Body and soul: Cultural and spiritual advisor cares for Iowa’s Native inmates

Published in Indian Country Today in September 2010.

want to give back,” said Tisha Moore, Rosebud Sioux, who had just heard she’d been hired as an addiction technician at a drug-treatment facility. Moore, who has been out of prison for 16 months, has been employed since her release, but her new position is special. Glowing with enthusiasm, she explained that it will allow her to pass on what she learned from Judy Morrison, Cherokee/Osage, Native American cultural and spiritual consultant to Iowa’s department of corrections.

Moore and Morrison at Four Directions, in Sioux City.
“I got into trouble at boarding school, Moore said. But working with Judy at Mitchellville [women’s prison] — doing sweat lodge, talking circle and beading — I cleansed myself and got back to where I was before I went away to school. I saw a better side of me.” Now, Moore said, she can help others develop a sense of self-worth and work on bettering their lives.

Moore had dropped by Four Directions Community Center, in Sioux City, during Morrison’s report to a recent meeting of the Iowa Commission on Native American Affairs. She listened in as Morrison described to ICNAA her regular meetings with Iowa’s approximately 300 Native inmates and ongoing counseling on family, relationships and other topics.

Morrison also recounted dealing with continual crises. If an inmate believes a spouse may lose custody of children, Morrison gets an ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) representative involved. Morrison may be present when a prisoner gives birth to ensure compliance with the woman’s pregnancy plan, including custody arrangements for her newborn. She notifies inmates when a family member has passed and arranges for ceremonies when needed.

She is the only official who touches Native inmates’ ceremonial items. For example, she explained, if a sweat lodge needs to be searched, she does it. “There’s nowhere in Iowa’s 10 prisons I don’t go. If someone is in lockup, I go there as well, so they know they’re not alone.”

Morrison also helps promote cancer education for Native women, including those in prison, in the form of the Pink Shawl Project. One of Iowa Cancer Consortium’s many outreach programs, the effort came into being with cooperation and funding from several groups, notably the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, in Rapid City, and the Native American Coalition of the Quad Cities, Iowa, said Sara Comstock, assistant director of ICC. Events take place both at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women, in Mitchellville, and in Native communities statewide.

At sessions, women design and sew shawls in addition to receiving culturally appropriate cancer education and screenings, said Morrison. The project, like each participant, is wrapped in a powerful symbol of women’s importance in Native life. “Women are the backbone of our Native communities. Wrapping a shawl around yourself is wrapping the community around your shoulders.”

Making the garments brings women together, according to Sandy Edwards, Omaha, who made her first shawl while at Mitchellville and is now, after release, setting about regaining custody of her children. Said Morrison: “Prison is geared to separate people, but working together on the shawls makes women feel like sisters. Some were brought up with traditional ways. Others are learning what it means to be an Indian woman, to be proud of who they are and to depend on each other. While sewing, the inmates forget they’re in prison. They tell me they feel free.”

The cancer-education program for incarcerated Native women has grown to encompass other participants. Going forward, said Morrison, Cherokee Nation elder and ICNAA commissioner Tom Cornwell will offer colon-cancer education to Native men in prison, and non-Native female inmates will also receive mammograms and follow-up care. “With Sara Comstock’s hard work, we got a free screening for every woman who wanted one this year and every year from now on, which means better health care for all women while saving the state a truckload of money.” 

Moore and Edwards are among Morrison’s many success stories. Morrison spoke of the need for support while people are incarcerated and after release. “The question is: How do we want our people to come home from prison? I want them to be whole when they return.”

How does Morrison cope with her 24/7 job, often dealing with wrenching life crises? Her answer was immediate and sure. “My spirituality renews me.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photo by Stephanie Woodard.

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