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Pow Wows and Traditional Ceremonies Make Their Return

November 23, 2022

By Brendan Baptiste Department of Corrections
Group of indigenous people in regalia participating in ceremonial dance

Incarcerated individuals dance in traditional regalia during a powwow at Airway Heights. (Photo courtesy of Huy

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Native American Heritage Day, November 25th, pays tribute to indigenous people and their immense contributions to the United States. The Native American Heritage Day Bill was passed in the 2013 by the Legislature of the State of Washington. The bill was created to encourage people of all backgrounds to focus on history, achievements, and contributions of Indigenous people on the day after Thanksgiving.

Return of Pow Wows to Corrections

At Washington State Department of Corrections’ (DOC) prison facilities, this year’s celebrations look at the return of pow wows and blanketing ceremonies across the state as many COVID restrictions have been lifted, allowing for in-person gatherings once again.

Pow wows are a gathering held by Native American and First Nation Communities. These gatherings allow indigenous people to dance, sing, and socialize with each other as they honor their culture. With 4.9% of Washington State’s incarcerated population identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native, these celebrations are an important way to stay connected to their respected cultures and communities.

Airway Heights Pow Wow

A pow wow at Airway Heights took a lot of preparation to ensure the ceremony was culturally appropriate. Those in attendance handmade clothing and intricate beaded jewelry such as medallions and earrings. Special care was taken into consideration for the food that was provided.

We have the buffalo stew, the salmon, which are all Native American enhancements that they do not normally get, says Kay Heinrich, Associate Superintendent of Programs.

Many attendees will come dressed in traditional regalia. The brightly colored dress can hold deep meaning to those who wear them. Many incarcerated are finding themselves reconnecting to their culture and proudly sewing regalia for the first time because of these powwows. The ability to build a deeper connection to their culture can be a useful tool to stay away from the temptations that may have landed them in prison.

DOC facilities across the state are also resuming pow wows, a full schedule can be found, here.

Some pow wows have even been covered in the news, check these articles out for the full story!

  • Powwow takes place at Washington State Penitentiary Wilken, C. Whitman Wire (Oct. 20, 2022)
  • Incarcerated Natives gather for first powwow in three years Brown, K. Underscore (Oct. 13, 2022)
  • Prison powwows in Washington state restart after a 2-year break because of COVID Nadvornick, D. wfdd (Nov. 20, 2022)
  • Powwows return to Washington's prisons Nadvornick, D. KUOW (Nov. 13, 2022)
  • Powwow for Indigenous prisoners in Walla Walla provides an opportunity for healing Robertson, S. KING5 (Oct. 7, 2022)
  • Blanketing Ceremonies

    Blanketing ceremonies are also making a welcomed return across the state.

    Nancy Dufraine, who recently retired after serving as DOC’s Director of Tribal Relations since 2017, was honored last week by the agency’s Alaskan Native/Native America Employee Resource Group with a blanketing ceremony. These ceremonies are a way to show respect for those who have made significant contributions to their communities.

    The gathering also featured a talking circle, potluck and sharing of songs and stories.

    Thank you, Nancy, for your invaluable work over the years with families, communities and tribes to keep them safe and supported on their path to wellness and stability.

    Tribal Relations

    For more information on DOC tribal relationships, please visit our Tribal Relations webpage.