, cultural and spiritual resources, uses the medicine wheel approach to address emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual support,” Stevens explains. “This traditional alternative for reentry is what our people need when returning home.” HEAL for Reentry has an advantage in that many people seeking its services have been part of the Iron House Medicine program that provides the building blocks they need to tap into when they come home.

NARS programming aims to break the intergenerational cycle of trauma that Indigenous people have experienced. In graduate school, Stevens completed a needs assessment for United Indians of All Tribes to get a snapshot of the Indigenous population in Washington State prisons. “Three hundred and sixty-six people responded, and of those, we found 61 percent of all surveyed have been in foster care, lived with extended family, been adopted, or were placed in a group home,” Stevens reports.

Sadly, the community NARS serves and its programming have been “devastated” by COVID-19, Stevens acknowledges. “Once the pandemic hit, early on, our brothers and sisters in the Iron House were suffering,” Stevens says. “This was the time when we needed our ceremonies and services the most, and they were either drastically reduced or canceled.” NARS discontinued the use of sweat lodges in prisons out of an abundance of caution but maintained some semblance of ceremony. The NARS Program Elders modified practices in response to the DOC’s pandemic protocols, enabling contractors to continue services when so many other programs were not able to be held.

“Despite those precautions, many of our incarcerated relatives became sick with the coronavirus, and many still face regular lockdowns as the DOC works to control the spread of the virus within the prisons,” Stevens says. “When it comes to HEAL for Reentry, our relatives reintegrating into the community struggled with access to both community and cultural resources.” A big part of the HEAL program is to encourage participation in traditional tribal ceremonies, but many of these were canceled. Prison visitations were also canceled, and only began reopening on a limited basis in early May 2021.

Stevens admits that she is “pretty passionate” about her work with NARS. Still, she acknowledges that “sometimes corrections is not an easy place to work.” What recharges her is meeting with her brothers and sisters and seeing the hard work they are doing.

“There’s the stigma and the stereotype that people have about our incarcerated relatives and what they think is happening in prison,” Stevens explains. “What’s actually happening is something so different and so beautiful; how people are turning around and changing their lives and doing it with ceremony and tradition. I am blessed and honored to be working with people who are doing that in their lives and to be connected with them.”

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