Native American inmates challenging tobacco ban

By Dirk Lammers
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) April 2012

A Lakota traditional healer said that tobacco is an integral part of Native American religious ceremonies and denying its use is akin to taking away the Bible from a Christian.

Richard Moves Camp, testifying during a federal trial challenging a South Dakota prison policy banning its use in such ceremonies, said tobacco has been a central part of prayer for thousands of years. It’s traditionally mixed with other botanicals in pipes and smoked to bring peace and harmony and connected to cloth in prayer ties that are burned in fires as a symbol of offering, he said.

Inmates Blaine Brings Plenty and Clayton Creek, members of prison-based Native American Council of Tribes, filed the suit in December 2009 against prison warden Doug Weber, corrections secretary Dennis Kaemingk and attorney general Marty Jackley.

James Moore, the officials’ attorney, said ceremonial tobacco inside the state penitentiary was becoming increasingly abused and inmates had been caught separating it from their pipe mixtures and prayer ties. Moore said the state policy allows other botanicals such as red willow bark to be burned, and prison officials stopped short of banning the use of pipes.

“That hasn’t been done,” Moore said. “All that is limited is what can be smoked in it.”

The state prison system went tobacco-free in 2000 but made an exception for tobacco used in Native American ceremonies. But in an October 2009 letter eliminating that exemption, Weber said tobacco was being sold or bartered to other inmates.

“Sometimes, the prison gangs are pressuring the inmates to sell their tobacco instead of using it for spiritual reasons,” Weber wrote.

Other states, including Nevada and New Mexico, have prison smoking bans but allow Native Americans to use tobacco during religious ceremonies.

Moore said that South Dakota’s policy change followed more than 10 years of conversations with tribal elders and traditional healers, some of whom perform pipe ceremonies without tobacco.

He said there was no rush to judgment, and South Dakota’s corrections department has fairly liberal policies regarding Native American religious practices that support sweat lodges, pipe ceremonies, drum music, prayer ties and powwows.

“This is something that’s ingrained into the culture of the institution,” Moore said.

Brings Plenty and Moore in their suit said the policy change violates their U.S. Constitutional rights ensuring that no prisoner be penalized or discriminated against solely on their religious beliefs or practices.

Their attorney Pamela Bollweg, said prison officials have to show there’s a compelling interest in limiting access, and even if there is a compelling interest they have to use the least restrictive alternative.

Creek, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member who’s been imprisoned since 1990, said he takes his role as a pipe carrier very seriously. It involves carrying the burdens of the world on one’s shoulders and clearing oneself of any negative thoughts to respect the higher power.

He said tobacco is sometimes mixed with other botanicals in Native American ceremonies, but it is always part of the tradition.