WHITE EARTH INDIAN RESERVATION, Minn. (AP) — Eight men huddle around a drum as a haze of burnt sage hangs in the air. The drummers, all of whom have done time in prison, sing a song that honors the pipe and tobacco used in traditional American Indian ceremonies.

The purification ritual was part of the Red Road Home program, which aims to help former inmates from the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations stay out of prison.

It aims to slow the revolving door by teaching them American Indian cultural and spiritual practices, such as sweat lodge ceremonies and talking circles. Minnesota Public Radio reported Tuesday there are early signs of success, but the program may soon run out of funding.

The Bemidji-based Red Road Home has received $300,000 over the last three years from the Department of Corrections, but the money runs out in July. Given the state’s $5 billion deficit, the department anticipates budget cuts, like every state agency. The depth of the cuts hasn’t been decided, but corrections officials say it’s clear that programs like Red Road Home will be on the table for elimination.

While American Indians make up less than 2 percent of Minnesota’s total population, they account for more than 8 percent of adult offenders in the state’s prison system. They’re also more likely to reoffend and get sent back to prison.

About half of the 100 or so ex-offenders who return to the three Ojibwe reservations served by the program each year become active in it.

Robert Thompson, 38, has been part of the group since he got out of prison last fall. He has served time for domestic assault, driving under the influence and dealing methamphetamine.

“My whole family is like alcoholics and stuff, but also was dealing drugs,” Thompson said. “That’s how I grew up and that’s what I knew.”

Thompson, who is now attending White Earth Community College, said he is committed to sobriety and to learning his language and culture.

“This is who I am today. If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t think I’d be there,” he said. “Honestly, to tell you, I’d probably be back in prison.”

The program is less than three years old and has worked with more than 140 clients. Those who stick with it head back to prison about a third less often than those who quit, said Terry Kemper, outreach coordinator for Red Road Home.

Indians who return home from prison face huge challenges, said Kemper, who was born in prison and grew up in foster homes. He served 12 years for killing his girlfriend. After his release in 2008, he dedicated himself to helping other former prisoners.

“One of the things that you hear from ex-felons is that … it’s easier to go back to prison than to deal with these things we face out here,” Kemper said. “Our communities right now in Indian Country are really struggling.”

Those struggles include high rates of alcoholism, unemployment and suicide.

The corrections department has been criticized by some in the Indian community for not welcoming traditional teachings and ceremonies inside prison walls. Some studies show the traditional approach is more effective with Indians than other models.

A former head of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, Joe Day, said Indians are allowed to practice their culture to some degree in prison, but prison personnel are not well trained on what Indians consider sacred. Guards get only limited information about feathers, drums songs and tobacco use, said Day, who has worked with the department to develop ways to help Indians re-enter society.

“Their not understanding or accepting our traditional values is probably the key aspect of this,” said Day, a member of the Leech Lake Band. “But how do you change a whole organization to do that, because there is so much misperception about who we are?”

According to David Crist, deputy commissioner of the agency’s facilities division, one obstacle to running traditional programs for Indians is that there is a shortage of credible traditional leaders willing to come into the prisons and give guidance to offenders.

“In the absence of that, offenders offer their own interpretation of culture and traditions that often they don’t really understand themselves,” Crist said. “And it’s when that happens that I think we find some tension between the legitimate security needs of a facility and the desires of offenders to practice their traditions.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (45)
  1. Janice says:

    Why can’t the Indian casino profits support this program into the future without state dollars?

    1. Jeremy Pettit says:

      Not all Indian tribes own the casinos. Just like not all corporations are owned by the same white people.

      1. Mitchell says:

        You may be correct, but all three reservations noted in this article have Casinos. So I kind of agree with Janice… why can’t the casinos use their profits to help the people of their communities?

      2. Mitchell says:

        I forgot to add that all of the casinos in those three reservations are owned by their respective tribes (or whatever its called).

    2. Petra says:

      Just becasue we have casinos does not mean we are seeing money or getting paid. I think this is a good program and should stay open. Walk a mile in our moccasins and you will see were we have come from and what we have to deal with on a daily basis. A lot of Natives do not trust ‘white’ people becasue they have been taught that you are not to trust them. I’ve lived in Red Lake for almost 11 years now and am seeing where my people are getting treated unfair. I’ve read some the comments and got really offended but have considered the source and realized that a lot of people are closed minded. Rememeber we didnt land of Christopher Columbus, Christopher Columbus landed on us

  2. me says:

    Indians? Are the people from Mumbai at greater risk of commiting crimes?

    1. Bob Smee says:

      No, dude, Cleveland. They are talking about the Cleveland Indians. They probably should have put this in the Sports section so people wouldn’t get confused.

      1. me says:

        Okay, that makes more sense considering we just swept them. I thought we were being invaded by folks from Calcutta – don’t know the new speling. Kolcotta?

        But you know what would be great, if the US did something more for our native Americans.

  3. JM says:

    Indians do not pay taxes, but we still use our tax dollars to help them out. Just sick.

    1. Samy says:

      wow, Jm, you’re sick for being such a bigot, lol, how do you know that Natives don’t pay taxes? Gah, it’s effing idiots like you who keep the sterotypes alive, when quite frankly, you are talking out of you a ss, sir. Do you have “proof” of that fact or is something that you think sounds right so it must be true??

  4. tim says:

    hahahahaha “Indians” what year is this

  5. schmoe joe says:

    It’s NATIVE AMERICANS, you idiots at AP..

  6. denver says:

    Indians don’t pay taxes? Not completely correct. Native Americans living and working on a Reservation don’t pay state tax. Natives working off of a reservation pay state tax. They all still pay Federal tax..

    1. Amanda says:

      That is correct

    2. Todd W. Olson says:

      Facts don’t matter. What matters is that angry white people need to vent their spleens. That’s why we’re all here, right?

  7. Amanda says:

    What is it with people lately and that “needing to belong to your own tribe” kind of attitude, if you are Black, only help blacks, if you are white, only help out your own.. now if you are Native, take care of your own deadbeats… SERIOUSLY

    1. me says:

      Yeah, it’s not like our Attorney General is only interested in, “His people”….oh wait…

  8. Steveo says:

    mysticmary maybe you should think before you speak. Indians pay taxes to fund public welfare rolls too! unless you live and work on the rez,not all natives live on the rez so we pay like everyone else and I believe we are all americans here deadbeats are deadbeats no matter what race you are.

  9. Just a thought says:

    Maybe if it was a program for ALL people would feel better about it, since it is just aiming towards Natives some people probably feel why it is our money when some Natives are getting thousands of dollars every month off the casino maybe they SHOULD make a fund to help their homies who are living a life of crime. Ya Know!

  10. Sam says:

    Staying out of prison? How about not commiting crimes? That has worked well for me and many others.

  11. lib says:

    Learning to beat a drum and somke tobacco in a pipe? For goodness sake I’d get drunk too if that was my alternative. Just like the Eskimos and the black community our welfare system has created feelings of hopelessness. All people need job opportunities, not a welfare check.

  12. Blondie Luv says:

    “Why can’t they pay themselves from their casino profits?”

    No amount of such profits can offset the raping, pillaging, and annihilation the whites committed against the natives. Think deeper. Use your head for a change. It will be centuries before whites achieve redemption for their unspeakable crimes against the NATIVE Americans. This is more than about finances, politics, and logistics.

    1. me says:

      Blah blah blah….

    2. me says:

      And it’ll be centuries before whites achieve redemption for their unspeakable crimes against bl@cks. It’ll be centuries before Egyptians achieve redemption for their unspeakable crime of enslaving the Jews in the Old Testament and it’ll be centuries before Gargamel achieves redemption for his unspeakable crimes against the Smurfs… Seriously, get a new rebuttal.

    3. Bubba says:

      Pocahontas, Ladies and Gentlemen :: clap clap clap ::

    4. captainobvious says:

      I want 0 redemption, I could care less about your tough times, life is a challenge make something of it, mark my words someday the state will be covered in casinos state owned and indian owned, so you indians rofl, better put some money aside because u wont always be able to count on a freeride..

  13. Phil Mcrackin says:

    This can’t be true my Native American friends pay taxes and work. After reading some of these reply’s I must be imagining all of this.

  14. Common Cents says:

    Shame on you. No work ethic? How do you know? Have you personally taken a tally of every native American there is? How dare those toddlers not have jobs! And have you seen some reservation housing? I wouldn’t allow my dogs to live in some homes. They are very poor and believe me, Boeing is not exactly beating down the doors to build manufacturing plants nearby so Natives can have some truly gainful employment.

    1. Petra says:

      Thank you Common Cents. It’s so sad that in this day n age we still have to deal with iggnorance.

      1. me says:

        It’s ignorance….not iggnorance. Run a spell check before your insult someone…

        1. Petra says:

          Before you start trying to throw out these ‘facts’ you need to do a little more research.

        2. me, not you says:

          Don’t be so critical of a typo.

  15. Petra says:

    OMG reading some of these comments make me see how ignorance will never die. I live in REd Lake and yes we do have casinos but will not see anything from our casinos for years to come. We do pay federal taxes and we do have the option while living on the reservation to pay state tax but they take so much out for federal whats the point. I find it very offensvie that people think we have no work ethic. FYI we are able to run our own governments. Housing is not the greatest on the rez I know this first hand. I think before anyone passes judgement on Natives you need to walk a mile in our moccasins and then you will know where we are coming from.

  16. danceswithwolves says:

    Wow. the bigotry and hate is oppressive. The Natives are given things because we took things. African Americans are given things because we took things. If we could go back 300 or 400 years and rethink how we stole this land from the natives and Mexicans, how we stole work and lives from the Africans, it would be a different world. But Someone MUST recompense these people for what we took and made a very prosperous country – ON THEIR BACKS. Why do you begrudge them? Why should THEY be punished? Why should THEY be held down? If there were justice, we “americans” would all be hanging from a noose.

    1. Petra says:

      Right on. I wish there were more people who see it the way you do. I believe if everyone would’ve paid attention in history class or even looked into some of the history they would understand

      1. me, not you says:

        Perhaps, one day, some of these people will get pulled over while on a reservation and then they’ll see first hand how the tribes work.

        If I ever invent a machine that fixes stupid, I’ll be rich because I’ll never run out of clients.

        1. successNOT says:

          Well if your an indian you get a ride home, i think you know that, so your tribe encourages drunk driving, your quite an asset to our society lol

          1. me, not you says:

            I don’t know to whom you’re talking to but I’m Irish. You know, the sober one. And please note, when you’re contracting “you are,” the correct spelling is you’re, not your.

            1. successNOT says:

              Pointing out grammatical errors, guess what you can’t start a sentence with the word And, so get a life, I could easily outspell and out think you anyday, people type comments fast, not usually looking for errors

          2. Petra says:

            I dont know where you are getting your information from but if you are found driving drunk you get the same treatment as anyone else even if you are on the reservation. The correct name for us is Native American. Indians are from India.

    2. markH says:

      Suggesting that one race owes another for a past injustice in which no living person is had a part is truly insane. We can all agree that there were gross injustices that occurred in our nation’s history, and that certain groups/races suffered injustice and oppression at the hands of the wicked and unscrupulous and sadistic. Now it is suggested that these inequities can be remedied by penalizing others who just happen to have the same skin tone as the alleged offenders. You are, in effect, attempting to correct one injustice with another by virtue of racial affiliation. This is, as they say, “tackling the man and not the ball.” Peace.

  17. captainobvious says:

    Indians? honestly i do not know 1 indian, and havnt been to a state casino in 4 years, therefore this species is irrelevant to me. Id rather lose $200 on pulltabs at least you see winners being hit sometimes.

  18. HooDatIS? says:


  19. SW says:

    How petty to correct some simple English mistakes – WHO CARES – the point was made! I’m sure this makes you higher than everyone!

    I pay plenty of taxes to support all the WHITE people living on assistance and I am sick of it – by the way I am WHITE too!

    There are plenty of ignorant white people out there – quit picking on the Native Americans who WERE HERE FIRST!

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