Preserving Sacred Traditions During a Pandemic
July 29, 2020
JoiSky Caudill (center) meets in a classroom with an incarcerated group of Native American women called the Red Willow. Caudill recently won a White Bison Mother of the Year award for her work to continue tribal wellness programs at Mission Creek during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Judith Gerren, Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women)
BELFAIR – 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
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 pow wows. 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 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 staff member also coordinates training among employees in cultural competency for providing services to tribal governments and tribal members. For the past year, the department also had a temporary additional liaison to work on projects and further the work of the Office.
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
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,” she said. “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.”