Native Americans’ 50 years of struggle

By Marcus Henderson

The San Quentin Native American community is celebrating 50 years of campaigning to protect and preserve their culture.

Plans are underway to have another of the Native American Spiritual Group’s Pow Wows later this year. The Pow Wow is only one part of a larger set of activities, which includes honoring elders and traveling the “Red Road,” a spiritual and cultural journey to recovery and reconnection back to their traditional ways.

“The Red Road is a lifetime commitment to learn and teach our ceremonial ways,” said Hector Frank Heredia, Native American chaplain and spiritual advisor. “It’s a humble path; it’s a spiritual crave, a hunger to get in touch with Mother-Earth.”

There are more than 200 Native Americans housed in San Quentin with at least a dozen on Death Row. Most California tribes are known as Bear clans, but these Natives are from various tribes and clans.

Historically Native culture has faced bans on traditional dancing, drumming, speaking their Native languages and wearing long hair.

“Most Native inmates come from a predominately Catholic or Protestant background,” said Heredia. “Even those who came from reservations don’t know the rituals.”

For some Native Americans, San Quentin has become their first reintegration into their cultural identity throughout the years.

In 1976, San Quentin became the first prison in the nation to set up a sweat lodge with the passing of the Freedom of Religion Act for prisoners.

“Archie Fire Lame-Deer from the Lakota Sioux tribe was sent by elders to light the ceremony fire,” said Heredia.

The fire keeper is a sacred position. He begins the spiritual purification ceremony by placing the rocks in order, saying the prayers and lighting the fire.

From that day to this, the Native inmate community is sweating for eternal cleansing.

The Death Row Natives do not take part in the sweat lodge, because the grounds are on the Lower Yard for general population, but they can participate in the sacred pipe ceremony in their yard area.

“It’s about re-educating our people, so they can see first-hand the traditions,” Heredia added. “It’s for them to get well and to identify as human beings with something hundreds of years old, but new to them.”

Even after the opening of the sweat lodge the Natives still struggled for office space. In 1978, the San Quentin American Indians Cultural Group (AICG) converted their cells into satellite offices after the administration rejected giving them office space. The group executive body, composed of Eddie Dreamer, Pete Dominguez and Wally Gorbet, adapted to the situation and performed clerical work, coordinated programs and stored materials in their cell offices. These men helped pave the way for a future office, a converted supply closet; which is currently in San Quentin Central Plaza with all other faith groups.

“It’s about re-educating our people, so they can see first-hand the traditions”

In 1967, the American Indian Cultural Group (AICG) held its first Pow Wow with outside sponsor Adam Nordwall Sr. leading the ceremony. Nordwall was a leader of Indian Affairs throughout the U.S. He was a congressional candidate for California’s 8th District. Nordwall was concerned about his people both inside and outside of prison.

In 1968, the second Pow Wow was dedicated to Sen. Robert Kennedy, after his death. There were 60 Indians, 43 being inmates in full ceremonial dress representing 20 tribes, celebrating the life and support of Kennedy to their causes.

“O Great Spirit, I pray thee be good to our dear friend, an unforgettable warrior Robert Kennedy, toward the great pine trees, north cold wind, treat him kindly,” a part of the prayer read.

Ethel Kennedy, Robert’s wife, wrote to the group and thanked them for their condolence.

In the Pow Wows of 1970 and 71, in honor of their women, Amelia Jane Clark was crowned AICG Princess.

“I will do my best to truly represent you in all things,” said Clark, reported the SQ News in 1971. 

They also held the Best Dancer Award, which Michael Jackson, Chairman of the United Bay Council of San Leandro, won twice during these same years.

In 1980, Edward Dreamer became the first Indian to hold a San Quentin boxing championship. He won the lightweight trophy, and at San Quentin’s 12th Annual Pow Wow he donated it to the American Indian Movement for Freedom Survival School. Dreamer donated the trophy to the school for assisting the AICG and providing Christmas packages to less fortune Indian inmates, reported the SQ News in November 1980.

In 1993, Don L. Coyhis from the Mohican tribe founded the White Bison 12-step program called the “Red Road to Wellbriety,” a combination of wellness and sobriety. To combat the high rate of alcoholism and trauma in the Native communities, the program takes the 12-steps of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous and places the steps in the Native traditional circle.

San Quentin’s Native Americans still practice the traditions and program of Wellbriety.

“It’s about spiritual, physical and emotional health,” said Greg “White Eagle” Coates, the current ceremonial dancer. “That is true Wellbriety. It comes in the context that healthy people cannot grow in diseased minds and bodies; there is no sovereignty without sobriety, Wellbriety. I thank Coyhis and the elders for their visions.”

Among Coyhis’ visions was Wellbriety’s sacred medicine wheel, which is called the Hoop of 100 Eagle Feathers, used for finding the four corners of healing, hope, unity and forgiveness.

The number four carries deep significance for the Native culture. Their medicine wheel represents the four directions. The pow wow drum is sometimes played in the rhythm of four to imitate the heartbeat of life. Different tribal communities have various fundamentals of fours that direct their lives. The four seasons govern time and the four elements build all life.

In 2016, the San Quentin Natives were the first ones to pay tribute to Manuel Elias Limones, a Native World War II Air Force gunner. They awarded him a traditional Beaded Metal of Honor. Limones was set to receive the Silver Medal of Honor, but after facing so much discrimination throughout his years of service; he felt it was best to receive honor from this community.   

“It was a chance for them to honor an elder for doing something good for the country and representing our people in the face of discrimination,” Heredia added.

Veteran and Native inmate Ron Self also was recognized with the Beaded Metal of Honor for his service in the Marines.

For 2017, the Native community is honoring The Friendship House American Indian Healing Center in San Francisco and the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland for their contribution and donations to their incarcerated brothers.

The Center has donated traditional sacramental foods like salmon, squash, corn and fried bread for the San Quentin annual Pow Wows.

The Center was founded to serve the needs of American Indian people relocated from reservations to the San Francisco Bay Area. Both houses have been working for the American Indians since the 1950s.

The 2017 Pow Wow is planned for the spring season, which is the Native New Year, when the bear wakes up. These celebrations typically are centered on the four seasons, but prison policy only allows for two events a year and the second one likely will be planned for the winter, which is the time of giving thanks.

With the national attention focused on the Standing Rock, N.D. oil pipeline protests, the Native community offers their prayers.

“Our elders said women will step forward and begin to lead, to bring our nations and families back in balance,” said “White Eagle” Coates. “As well, we will see young people with old spirits and sound like the elders when they talk.”

Heredia added, “It was an historical moment—water affects everybody,” referring to the Standing Rock movement. “For the first time it bought hundreds of tribes and the world together, you saw veterans, priests and rabbis coming together.”

But inside the walls of San Quentin, for at least five decades, prisoners who claim to be Native Americans have sought to preserve their identity and use it to inspire other prisoners to get their lives together.


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