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Native Americans in Prison are Denied Religious Freedom.



OMAHA, Neb. — The state of Nebraska reneged on a 2005 agreement to accommodate the religious and cultural needs of Native American inmates, an inmate claims in a contempt motion filed this week in federal court.

Nebraska prison officials agreed in a 2005 settlement to allow Native American inmates to have two powwows a year and give them time for religious education and worship ceremonies, as well as use of traditional, ceremonial foods such as fry bread, buffalo, deer, elk, corn and “berry dish” in their ceremonies. The inmates agreed not to use tobacco in their ceremonies after officials noted it is banned in the prison system. Prison officials allowed them to use chinshasha, made from the bark of red willow trees, as a substitute.

The motion filed Monday by inmate Michael Joseph Sims on behalf of about 180 Native American inmates claims state prison leaders have not allowed those ceremonial foods since the agreement was signed in 2005. The motion says Native American inmates also have been denied access to eagle feathers for certain ceremonies, and that prison officials have repeatedly changed policies, provisions, access, spiritual educational classes and schedules without agreement from Native American inmates, as required by the agreement.

Prison officials also removed ceremonial stones from a sweat lodge at the prison, the motion says, adding that when a Native American faith practitioner objected, a prison official responded, “I don’t care about that; I’m taking those rocks.”

Sims, who is serving a life sentence at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln for first-degree murder, asks a federal judge to “find that there has been a misrepresentation or fraud by the defendants” regarding the settlement. He asks the court to allow him to proceed with a class-action lawsuit against the state prison system. He also seeks to reinstate use of tobacco in certain ceremonies, saying prison officials allow tobacco in certain areas at the Community Correctional Centers in Lincoln and Omaha.

U.S. District Court Judge Warren K. Urbom, who signed the settlement, has given prison officials until Sept. 12 to respond to the motion.

Sims also asked that the court appoint an attorney to represent Native American prisoners in the matter. No ruling has yet been made on that request.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith declined to comment on the motion Wednesday. She also declined to answer questions about whether Native American inmates are given ceremonial foods and eagle feathers for religious rites or whether prison employees removed ceremonial stones from the prison-based sweat lodge.

Prison officials also rejected a request Wednesday by The Associated Press to speak to Sims by phone about the motion.

The tug-of-war between prison officials and Native American inmates dates back decades. In 1974, a federal consent decree also signed by Urbom required prison officials to allow Native American inmates to conduct religious ceremonies and have access to medicine men and ceremonial tobacco, among other things. The 2005 agreement replaced that decree.



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