Job Title, Cause or Organization you represent
Tribal Affiliation and/or any personal cultural notes you’d like to share
Creek Nation. I have been working with women in prison for 17 years.
What do you feel brought you to your cause and was there a personal connection or cultural teaching that sparked your initial interest?
I got a call from a chaplain at one of the prisons here in Oregon 17 years ago. He asked if I could help by conducting sweatlodge ceremony for women at one of their Eastern Oregon facilities. I thought about it, prayed about it, consulted my elders, and then made a commitment to help out one day a month.
There was a time in my life when I could have gone down a road that possibly would have led me to jail or prison, but it was the people I have in my life that are non judgemental and supportive, as well as becoming involved in Native American ceremony (sweatlodge/sundance) that turned my life around. I truly believe that culture will heal us if we practice it on a daily basis. Red Lodge brings culture, compassion, hope and ceremony to our women (and men) behind the iron doors. We work with the men’s prisons providing sweatlodge ceremony and annual Native American events, but our focus is and always has been on our women. When we strengthen our women, we strengthen their children and our community.
What is a key take-away you feel most people do not understand/are not educated on regarding your cause?
The disparate numbers of Native Americans incarcerated is at an all time high. In Oregon, Native women are 7 to 8% of the state prison population and men are 4 to 5% of the state prison population. collectively, Native people are only 1.8% of the Oregon state population.
Historical trauma which leads to substance abuse and dysfunctional behavior is passed down through the generations. The majority of people in prison are of childbearing age, and 80% of women in prison have children under the age of 18; these numbers represent genocide for our culture and removal of human potential from community.
How do you communicate your views to those who may disagree with them?
I am careful to listen to the individual who is expressing their ‘world view’ and I do my best to respect their words. Sometimes I will say ‘I am sorry to hear you feel that way… I have been working within the prisons for 17 years and I can tell you why people go to prison… the majority are brown (profiling is routine), poor (folks usually take a deal rather than ask for a trial because they can’t afford to hire an attorney), and substance abuse is almost always involved (most people need treatment and prevention rather than incarceration)’.
I then quote stats on how much it costs us as a society (America incarcerates 25% of the world’s prison population, yet we are only 5% of the world population), and cost (depending on the state, it costs taxpayers anywhere from $23,000 to $70,000 per inmate in state prison). In Oregon it costs $30,000 to incarcerate one person for one year, and recidivism costs us over $100,000! One in four will return within three years due to unresolved substance abuse, or lack of resources accessible to them. Only 5% of the Oregon prison population receives drug and alcohol treatment, or cognitive behavior programming. Less than 1% receive mental health services.
What is your personal philosophy (that helps drive your work)?
“People are capable of greatness if given the right tools, support and hope for a brighter future. We cannot afford to throw our People away!”
How has your approach to your work evolved since you first started? Where do you see it going/growing?
When we first founded Red Lodge, we were under the impression that funding would be easy to access, and that everyone would love our ‘world view’ of empowering Native people in prison and follow them back into community with supportive services. It has not been easy. We are small and we are culturally specific which means we don’t have big numbers that mainstream funders like to see…
What has surprised you most about working within your cause?
I think the biggest surprise is to realize how deep incarceration touches us… Red Lodge estimates when we help one person directly, we impact at least 10 other people.
I have never been arrested and am a Registered Nurse with 33 years experience. I will never know what it is like to go through the trauma of incarceration. I have seen a lot of trauma come through the doors of our hospitals, and responded with compassion, leadership and skill, but the emotional trauma our people have endured and continue to endure is overwhelming and cannot be put into words. We are all broken people, some are more broken than others. Working within this sub population of individuals, allows me to provide testimony on the resiliency and the generosity of the human spirit.
What motivates you to stay involved?
I love my People, and I love meeting passionate people who want to help make a difference in this world. I love seeing the ‘light go off’ when someone experiences the sweatlodge for the first time… its like… “this is what is going to keep me clean and sober, this is what I have been missing… I feel safe and connected”.
Everyone has their story and the people we work with are survivors. Every experience we have in our lives helps shape us, and many strengthen us. Going to prison or being an ex-addict does not define who a person is, and it is not the end of the world to be incarcerated… Actions, words, attitude and how we treat others is what shapes us and makes us who we are. Red Lodge has clients who now hold master’s degrees in social work and certifications in substance abuse counseling. They are plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and welders. These women (and men) are the backbone of their family and community!
What moment has resonated the most since you began your work?
How truly unfair the world is.. We speak of white privilege, yet even among ourselves as Native people, some of us have more opportunities, options and resources than others. Prison and drug addiction is the bottom of the well for most people, and to witness what folks can achieve as they begin to rise back up, with a little equity and compassion, is amazing!
What’s your advice to those who want to learn more about your cause but aren’t sure how to get involved?
Call us (503-245-4175)! Visit our web site (www.redlodgetransition.org) and our facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/). Come visit us at the Red Lodge Transition Center for Women just outside Oregon City. Read articles on the Prison Industrial Pipeline, attend conferences and events that speak about incarceration and how to support re-entry. Ask someone who has been incarcerated about their experiences with re-entry.
Become a member of Native Americans in Philanthropy here.