Morning Star Gali: We Are Not Invisible — Native Justice Now
There’s a lot in the news today about how California is beginning to take long-overdue steps to address the inhumanity and the unfairness of our criminal justice system. But something’s still missing in the conversation about recent proposals and reforms — the disproportionate and poisonous impact of current criminal justice policies and procedures on indigenous peoples and our communities.
My father served seven years in San Quentin State Prison. After he was released in 1976, he dedicated his life to making sure incarcerated Native Americans were able to find healing and wellness through traditional ceremonies and practices. Ultimately, the California Department of Corrections hired him on as a spiritual advisor for Native prisoners. On weekends as a child, I’d go out gathering willow branches with him so he could build the structures for the sweat lodge ceremonies he organized for inmates. I remember my father spending hours in the law library researching legal remedies to the injustices facing our communities. I have relatives — immediate family members who are currently incarcerated and don’t have access to fresh produce, healthy foods or clean drinking water. This is a barrier for all people, but especially in California, as our tribal members are incarcerated on our own tribal lands, a continuation of policies and laws enacted by the first governor of California to exterminate California’s tribal peoples.
After I started attending college, I became a volunteer in a women’s federal prison in Dublin, California. The stories of the Native prisoners I met were harrowing. Many had been transported to the prison from faraway places like Alaska, Arizona or Montana to make it especially hard on their families. There were young girls sentenced as adults, and they were serving alongside grandmothers and mothers. Some had left infant children at home and wondered how they could survive. And most were caught up in the system for nonviolent crimes — being in the car with a husband when he was charged with drug possession, or forging a check in a moment of desperation and getting years in jail as a result. I remember ending my prison visits heartbroken.
Imagine not being allowed to pray in the way that you were raised to, to not have access to the foods that you are used to eating, to not be able to visit places that bring you peace in your everyday life. As indigenous peoples, every day is a struggle to be seen for who we are, not the stereotypical image that Hollywood tells us what a Native person is supposed to look like. I have learned that no one should be invisible and that we all have basic and fundamental rights — the right to equal treatment by the government; the right to a fair trial; the right to practice our religious and cultural traditions, grow our own foods and take part in our daily practices without our rights infringed upon. None of this should be controversial or in question.
And yet, more than four decades after my father first set on a path to providing desperately needed support and services to Native people caught up in the criminal justice system, injustice and inequality — and invisibility — are still the rule for our communities.
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics did not keep data on Native Americans in prison until 2006. As recently as 2013, the State of California still listed indigenous people as “other” in a summary of state offenders’ racial and ethnic identities. Yet, when we are counted, the numbers tell an undeniable story of injustice. For example, when compared to our numbers in the overall population, Native Americans are vastly overrepresented in prisons and jails in California and throughout the nation. Data show that the indigenous inmate population in California jumped from 145 per 100,000 Native Americans in 1980 to 767 per 100,000 in 2000. In addition, the number of Native people in federal detention increased by a stunning 27 percent between 2010 and 2015.
The unequal treatment of indigenous people in the criminal justice system is the unsettling legacy of racist and genocidal policies dating back centuries. At the time of the Gold Rush in California in the 1800s, we had bounties placed on our heads by the government, and state militias regularly raided our communities and killed thousands of men, women and children. Today, this legacy continues as Native Americans are killed by police at a higher rate than members of any other racial or ethnic group. Except for African Americans, Native American young people also are more likely to be disciplined or suspended from school, creating the “reservation to prison” pipeline that entraps thousands of our youth every year.
In response to these crises, I am part of a burgeoning movement called Native Justice Now. Across California and throughout the nation, we are working to provide direct services and support to incarcerated people so they can stay healthy and connected to their traditions and their communities while they are behind bars. We are organizing and advocating for reforms in policing and criminal justice policies and procedures so we can reduce the trauma and violence perpetrated on our communities by today’s unjust system. We are providing educational opportunities to help indigenous people learn their rights. And, we are bringing cultural, spiritual and science-based solutions to the work of reducing and treating substance abuse and addiction, preventing violence, reducing recidivism, and addressing other community needs.
It’s time once and for all to stop marginalizing and harming indigenous people and our communities. It’s time to recognize that we are not invisible, and that we have a right to equal treatment under the law. My father dedicated his life to these principles, and today I am following his lead. It is time for renewal and justice for indigenous people.
Morning Star Gali is a member of the Ajumawi band of Pit River located in Northeastern California. She is a Rosenberg Foundation Leading Edge Fellow focusing on the disproportionate impact of the criminal and juvenile justice systems on Native Americans.