The way out of jail for some Natives is a spiritual path, according to organizers of the Cultural Justice Spirit Camp and Healing Center.
Five public and private organizations are working together to create the spirit camp near Hoonah, a sort of wilderness halfway house with a cultural bent. They recently received a $2 million federal grant for the initial planning and set-up, and expect to be ready to open in two years.
The spirit camp will try to help Native prisoners, who make up almost 30 percent of the inmates in Alaska. It will also be open to Non-Natives.
The number of Native prisoners is high because many Natives lost their cultural knowledge, said Richard Dalton Sr., a Tlingit elder and clan leader who began Hoonah Spiritual Development in 1992. Hoonah Spiritual Development is working with Alaska Native Brotherhood Camp 2, Gastineau Human Services Corp., the City of Hoonah and Alaska Department of Corrections to set up the camp.
As with the rest of the prison population, about 80 to 90 percent of the Native inmates are imprisoned for crimes related to alcohol or drugs, substances they turn to when their traditions are forgotten, Dalton said.
He first became aware of spirit camps about 10 years ago, when he visited several in Atlanta and North Carolina.
A few years later he set up a basic camp at Game Creek, about 8 miles from Hoonah, for Native youths. After the first grants ran out, the camp subsisted on donations.
Dalton's wife and son are both substance-abuse counselors and he quickly saw the use of similar camp programs in treating addiction.
Dalton expects the new camp will combine substance-abuse counseling with traditional activities and teaching.
``My grandfathers used to teach those people to go to a spirit camp and how to wash themselves for sea otter hunting,'' Dalton said. ``They had to prepare themselves in a special way, like taking themselves into the water and into the steam house and with Tlingit medicine.''
Incorporating culture and community into rehabilitation makes it relevant, said Department of Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh. The ANB in Juneau already works with inmates at Lemon Creek on a Native arts program, teaching the inmates traditional crafts and then helping to market the finished products. Along the way they teach cultural values.
The spirit camp in Hoonah would involve similar activities, with Hoonah elders and residents coming in to teach skills. Data out of Canada, where a few cultural rehabilitation camps exist, indicate such programs work, Pugh said.
``It's a way of connecting, of allowing the community to see the progress that a person makes and for the community to be involved,'' Pugh said. ``All of that will help a person live a productive lifestyle once they're released.''
Though the money has been set aside, creating the program and building the camp will take another two years.
Sealaska is providing 5 acres of land for the camp. The site along Game Creek is purposely remote, surrounded by trees, fish, beavers, eagles and wilderness.
``The spirit camp is going to be out there at the river, where it's in the wilderness, because that means our life,'' Dalton said. ``I'm not going to try to say anything about society from downtown.''
Dalton said the camp will probably include a tribal house, steam baths and a smoke house, as well as enough beds for 25 to 40 men and women. Residents in the camp will get to share in the daily chores, from chopping wood for the steam bath and smoke house to clearing trails.
``Most of their day would probably be, if we get that in time, for sockeye, halibut, deer hunting, seal hunting,'' Dalton said. ``There are a lot of people here, like in Juneau, they don't have any idea that they have subsistence life, hunting and fishing . . .''
Inmates would qualify for the spirit camp much as they do for the halfway house now, after serving a substantial portion of the sentence and exhibiting good behavior, Pugh said.
This article first appeared in the Southeast Empire.