Powwows return to Washington's prisons
Powwows for Native American prison inmates in Washington state have been an annual tradition, but they were halted amid pandemic shutdowns. Now, the celebrations in the state’s 12 correctional facilities have returned.
Wearing borrowed blue and white regalia, Richard Dennison is ready for his first powwow at the Airway Heights Corrections Center. Dennison grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, about 50 miles west of here. He went to powwows when he was young but drifted away as he grew up.
Several family members, including Dennison’s children, have driven to Airway Heights to celebrate this day with him, and he’s nervous.
“My kids and my mom and dad, nobody’s ever really seen me dance like this before," Dennison said.
“I didn’t really get into dancing and stuff until I came to prison because I was running around, doing other things I shouldn’t have been doing.”
Dennison’s prison sentence began in 2019 and it’s set to end in 2026. Now, he’s rediscovering his heritage, as are many of the Native American men here. When they learned there would be an in-person powwow, inmates hurriedly began preparing for their visitors.
This powwow, and 20 others in Washington prisons this fall, were sponsored by a nonprofit Seattle Indigenous rights group called Huy, led by attorney Gabe Galanda. He’s a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes of California. Galanda says correctional officials also thought it was time to bring the powwows back, so they negotiated how and when to do it.
“They typically start in the spring, in May, and run until September. But we had to delay the start and the sequence of the powwows because Covid was still hitting, including Airway Heights and Walla Walla, as recent as September," Galanda said.
The powwows are scheduled to return to Washington’s prisons in the spring of 2023, if health conditions allow it. State corrections officials say 45% of Native inmates in Washington eventually return to prison. They hope bringing back the powwows will help to reduce the recidivism rate.
Read the full story on the return of powwows to Washington's prisons at Spokane Public Radio.