Honoring Nations: Lenny Foster: Navajo Nation Corrections Project

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Program Supervisor Lenny Foster with the Navajo Nations Corrections Projects discusses how and why the project was created, and it how it is advocating on behalf of Native Americans prisoners across the country to ensure that their civil rights and religious freedom rights are respected.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Foster, Lenny. "Navajo Nation Corrections Project." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 11, 2004. Presentation.

Amy Besaw Medford:

"Next up we'll have Mr. Lenny Foster, who is the program supervisor of the Navajo Nation Corrections Project."

Lenny Foster:

"[Navajo language]. I want to express my appreciation for this privilege and this opportunity to share with you my thoughts and my feelings about the work that I have done for the last 24 years on behalf of the Navajo Nation, the Diné Nation. By way of introduction, I mentioned that I was a [Navajo language] born for [Navajo language], and my grandpas were [Navajo language] and [Navajo language], and that's important for our spiritual identity because the spirits recognize who we are when we introduce ourselves because the spirits are with us. And that's part of the concept in this area of spiritual counseling that the Navajo Nation has undertaken through the efforts and support from people like yourselves here.

I want to thank Dr. Manley Begay. Yesterday, he mentioned that we were at several campaigns through the [American] Indian Movement. I had the opportunity to travel and participate on a spiritual journey, pilgrimage, to Alcatraz Island. That was my start in the Indian rights movement. Then I moved on and that's when our paths crossed with my brother, Dr. Begay. The protests in Flagstaff, Arizona; Gordon, Nebraska; Gallup, New Mexico and places like that in the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan, BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] takeover in Washington, D.C., Wounded Knee '73, the Longest Walk. So that set the foundation for the work and the concept of overcoming the racism, overcoming discrimination, decolonizing, undoing the brainwashing that has taken place; a very intensive struggle that our people had to endure. We have prevailed, we're here today as evidenced by all of you. I applaud you.

I'm humbled being in your presence because [there's] so many brilliant, intelligent Indian people here. It's like the elite of the elite and I'm honored to be here with you in that manner. I had an opportunity to visit with Oren Lyons again and I told him that out of respect I want to enter his Ph.D. program, school of philosophy, "Oren Lyons School of Philosophy." That would be something, to have an Indian think tank right here at Harvard. You're talking about the history of this university. So maybe that's one of the things that you can all undertake is to bring philosophers and spiritual leaders and activists together to share and present in a think tank.

I want to say that in the past 24 years, it's been a very intensive struggle not only organizing, but advocating, promoting, educating, creating awareness and making every effort to raise the level of consciousness among our people who are incarcerated and their families and to overcome the colonization that has taken place because they made every extreme attempt to exterminate us. And today I see that the movement is the liberation of the mind, the body and the spirit; liberation meaning freedom. We talk about self-determination and sovereignty and I think that's what our work, what we commit and what we dedicate ourselves to that.

And today, I would be at the United States penitentiary, Leavenworth, visiting with my brother Leonard Peltier and conducting a sweat lodge for him, but I was asked to come here and participate in this significant and important forum and I agreed. So Leonard extends his love and his solidarity and expresses his support and respect for all of you. And while I'm in that area, I want to recognize some of the people who have been involved in this work such as Archie Fire -- he has gone -- Wallace Black Elk, John Funmaker, Cedrew Gali [sic], Larry Foster and Tex Joey [sic] and Eugene Doc Anderson. These are some of the spiritual leaders, my mentors that I worked with through the years in providing spiritual counseling in the prison setting. And that's the work that we do. We're perhaps the only tribal-funded program in the country and that's significant in that way because it took the vision of our leaders to support such a project because prison work is very controversial. Many people sometimes don't like it. They would rather...they say to me, 'Why don't you just lock them up and throw the key away or introduce the death penalty?' And I hear those comments made to me. I don't condone what they do to end up in prison. I think we have an obligation to reach out and support them because many of our young people are there because of alcohol-related crimes and they're going to be coming home. They're not going to be locked up forever. Some will be yes, but on the average they're 23 years old, they're doing six years. So they're going to come home. So we have an obligation to reach out and try to teach them the spiritual laws that what they did was wrong and most of them do accept that and recognize that. And some of the ceremonies that have been very effective as part of our spiritual counseling is the sweat lodge, pipe ceremonies, talking circles, tobacco ceremonies, the cell-side visits. I work with death row inmates and it's very important that we reach out to everyone like that that are locked up -- both men and women and juveniles.

Our program visits over 96 state, federal, tribal and juvenile detention. So we reach out to as many as 2,000 in one year and I believe that a survey that was done by the Native American Rights Fund, there were over 7,000 Native Americans that were identified, but that's a few years ago. I'm sure that has doubled by now. And this involves all the tribes, it's not just individual or smaller tribes, but some of the larger ones like the Diné (Navajo), Lakotas, Cherokees, Cheyenne, Tohono O'odham. These are Apaches, these are some of the larger tribes, but you know, you have other small tribes, too.

I had an opportunity to visit two facilities that stands out in my mind recently. One was at the federal correctional institution in Milan, Michigan, near Detroit and it had mostly Ottawa, Ojibwa, Menominees, Mohawks, Seneca; those were the ones that are incarcerated in that facility. Then I was also in the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and there you have Crows, Cheyenne, Flatheads, Salish. So it was something that needs to be done and we're able to provide that. And I'll briefly go over in the interest of time, like I said, tribal funding. That's the funding that we're provided and I think that will continue, but the federal funding through the Indian Health Service I think is something that we need to continue to pursue.

In the course of our work, we've been able to organize on a national level, because like I said we're one of the very few tribal-funded programs in the country. We've had collaborations and meetings with different organizations throughout the country. The National Congress of American Indians have been supportive, the Native American Rights Fund and Native American Church of North America, the Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice, the Oglala Sioux Tribe. These are some of the organizations or Indian nations that have provided that support, and along the way we were able to provide positive and strong testimony on behalf of the religious freedom and human rights, civil rights, of Native Americans that are incarcerated, state prisons and federal penitentiaries on two occasions in the United States Congress. That's a hard struggle because Congress sometimes is not easily moved. So as a result, we've had to take these issues into the international forum and made two appearances before the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland. And there at least the representatives of the United States heard our testimony. The United States Civil Rights Division heard the testimony that we provided and they approached me and wanted to know how we can sit down and discuss some of these concerns that they feel, you know, the denial of religious rights for the original people of this country. And we were bringing that into the international forum and the United States didn't like that.

So we sat down with the Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C. on three occasions to discuss how we can revise the different statutes that affect religious practices in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and we made some recommendations to them that those regulations and statutes and the policies need to be revised to allow every opportunity for Native Americans -- regardless of what nation they belong to -- the right to have access to their spiritual leaders, to have a right to wear long hair for spiritual beliefs and to have access to the cleansing and purification ceremony. These are simple, very simple, yet they deny our religious beliefs and say it's a security concern. They're afraid that speaking a language that's foreign to them is we're conspiring or that we're going to hide contraband in our long hair or that we're going to go in a sweat lodge and tunnel out. Absurd, completely absurd, but these are some of the excuses that are given.

And what do we see for the future? The different experiences that we had through lawsuits and litigation over the sweat lodge, over long hair, over spiritual leaders, we're not able to pursue that avenue today. The political climate being as it is, it's not conducive to winning a lawsuit. The First Amendment protection, the civil rights protection, it's not there. Legislation is an area that we pursued in several states, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, and they were successful, but the problem there now is lack of compliance and lack of enforcement. We can't get them to enforce their own laws. And now we're pursing negotiations, just sitting down with these officials, the governor's office, the director of the department of corrections, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the United States Attorney General, sitting down and just being diplomats and discussing ways of how this can be resolved. We end up compromising, but at least it's better than nothing, but you know that's what you need to continue that. So that's another area.

As I mentioned, the collaboration between the different agencies and entities, I think that needs to continue. The International Indian Treaty Council has been very supportive of our efforts to pursue these issues in the international forum and also the Navajo Nation has been very supportive throughout these years and I thank them whole-heartedly for that. And other Indian peoples who have come forth and supported our efforts; it's very much appreciated. To be recognized after 24 years in the struggle by Harvard University's Honoring Nations really means a lot. At least if my own people recognize me for the hard work that I've done, then it's been all worth it and I appreciate that.

So I think the human rights and the civil rights and the religious freedom issues that the Navajo Nation Corrections Project has undertaken, a lot of that is just an extension from the Indian rights movement, the American Indian Movement and the work that I've done is reflected from that experience. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm a member of the American Indian Movement, I was for many years and I still believe in it. I'm a sun dancer, I attend Native American Church prayer services, I carry a medicine bundle from my own people [Navajo language] and I sun danced with the Lakotas. The International Indian Treaty Council has also been responsible for this support of religious freedom for our Indian people. So these are some of the organizations that I give my utmost respect.

So some of the recommendations, I guess, or the solutions that we see hopefully for the next three to five years is that we'd like to see uniform standards established for religious practices across the United States prison system. We'd also like to see a congressional hearing and have these issues discussed before Congress and have all the Indian nations present testimony on these violations of human rights, civil rights. That might be a tall order, but that's something that we need to pursue. And also a commission study that needs to be done of how many Indian people are in prison throughout this country. Nobody knows. How many years are they doing, the men and women, juveniles? They're all forgotten. So this commission study that we would propose is important. And maybe an executive order by the president allowing Native Americans the right to practice their spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs and practices without any harassment, without any indifference, without any racism or discrimination. So that's another recommendation.

And I think the counseling at the schools and the home, each Indian nation and tribe have an obligation to really actively pursue that, to work with our youth so our people won't end up in prison. We have major problems with alcohol, marijuana, cocaine; now it's methamphetamines. There's a dangerous precedent that's being set here so we have an obligation to seriously look at those, because they're addictive and if we don't make an obligation or commitment it's going to overwhelm us. We don't want all of our young Indian people in prison, you know, and that seems to be a trend if we don't do anything about it and that's something that we see, the intervention and the prevention with the youth and the community.

The spiritual laws must be respected and re-learned. That's the thing about the clients that we have through the corrections that we do counseling and we see there's a lot of learning taking place because there's so much anger, so much rage, among our young people. And I asked these young gang members that were in prison from my community, from Fort Defiance -- because we had a serious problem with gang members where they were just shooting up the community and terrorizing, they ended up in prison -- and I asked them, I said, 'Why are you so angry, what's bothering you?' They were upset at their parents. They were upset because they didn't feel, they were neglected and abandoned, they weren't learning. There was something inside of them that wanted to express their Indianness, but they didn't have an outlet. They felt they'd been cheated out of learning the language. And that might be extreme, but that's the feelings of many of our young people that are incarcerated. So ceremonies are very important, the counseling is very important. And even those individuals that are in death row, we have Indian people who are on death row, they need our support and outreach.

So that's what I want to share and express and say thank you. I'd like to show a very brief clip of this tape that I brought with me. It's called A Seat at the Table: Struggling for American Indian Religious Freedom and it was a documentary that was made in Cape Town, South Africa several years ago by Gary Rhine and those of you who wish to have a copy, give me your address and we'll make sure you get a copy of this. So I just want to thank you for your attention and your time." 

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