Dozens of people incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women filed through locked doors, down narrow, fluorescent-lit halls. They entered a gymnasium, where sunlight spilled in through open doors. The smell of burning sage drew them outside onto makeshift powwow grounds, where a tipi sat in one corner of a tightly fenced field.
They chose from a pile of ribbon skirts and handmade shawls to wear over their uniforms and joined powwow dancers invited from the outside community, who donned regalia spanning a variety of cultures. The normally gray, khaki and white atmosphere was full of color as the Sisterhood Powwow began.
On a Saturday in September, nearly 100 people gathered together for the powwow in Gig Harbor, Wash. That number included about 60 imprisoned people, their visiting loved ones, and staff from both the prison and Unkitawa, an all-Indigenous nonprofit dedicated to cultural connection. “Unkitawa” is a Lakota word that means “ours, yours and mine.”
As families arrived, mothers hugged their incarcerated daughters, while incarcerated mothers kissed their visiting children.
Jeremy Garretson, Northern Arapaho and reentry director for Unkitawa, took the microphone after grand entry, speaking about the importance of cultural connection and expanding access for incarcerated women.
Too often, Garretson said, imprisoned women are an afterthought.
“I’m trying to awaken the community to make them realize that it’s not just a couple of numbers over here. This is our mothers, our aunties, our grandmothers, our sisters, our daughters. You are the life-bringers that give us existence, to even have the ability to stand here today,” Garretson said. “I’m here to tell you today that you are not forgotten.”
‘A chance to be with my family’
Beverly Baker stepped into a black ribbon skirt, pulling it up over her khaki pants and white sneakers. She scooped up her 2-year-old son, Konnyr, and danced until her feet were sore. This was their first powwow.
“It’s a chance to be with my family and share our culture,” Baker said, a smile on her face. “And to get with other tribes and see the differences but also the sameness.”
Baker, Colville and Iroquois, has spent much of her time inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women connecting with her Native heritage. She said she found out she is Colville while incarcerated.
Part of the “Sisterhood,” an Indigenous religious circle known as a hoop, Baker takes part in biweekly Native American crafts classes hosted by Unkitawa. She recently made her first pair of beaded earrings, gifting them to a family member during the powwow.
“There are quite a few ladies that are part of the Native American crafts that I wouldn’t normally talk to but since we’re together, it’s more of a sisterhood,” she said.
‘It feels super spiritual’
Throughout the whole powwow, Braylee Dempsy, Blackfeet and Navajo, and Jaliauna Templeton, Blackfeet, rarely sat still — they were busy dancing, bringing food to elders and laughing with friends.
“For me, it feels super spiritual,” Templeton said. “It feels like I needed this, for sure, especially in a place like this.”
Before the powwow grand entry, half a dozen women who are imprisoned, including Dempsy and Templeton, lined up as an elder fanned an abalone shell holding sage. As the smoke began to rise, the women took turns smudging themselves, cleansing their spirit to start the powwow in a good way. After each woman finished, the elder held an eagle feather fan to their heads and sent out a prayer.
“In here, it’s great that they have those kinds of things cause it’s very much needed for a lot of us Native Americans,” Templeton said.
Both Dempsy and Templeton have gone to powwow before, back home in Browning, Montana, at Blackfeet Nation. At that powwow, Dempsy’s family has a booth where they give away homemade food for free — fry bread, stuffed Indian tacos, Navajo burgers and more.
Though much different than powwows held outside prison walls, Unkitawa worked to bring a sense of familiarity and excitement to this powwow on the inside. This year, Garretson organized a competition powwow, bringing in dancers from outside the prison to compete.
Templeton said it worked.
“I’ve never been to a prison powwow so, I mean, I think it was really good though,” Templeton said.
“I totally agree,” Dempsy added.
‘A healing dance’
Yakama elder Coko Kahclamat was one of the oldest dancers competing at the powwow. Dancing for over 50 years, this marked Kahclamat’s third time dancing in a powwow at Washington Corrections Center for Women as a guest from outside the prison.
“I always like to share and have fun and hopefully inspire someone to have fun and just enjoy it,” Kahclamat said.
She wore elk tooth earrings peeking out through her shoulder-length silver hair, a jingle dress covered in geometric patterns and floral print on her sleeves and shins. Kahclamat put love and intention into each piece of the regalia she beaded and stitched.
“For me personally, it’s a healing dance,” she said.
Kahclamat is a breast cancer survivor, a story she has weaved into her regalia. With a pink scarf tied around her neck, a black beaded medallion with the word “Warrior” above a pink ribbon hanging from her neck and beaded pink ribbons adorning her cuffs, she is proud of her journey.
“I hope I can share some of my healing with [the women here],” she said. “It’s important for us to support women.”
‘Healing as Indigenous people’
As Elena Santistevan danced in her blue, purple and gold-colored shawl, its sequins glittered in the sunlight. The otter ties hanging from her braids help her to stay quick on her feet. Eagle feathers blessed by her uncles adorned her hair. With bright colors reminding her of creation, Santistevan’s regalia is meant to represent the earth.
Santistevan, Southern Ute, has been dancing at powwows for 15 years — but the Washington Corrections Center for Women Sisterhood Powwow was the first time she had competed since before the pandemic.
Even so, Santistevan was awarded the Women’s Fancy Champion title. For her, dancing is medicine.
“This is our own way of healing as Indigenous people,” she said.
Asked to attend the powwow by family members, Santistevan immediately accepted because she knows that powwows are a place of camaraderie and support — those are the qualities she wanted to offer to women inside the prison.
“There’s always resources to get connected, even if you go to someone else’s tribe,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask, someone will always be there to help you.”
‘Learn from all tribes’
Ilyssa Smith, Cherokee, was not connected to her tribe and Native heritage for much of her life. Her maternal grandfather was Cherokee, and passed away before she was born. For the past few months, taking part in Native American crafts and preparing for the powwow itself, she has awakened some of that connection.
Smith has been at the Washington Corrections Center for Women for the past two years, but only involved with the Sisterhood for the past few months because the waitlist is so long. Since then, Smith has learned more about her Native identity through conversations with Garretson and other Unkitawa staff, as well as going to sweat lodge and learning to bead.
“I’ve also been taught that even though I’m Cherokee, it doesn’t matter what tribe you’re from, you can learn from all tribes,” Smith said.
In preparation for the powwow, Unkitawa provided supplies and lessons for women to make beaded earrings, leather drums and dream catchers to give to relatives and loved ones in attendance.
Smith spent many sessions making a dreamcatcher, a pair of beaded earrings and helping three other friends finish beading their earrings.
Building connections with her own identity and other Native people has been healing for her.
“If you’re Native and you don’t know too much about your tribe, definitely get involved in some way, shape or form,” Smith said.
‘To dance is to pray’
After passing through the TSA-style security, and having to run their regalia through an x-ray screening machine, Loni Long and Israel (Scott) Rehaume made it past the many heavily locked doors and onto designated powwow grounds.
Though both have some familiarity with the prison system, competing at a powwow inside one is a different experience.
Rehaume, a Yakama Nation tribal descendant, has been dancing at powwows for eight years. Since becoming sober 12 years ago, he has spent time connecting to culture, something that he feels is especially important for people in prison.
“When we think about culture, one of the places that’s most forgotten is prisons,” Rehaume said, who spent three years in federal prison himself. “That connection to culture is what we lost when we came to prison.”
Long, Warm Springs, also grew up visiting family members in jail and prison. She knows firsthand the impacts of being incarcerated and the disconnection to tribal culture it can entail.
She also knows what it is like to feel disconnected, and has spent nearly the last decade, after becoming sober seven years ago, reconnecting and being involved in community. She has been dancing at powwow ever since.
“Being clean and sober, I’ve switched my focus, my motivation, from drugs and alcohol and that lifestyle, to creator lifestyle,” Long said.
For her, that means going to powwow, canoe journey, sweat lodge and prayer — she has worked hard to be a role model for her children and make sure that they grow up connected to culture.
Rehaume and Long were invited to dance at this year’s powwow by Rehaume’s brother, Tony Bluehorse, who emceed the event.
“I’m bringing prayers for these women here,” Long said. “To dance is to pray, so that’s what we’re doing.”
“We think about Missing and Murdered Indigenous People and part of that is the people in here,” Rehaume added. “We just want to let them know that they are seen.”
‘I’ve spiritually found myself’
At the end of powwow, Natasha Bickar and Braylee Dempsy took the mic, thanking guests for spending the day with them. Bickar also acknowledged the Medicine Creek treaty tribes, whose land the prison resides upon.
For the powwow, Bickar, Cherokee, put her hair in two braids and slipped on a navy blue silk dress over her khaki pants and gray shirt. For her, the powwow was a time of celebration and connection with loved ones.
“We all come together as one, all these different cultures come and we recognize our tribes and we all come together and celebrate our religion,” Bickar said. “It’s nice to know that we are recognized and appreciated.”
Bickar spent most of the powwow volunteering — bringing food to elders, passing out gifts the incarcerated women had made for the guests and being helpful in any other way she could.
In prison, Bickar has focused on cultural connection with Unkitawa. Part of that has meant participating and volunteering at sweat lodge and Native American crafts.
“Prior to my incarceration, I kind of lost myself, I lost my religion,” she said. “But coming here, it kind of opened a door for me to get connected with my culture spiritually. Coming to the powwow and the sweat and the beading, I’ve spiritually found myself.”
‘They are not forgotten’
A northern traditional buckskin dancer — wearing regalia she beaded, cut and sewed herself with designs and colors particular to Cheyenne women — Teresa Littlebird blew the judges away with her dancing, earning her the title of Women’s Traditional Champion.
“I’m dancing for people that maybe can’t dance,” Littlebird said. “And healing for myself and others.”
Littlebird, Northern Cheyenne, lives in California but was invited by Garrestson, whom she met dancing at another powwow. While this was her first powwow in Washington, Littlebird had danced as a visitor at prisons in California.
For her, the Washington Corrections Center for Women Sisterhood Powwow, like many inside prisons, was about bringing healing and medicine to people who need it, who don’t have the same access as those on the outside.
“[It’s about] being able to give back to a community of incarcerated women that probably feel disconnected and maybe forgotten,” Littlebird said. “For me, it’s bringing healing energy, good medicine, helping people forget where they are for at least a day. And that they are not forgotten by the bigger community.”
Lead image: Samantha Eazor, left in foreground with the red shawl, dances with Marrisa Alvarez-Iniguez, right in foreground with the black shawl, at the Sisterhood Powwow held on Sept. 9, 2023. (Photo by Jarrette Werk Underscore News / Report for America)