Far from his home on the Navajo reservation and far from his people’s ancient healing traditions, he could do nothing but fester inside a Sandoval County lockup as he waited for the justice system to run its course.
Today, the soft-spoken Navajo from Crownpoint says he’s a different person. He seems more relaxed, respectful and reconnected to his culture.
In Maine, a group of prisoners is suing over claims that their constitutional rights were violated because they have no access to sweat lodges or ceremonial music and food. In New Jersey, lawyers representing a handful of Indian prisoners are close to settling an eight-year-old lawsuit involving religious rights.
“We have had to pursue litigation, legislation and more recently negotiating with prison officials to implement these programs,” said Lenny Foster, a Navajo spiritual adviser who works with hundreds of prisoners across the country and has testified before Congress and the United Nations on Native rights.
“I think for the longest time we’ve been denied, as Indian people, that right to practice our tradition, our culture,” he said. “We were told not to speak our language; we cut our hair; we were told to convert to Christianity. Our sweat lodges, our medicine bundles, our pipes were burned.”