Sunday, August 29 - Dancing in the Shadow of Razor Wire
The events culminating in Operation Big Scoop stood in sharp contrast
to those I described in the correctional journey along the Red Road one
week before. In the weekend after Operation Big Scoop, there was another
event at Matsqui which provided a unique opportunity to reflect on the
conflicting objectives and ideals permeating contemporary imprisonment.
Well before Operation Big Scoop was conceived, the Native Brotherhood
had been given approval to hold a powwow on Sunday, August 29. Because
Operation Big Scoop was seen as successful, with no violence or other
resistance from the general population, the warden determined that the
powwow should go ahead as planned. Prior to his segregation, Darryl Ghostkeeper,
as President of the Brotherhood, had asked that I come as one of the guests.
The powwow was held in the back field of the prison and was attended
by 150 guests and 70 prisoners, mostly members of the Brotherhood but
also some non-Aboriginal prisoners. Powwows are held all over western
Canada during the summer months, with Aboriginal communities hosting their
relatives and friends from other places. Like other powwows, the Matsqui
powwow was a blend of formal presentations, informal gatherings with elders,
dancing and drumming, the sharing of private time with family and loved
ones, and a splendid barbecued meal of salmon, deer, buffalo, hamburgers,
and hot dogs.
An important part of any powwow is the giving away of gifts. The Matsqui
powwow was no different; included in the gift receivers were Ken Poirier
and Jill Hummerstone. I was honoured to be given a drum made by Cory Bitternose.
He told me it was one of the first drums he had made, and he wanted to
share it with me because on the day of his temporary absence pass I had
treated him with respect, as a human being and not as a prisoner.
A group of Brothers formed a drumming circle, and throughout the afternoon
their drumming and singing provided the accompaniment for the festivities.
The four men who had been on the pass to gather lava rock were part of
this drumming circle. The relationship between their participation in
the powwow and their work outside the prison was symbolically represented
in the act of giving to all the guests, in the shadow of Mount Baker,
the bundles of sagebrush they had gathered in the shadow of the mountains
outside Lillooet. When the sagebrush was being harvested, the Brothers
had said prayers thanking Mother Earth for giving up her bountiful gifts.
Today, the Brothers passed on those gifts to be used by their families
and friends in ceremonies that would link them in a circle with the Brothers
At one point Dennis Bigsky and Cory Bitternose danced around the drumming
circle. Dennis, an accomplished dancer, had borrowed a costume from one
of the members of the dance group that had come in from the community.
Cory did not have a costume, so he danced in his sweats, also displaying
the joy and spirit of a dancer. Although they were physically dancing
within a hundred feet of a high barbed wire fence and a gun tower, it
seemed to me that these Brothers had spiritually escaped the confines
of prison and renewed their connection with an inheritance that had never
needed places of confinement.
My optimism at seeing Aboriginal prisoners throw off the mantle of imprisonment
was tempered by my scepticism regarding correctional authority. One of
the first people I saw at the powwow was Rick Ambrose, who had been on
the original list of prisoners to be segregated in Operation Big Scoop.
He had escaped this fate as a result of discussions among the unit managers,
in which Irv Hammond had said he was confident there was no negative file
information on Mr. Ambrose. Given that the same could be said for other
prisoners who were scooped, Mr. Ambrose's exclusion from the list was
almost happenstance. The afternoon of the powwow, I watched him hold his
three-month-old daughter and embrace his wife with a tenderness and serenity
that few staff members had likely observed during his lengthy imprisonment.
That afternoon in many ways encapsulated the competing themes of change
and continuity in the nature of imprisonment. There clearly had been enormous
changes. Ten years earlier, when the first hunger strikes were carried
out by the Brotherhood at Kent Institution for the right to exercise Aboriginal
spirituality, it would have been difficult to imagine holding a powwow
inside a federal prison. Yet now that this had become a reality, the President
of the Native Brotherhood, instead of welcoming participants to the celebration,
found himself in a segregation cell, placed there through a process that
he rightly perceived as the arbitrary exercise of authority -- no different
in kind from the arbitrary exercises of power that had been part of correctional
practice ten years before.
The commitment and sensitivity displayed by Jill Hummerstone and Ken
Poirier, the staff supervisors of the powwow, were by any standards a
model of professionalism tempered with cross-cultural understanding, a
combination that was seen rarely a decade before. Yet that also had its
negative counterpoint. During the course of the afternoon, I heard from
several people that their visitors had been given a hard time at the front
gate by some of the staff, who seemed to feel it was a mistake to allow
the powwow to proceed in the wake of the previous week's events. One visitor
with two children, a baby in arms and a toddler in a stroller, had been
told she could not bring the stroller into the prison, but would have
to carry the children the 400 yards or so to where the powwow was taking
place. When Ken Poirier heard about this, he not only walked to the front
gate to approve the entry of the stroller but personally pushed it and
the child back to the gathering.
In the bigger picture, however, the mean-spirited interpretation of
rules by a few staff could not change the fact that the Matsqui powwow
provided a much-needed space in which prisoners, their families, and members
of their communities could celebrate their common humanity.
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