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Empowerment and Healing: The Power of Powwows in Women’s Prisons

September 20, 2023

By Brendan Baptiste Communications Office
Participant in full traditional regalia leads the group in dance.

Jeremy Garretson, Northern Arapaho, leads the group in dance. (Photo courtesy of Brendan Baptiste, Communications Office)

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Connecting with one’s culture has shown to be a useful tool during stages of rehabilitation. One innovative approach that continues to gain traction over the years is the incorporation of powwows within prisons. For the incarcerated at Mission Creek Correctional Center for Women (MCCCW), these cultural events are deeply rooted in Native American traditions and have proven to be invaluable in promoting healing, empowerment and personal growth among incarcerated.

Powwows have a rich history in Native American culture, serving as a gathering for tribal communities to celebrate their heritage through dance, song and shared traditions. These events have also played a crucial role in preserving cultural identities in the face of adversity. While for others, it’s a platform to proudly reconnect, or for some to connect for the first time, with their roots and cultural identity.

One of the most significant benefits of powwows in women’s prisons is the sense of belonging that they offer participants. Many incarcerated individuals struggle with feelings of isolation, guilt and a disconnection from family and cultural heritage. Powwows offer an opportunity to reconnect with traditions and to reclaim their identity as they build a sense of community within prison walls. This sense of belonging can be a powerful catalyst for rehabilitation and personal growth.

“As an incarcerated Indigenous Person, its helps reconnect me with my people. It shows others how compassionate we are and that we aren’t always just stoic. We can have fun while celebrating life and what the creator has given to us,” says Vanessa Whitford. “There are also women here who don’t have family available to them. This allows us to connect with them and to be there for them.”

For many incarcerated women, past trauma and emotional wounds are contributing factors to criminal behavior. Powwows offer a space for emotional healing and release. The communal nature of the event, combined with dancing and singing, allows participants to express their emotions in a safe and supportive environment. Building a spiritual connection may help participants to confront their past and develop healthier ways to find healing.

One of the ultimate goals of any correctional program is to reduce recidivism and to help incarcerated reintegrate successfully back into society. Powwows offer a positive and transformative experience that can significantly impact one’s mindset. The empowerment, emotional healing and sense of belonging can contribute to better mental health and self-esteem. Nobody knows this more than the non-profit organization Unkitawa who attended the powwow. Their mission is to heal and educate Indigenous Peoples through culture and education. They have partnered with the Washington State Department of Corrections to meet with incarcerated to assist them with resources to be successful upon reentry to our communities.

Incorporating powwows into prisons is a testament to the power of cultural traditions that promote healing. These events offer a unique opportunity for Native American women to reconnect with their heritage, heal from past traumas and build a sense of belonging. Beyond the cultural significance, powwows contribute to the goal by reducing recidivism. They represent a beacon of hope, healing and transformation in an often-stigmatized environment. As we continue to explore innovative approaches to corrections, the importance of powwows cannot be understated.