Powwow takes place at Washington State Penitentiary

Charlotte Wilken, News Reporter

It has been almost three years since inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla have celebrated a traditional Indigenous powwow. 

Powwows are native gatherings with singing, dancing and the celebration of ancestral history. Participants dress in regalia, which are decorative ceremonial outfits, as they line up and come into the space where the powwow is being held. They are social celebrations of both reunion and spirituality.

The meal served at this powwow included salmon, and materials were accessible for beading, regalia and moccasins, so that gifts could be presented. Family and friends of inmates were able to attend the celebration.

Mary Moss, current volunteer and past employee of the penitentiary for many years, shared the importance of visitors being able to attend the ceremony, especially after the lack of visitors due to the pandemic and the difficulties of seeing loved ones while incarcerated. 

“[Powwows help] to get in touch with culture that they may have lost in youth or while incarcerated,” Moss said. 

Powwows only happen once a year at the penitentiary, as it is a large effort to put together when considering paperwork, custody, visitors, etc. Putting together these events for spiritual rehabilitation is something a lot of penitentiary systems around the United States are not open to.  

Gabe Galanda is founder of both Galanda Broadman, an Indigenous rights law firm, and Huy, an Indigenous religious freedoms advocacy organization, which supports Indigenous prisoners. Galanda attended the most recent powwow at the Washington State Penitentiary. He believes not being able to have powwows or any other spiritual ceremonies has a detrimental effect on inmates. 

“It wasn’t just the loss of powwow, but the loss of any religious group activity on top of loss of spiritual kinship,” Galanda said.

Spiritual events like powwows give incarcerated people the opportunity for connection. Lonnie Sammaripa worked on the Long Tent project last year at Whitman as one of the two cultural consultants. Sammaripa explained how powwows can be so beneficial for Indigenous incarcerated peoples.

“[They are able to] exercise their own resilience by using their traditional practices for rehabilitation,” Sammaripa said. 

He elaborated about how in the penitentiary system, tradition and spirituality can be what saves people.

Outside of the penitentiary, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation host a powwow every year around July 4. It is open to the general public and offers an opportunity to experience Native American traditions.