Today is Indigenous People’s Day

By Rachel Friederich, ICSEW Communications Chair

Today, Oct. 12 is Indigenous People’s Day. holiday that celebrates and honors Native American peoples and commemorates their histories and cultures. It is celebrated across the United States on the second Monday in October, and is an official city and state holiday in various localities.

The notion of an Indigenous Peoples Day took root at an international conference on discrimination sponsored by the United Nations in 1977. South Dakota was the first state to recognize the day in 1989, and the cities of Berkeley and Santa Cruz, California, followed. California and Tennessee observe Native American Day in September, according to a recent article in USA today.

Though some groups argue that Columbus Day celebrates Italian American heritage, many say the holiday glorifies an exploration that led to the genocide of native peoples and paved the way for slavery.

Though Washington State is not on the list of states that officially celebrate it, many local cities and municipalities recognize the day as Indigenous People’s Day.

The Interagency Committee of State Employed Women celebrates diversity and stands with our Native communities and Natives employed by the state of Washington as allies. ICSEW has recently added tribal land acknowledgements at the start of its meetings and is actively recruiting a pool of volunteers who can rotate in to fulfil this role. There has also been some talk with the Office of Financial Management to add a Native Community Business Resource Group to its growing number of BRGs. The OFM coordinates formation of these groups, and the ICSEW collaborates with these groups to promote intersectionality and anti-racism in state government through its partnerships subcommittee. We often cross promote their events, trainings and news on our blog.

Virtual Events

Because of the pandemic, in-person events related to Indigenous people’s day have been curtailed. However, many groups and universities are hosting virtual ones.

Here are a few:

RELATED CONTENT: Commentary: Tribal Land Acknowledgements https://icsew.wa.gov/2019/11/29/commentary-tribal-land-acknowledgements/

ICSEW Recruiting Individuals to Deliver Native Land Acknowledgements

The Interagency Committee of State Employed Women, ICSEW is recruiting for an individual (s) to deliver Native Land Acknowledgements at meetings and events.

Land Acknowledgement is a formal statement that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of this land and the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and their traditional territories.

Part of this effort is to be deliberate in including an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement at the beginning of each of our general membership meetings. Our goal is provide space for Indigenous identities and agency for Indigenous voices to be heard, welcomed, and honored.

We are respectfully reaching out to those of Indigenous descent, whether your people are federally recognized or not, in search of those who would be willing to share an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement at the one or more of our ICSEW general membership meetings. Individuals do not need to be state employees nor members of the ICSEW.

The ICSEW meets the third Tuesday of each odd numbered month from 8:30 a.m to noon. Due to the pandemic, ICSEW is hosting its meetings virtually, via Zoom and Facebook Live until further notice. The Land Acknowledgement is held briefly at the start of each meeting.

If you are interested please contact us at ICSEW@ofm.wa.gov

Preserving Sacred Traditions During a Pandemic

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, state agencies have had to adapt and figure out new ways of conducting business with minimal contact. With a few modifications, one contract employee at a women’s prison in Belfair has been able to continue culturally-informed programming for incarcerated members of the Native community. Red about JoySky Caudill’s work with Native women. Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Department of Corrections’ website. #WomenWhoMakeADifference

selective focus photo of brown dreamcatcher
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

 

by Rachel Friederich, ICSEW Communications Chair

BELFAIR, WASHINGTON—JoiSky Caudill ignites a bundle of cedar and sweet grass inside an abalone shell at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women (MCCCW). With an eagle feather, she brushes the smoke around the incarcerated women’s faces, hands and feet. As she moves between the women, they sing.

The smudging ceremony is one that goes back centuries in Native communities. In many Native cultures, it’s a means of purification and cleansing.

Caudill has kept this tribal ceremony, along with several others, alive with a few modifications as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to postpone or cancel correctional enrichment programs statewide.

Her continuous work has earned Caudill a ‘Mother of the Year’ Award from White Bison, Inc. White Bison is a non-profit charitable organization that offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention and healing resources to American Indian/Alaska Native people.

“It’s an honor to be nominated for this award,” Caudill said. “When I found out, I was in tears. To be seen like that in somebody else’s eyes is a big boon and I’m still kind of shocked about it. You get a renewed energy to do this kind of work because it’s not just yourself that got seen. The women in this program got seen.

Caudill is a contract employee who leads Native programs at Washington state correctional facilities. She began overseeing tribal programs for incarcerated women 10 years ago at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). In 2013, she began overseeing tribal programs at Mission Creek. Before that, she was a chaplain.

Caudill didn’t always know she wanted to work at a correctional facility. She began volunteering at WCCW after a close friend and mentor passed away. Caudill was filled with grief. Another friend, who worked at WCCW, urged her to start volunteering there. Caudill found making a difference in the incarcerated women’s lives was making a difference in her own life.

“I spent a lot of time listening to the women and I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, this is where I want to be,’” Caudill said. “I knew this is what the Creator had in mind for me. In my heart, I know I am doing what I am supposed to be doing.”

Working through a pandemic

women sitting in chairs in a classroom wearing masks
Joi Sky Caudill, Center, stands with members of the Red Willow at Mission Creek Corrections Center. Photo by Judith Gerren

During a normal week, Caudill leads cultural activities with a group of about two dozen incarcerated Native women, known as the Red Willow. Wednesday afternoons and evenings, the women gather in a room to make beaded jewelry and medallions to give away to their families and guests at the facility’s annual pow-wow. Twice a week, the women hold a ceremony inside the on-site sweat lodge, which includes traditional prayers, songs and storytelling. And once a week, Caudill leads a Wellbriety circle. ‘Wellbriety’ is a culturally based grassroots substance abuse recovery movement program specifically for Native community members.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Department of Corrections has taken steps to slow virus spread among correctional facilities, including temporary suspension of visitation and large events like powwows. Correctional facilities have also temporarily suspended and/or modified recreational and classroom activities that normally involve group gatherings.

In the Red Willow, ceremonies like the sweat lodge have been split into two shorter sessions, to allow for smaller groups. The ‘sweat’ portion has also been temporarily suspended. But talking circles, smudging, prayer, song and dance still convene on sweat lodge grounds. All participants must also wear a mask.

Efforts to lower recidivism

Talking circles are a major part of all Red Willow ceremonies. During the talking circle, participants share common experiences as Native women.

Some conversations explore historical trauma. Historical trauma is cumulative emotional, physical and spiritual pain over one’s lifetime, Caudill said. Historical trauma can pass between generations in Native families. It can result from historic systemic racial inequalities in society and can lead to things like substance abuse and higher likelihood of incarceration.

In Washington’s correctional facilities, approximately 5.9%, or 1,011 incarcerated individuals (pdf) are American Indian or Alaska Native. According to the 2019 United States Census Bureau, American Indian and Alaska Natives make up only 1.9% of the state’s population. As of March 2020, the state’s recidivism rate among American Indian and Alaska Natives state is 44.5%.

And the rate hasn’t fluctuated much. According to the Department of Corrections’ Engagement and Outreach Director, Jeremy Barclay, the rate has remained between 41% and 45% for the past three years. But he’s confident the department has taken steps to lower that rate.

For example, the department has a tribal liaison, Nancy Dufraine, to work with tribes statewide to develop policies, agreements and programs that directly affect tribes. The position promotes effective communication between the department and tribal governments. The liaison also coordinates training among employees in cultural competency for providing services to tribal governments and tribal members. For the past year, the department also hired a second temporary liaison to work on projects and further the department’s work.

Dufraine says historical trauma, chronic poverty, health disparities and lack of access to behavioral health services are all factors that increase likelihood of a Native person becoming incarcerated. But having culturally informed programming can play a role in their success after incarceration.

“Access to this type of programming, including religious expression, education, training and health services while incarcerated with seamless transition upon reentry can have a large impact on recidivism as I see it,” Dufraine said. “These opportunities, especially religious expression, help identify paths to self-awareness and reborn cultural identity that builds strength and endurance to succeed.”

A place to heal

portait of JoySky Caudill
JoySky Caudill. Photo courtesy JoySku Caudill

Caudill is of mixed European descent and shares ancestry with the ancient Mayans of Mesoamerica. She says programs like Wellbriety are an example of the good that can come from incorporating culture in correctional programs. She says it’s not uncommon for incarcerated Natives to have lost their cultural connections by the time they are sentenced to incarceration.

“When one gets lost in their pain and suffering with drugs and alcohol, it’s the strength of the drugs and alcohol that gets in the way,” Caudill said. “We call it the mind-changer of drugs and alcohol. They get caught up in their addictions and don’t get involved in their culture.”

The program creates a safe place to talk with their peers, which often reawakens their ancestral ties.

“They join the Red Willow, and they start to remember their culture and traditions,” Caudill said. “They say, ‘I remember I used to do that. I used to dance and sing. I have to do that again.’ They start remembering what their culture is and what they used to do.

“They begin to dance again and we practice those things. We tell them to show us and pretty soon, they’re the ones teaching the other women. It’s so exciting to see them brighten up and be able to remember these things.”

Another topic the Red Willow have begun to discuss more often in the talking circles is the pandemic. While the women feel safe with each other, they worry about their families in their home communities.

Native communities are facing disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infection and death as a result of an insufficient Indian Health Services Budget, delays in federal relief funds and social detriments of health that put them at an elevated risk, according to Medpage Today, an accredited medical news service that provides continuing education to health care professionals.

“This pandemic can be a triggering time and can generate new fears,” Caudill said. “They may have loved ones who are sick.”

Caudill comforts them by creating a secure environment to express their feelings. She says she and the Red Willow are there to listen without judgement. And the women may arrange to speak with Caudill one-on-one, if it makes them more comfortable.

“Our Native American ceremonies have really brought me comfort in being so far away from my family,” said a member of the Red Willow, who is Apache and Cherokee. “Our spiritual ceremonies during this pandemic have been what I call ‘my dates with the Creator,’ being able to go out and smudge and pray and be in that safe zone has always given me that strength to where I’ve been able to have that peace of mind.”

Having a positive impact on the women’s lives is what pushes Caudill to continue her work at Mission Creek.

“That’s one reason I’ve done my very best to make sure I’m here — to allow these brothers and sisters to communicate their fears without any judgement.”

About Mission Creek Corrections Center: Mission Creek Corrections Center is an all-female adult minimum custody prison located in Mason County, Washington. It has been continuously operated since 2005 and has a capacity of 321.