The scent of burning sage and the sound of song and drums filled the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility Visiting Center as about 40 people sat in a circle — listening and sharing, just as many generations did before them.
The circle comprised members of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde (CTGR), visiting Native American singers from other parts of the U.S. and Canada, Oregon Youth Authority staff, several youth family members, and the intended recipients of the day’s ceremonies and blessings: 15 Native American youth in close custody.
The event in early March was the second at MacLaren and the third that CTGR has hosted inside OYA facilities (last year’s was held at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in Salem, which closed in fall 2017). Each annual event has included tribal traditions such as making prayer ties and participating in ceremonies and a round dance. But, perhaps most importantly, they have also included a talking circle and opportunities for mentorship.
“We want to coordinate some values with the kids,” said tribal elder Charles Tailfeathers, a former tribal prosecutor and one of the event organizers. “It doesn’t matter what tribe or nationality they are. … It’s about what values we can build into them so they don’t go back to the old way of life when they return home.”
As of early June 2018, OYA had in its custody 133 youth who self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native — 57 of those were in close-custody facilities, and 22 were at MacLaren.
The agency has intergovernmental relationships with the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon. OYA is committed to communicating with the tribes about where their youth are and providing them access to and opportunities to support their youths’ treatment and reformation. The agency also works to provide tribal youth with access to Native American services and ceremonies.
Several of the tribes send volunteers into OYA facilities statewide to share cultural traditions with youth and host pow wows and sweat lodge ceremonies. CTGR’s annual mentorship event also provides the youth with the opportunity to listen to, learn from, and connect directly with tribal elders.
“Native American services and ceremonies are important opportunities to provide or reintroduce traditional spiritual and cultural values to our youth,” says Katie Staton, OYA’s tribal liaison and Native American programs coordinator. “We know this connection is crucial to their treatment and reformation needs, and it can help our youth become positive members of our communities.
“Connecting or reconnecting with your cultural traditions and heritage — and developing a positive cultural identity — can support a different outlook on life. Our traditions and ceremonial ways respect and protect the earth, one another, and ourselves.”
Connecting or reconnecting with your cultural traditions and heritage — and developing a positive cultural identity — can support a different outlook on life.
CTGR hosts its MacLaren event the same week as its annual public Round Dance celebration. This gives the tribe the chance to tap as mentors some national and international Native American singers and spiritual wellness and healing elders who travel to Oregon for the Round Dance.
The visitors at the recent MacLaren program came from tribes across the western U.S. and several parts of Canada. Each stood and shared his personal story and advice — they spoke about their childhoods, their families, good and bad choices they had made, and their connections with traditional songs and their heritage.
The youth listened attentively and respectfully, and when it was their turn to talk, many thanked the men for taking the time to visit and share.
“In here it’s easy to lose contact with your roots, your family, and your traditions,” said Dakota, a youth who is a member of CTGR. “This makes me feel like I’m still a part of it, even though I’m locked up. It gives me some freedom.”
Providing hope — and showing the youth that people outside the facility care about them — is a big part of why CTGR hosts the program, Tailfeathers said.
“We tell them there’s two roads: one positive, one negative,” he said. “You have two choices. You took one road — that’s why you’re here. You get a second chance here. Capture that and go on to make a positive choice.”