Drumming and dancing were just on the surface of the annual powwow at the Airway Heights Corrections Center.
Around 230 people were involved in the event, including offenders and visitors. The day started with a grand entry, flag song, charging song and dancing. Meals and a giveaway, followed by more dancing. Altogether, the event lasted around six hours Thursday, Aug. 1.
“Today’s powwow, everything that we do is to give back,” one offender, Seymour Ruben, said. “To show our kids and our families that we’re going to work on getting back to those ways, getting back to spirituality and things that matter.”
This marked the second year of the powwow where children were allowed to visit. Up until then, only adults were permitted to visit.
For the offenders, letting some of their children participate in the event has made this a true family event. Many offenders had family from out of town visiting and participating in the events throughout the day.
“Knowing that they’re going to be here helps us put the extra work in to get these dances done and memorize all of the songs; everything that we do,” Ruben said.
Travis Comeslast, whose heritage includes the Lakota Tribe, said he noticed a change in some of the offenders when they pursued a return to their spiritual roots.
“There’s a group of people in here that found change through our culture and through our spirituality. We got together and got back on track on what we were taught as youth that we got away from,” he said.
Hector Ortiz, whose heritage includes the Spokane and Hopi tribes, said some members of his family were meeting for the first time at the powwow. Offenders made their own regalia by hand, working throughout the year to get it just right.
“I want to show them the person I’ve grown to become,” he said. “I was immature and young when I made a choice to get myself here.”
Winona Stevens, the religious program manager for the Department of Corrections, said the program first started in May 2011, resulting in Native American circles being formed at state prisons.
“It came about as a contract with the Department of Corrections after they became aware that the Native American circle wasn’t being served as well as they could have,” she said.
In the state of Washington’s prison system, over 900 Native Americans are participating in powwows across the state. Each drumming circle has one event like this each year, involving a number of guest dancers and drummers to complement their existing group.
Airway Heights’ adviser, Harlan Eagle Bear, has developed strong relationships with the offenders in the facility’s circle, noting that it isn’t a social gathering; it’s a spiritual one.
For Airway Heights’ powwow, the facility received support from Northern Quest, who provided some of the food.
Planning for next year’s powwow started immediately after Thursday’s events concluded and will last throughout the year. Having a goal like planning for such an event keeps the offenders focused and driven throughout the year.
“After today we’ll start working toward the next one,” Comeslast said. “It’s that quick. It doesn’t stop, it’s what keeps us motivated and what keeps us on the right track. We look forward to this day so much, it’s the one day we can show our family something different than the life we were leading that landed us in here.”
James Eik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.