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"U.N. told of religious discrimination against indigenous prisoners", May 30, 2005, Indian Country Today

GENEVA - American Indian prisoners in the U.S. prison system are facing new restrictive policies on religious and spiritual practices that make healing and rehabilitation in the traditional manner virtually impossible, according to a report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Lenny Foster, Navajo and board member of the International Indian Treaty Council, told the commission that new restrictions in U.S. prisons are racist and undermine the sacredness of traditional ceremonies. Those restrictions include time limits and the rationing of firewood for the sweat lodge and an English-only mandate.

"Mandating the English-only requirement for the ceremony is discrimination and racist, because the Native language is used and needed for the songs and prayers to be blessed by the Creator," Foster told the commission.

Foster's report to the commission was delivered during the 61st session, held March 14 - April 22 in Geneva. The report was delivered in the session "Civil and Political Rights," which includes religious intolerance.

The new restrictions include a four-hour time limit on the Sweatlodge ceremony, which is unrealistic since the Sweatlodge includes the heating of the stones, which takes two hours, and two hours for the actual ceremony.

"Rushing through an ancient ceremony is not proper because the ceremony is very sacred. The deliberate attempt to shorten the hours and circumvent the ceremony is sacrilegious and undermining the seriousness and sacredness of the spiritual healing and blessings," Foster said.

Foster also told the commission that prison chaplains continue to oversee American Indian ceremonies.

Specifically, he told the commission that the supervision of the Sweatlodge by the chaplain is not necessary because it takes time away from other spiritual and cultural activities. These include talking circles, drumming sessions and Pipe ceremonies that also mandate the presence of the chaplain.

The rationing of firewood in U.S. prisons has deliberately undermined the heating of the stones for Sweatlodge ceremonies. The stones need to be heated for at least two hours, otherwise they are cold and the Sweatlodge is neither complete nor beneficial to the healing and prayers, he said.

"When the traditional ceremonies are held in the ancient and sacred way and manner, the Native prisoners receive the beneficial rehabilitation and spiritual healing. The Sweatlodge ceremony has been the foundation of the healing and recovery from alcohol and drugs and it has been a very positive therapy for the Native prisoners," he said.

These ceremonies make the difference in rehabilitation and warehousing, he said.

"All the traditional practices and beliefs are very important for the rehabilitation and recovery, or the experience of incarceration becomes nothing more than warehousing human beings ... All American Indian nations and spiritual leaders need to be consulted to rectify these new policies. To deny these basic human rights and show indifference to a dignified spiritual healing is tantamount to a cultural genocide of a young generation of American Indian prisoners."

The United Nations, in a press release issued April 5, said reports claim government authorities around the world are not merely failing in their duties, but are perpetrators of crimes.


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