North Carolina Department of Correction News - July 1999

Chaplain serves as coordinator of Native American spirituality

Medicine bags, smudging, pipe ceremonies and sweat lodges – understanding Native American Indian religion can be a real challenge for those outside of the Native American community. Yet, the Division of Prisons has a responsibility to provide spiritual and ministerial services to all inmates incarcerated in our prisons, including Native American inmates.

With more than 550 different tribes of Native Americans in existence today - all with their own unique religious practices, coming up with one set of approved guidelines for the practice of Native American Indian religion within the context of the prison system has proven to be a difficult task. Needing some assistance establishing such a set of guidelines, the Division of Prisons turned to Ray Littleturtle for help.

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A member of the Lumbee and Creek tribes, Littleturtle has served as an advisor for the Division of Prison’s religious services for the past 13 years, offering insight into Native American spirituality. However, as the Indian inmate population continues to grow – there are now around 650 Native American Indian inmates in our prisons – it became clear that the Division needed more than just an advisor to handle the practice of Native American religion within the prison system. In January, Littleturtle joined the Division's religious services staff as a contract chaplain in charge of Native American religion.

"In my new role, I’m serving as the coordinator of Native American spirituality for all the prisons," he said. "Native American religion is unique in that it brings with it a certain symbolism not as prevalent in other religions like medicine bags, braids, headbands and other things that identify one as a Native American. My wish is to educate prisoners on how to properly avail the religion and educate the staff, so they can have an appreciation and understanding of why the Indian inmates do the things they do while practicing their spirituality."

In an effort to promote understanding of the Native American Indian religion, Littleturtle has narrated a video on Native American faith practices and developed "A Guide to Understanding Native American Religion." In the booklet, he explains, in detail, the meanings behind the various practices, methods and sacred items used by Indians practicing their faith.

For example, sage, tobacco, cedar and sweetgrass are considered sacred by Native Americans. These four sacred plants are used for purification, healing and as a medium for prayer. A bundle of the four sacred herbs is used for smudging, a process in which the herbs are lit until a smoke is released. The individual then cleanses himself with the smudge by allowing the smoke to pass over his head, body and into the heart.

Another ceremony, the pipe ceremony, is used as means through which Native Americans send their prayers to the Creator. The individual begins his inward prayer while smoking the pipe, and the release of the smoke carries the prayer to the Creator. Other items such as medicine bags contain herbs, dirt, stones, hair and other various natural items, representing sacred memories and reminders.

Another common practice used in Native American religion is the sweat lodge. Sweat lodges are not currently allowed within the prison system for security reasons but are used to unify the body, heart, soul and mind. During a sweat, individuals enter an enclosed area that contains a rock pit to produce heat and steam. The individuals sing and pray as the steam creates an atmosphere that opens the body to cleanse it of impurities through the skin, the heart by prayer, the soul by spiritual communication and the mind by the unification of the whole person.

It is Littleturtle’s job as chaplain to identify the various faith practices used by the different tribes and pull out common elements that can be used within the confines of a prison.

"I’m trying to develop a comprehensive directory of services for Native American inmates who want to practice their faith," he said. "With more than 550 different tribes, each with their own ceremonies and practices, it leaves me with the problem of coming up with a middle-of-the-road approach, so we don’t have inmates trying to do 550 different things. I’m trying to pull out the common elements and come up with one set of approved guidelines for the practice of Native American spirituality within the entire prison system."

Littleturtle’s office is based out of Robeson Correctional Center, but he travels to the various prisons across the state. Anyone needing Littleturtle’s assistance can reach him at Robeson at 910-618-5535 or through the Division’s religious services office at 919-733-3226.

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