Aug. 17, 2017
We have a problem. Alaska Natives are disproportionately represented in Alaska’s prisons, accounting for 37 percent of the state’s inmate population in 2014, compared to 19 percent of the state’s resident population, according to the Alaska Department of Corrections. Moreover, nearly two out of every three offenders released from Alaska correctional facilities return within three years.
In light of these troubling realities, Sealaska Heritage piloted Northwest Coast art workshops at Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC) and Gastineau Human Services (GHS) in Juneau, then launched the Haa Latseen Community Project earlier this year to reach out to tribal members who are currently incarcerated or have been recently released. Based on the core cultural value Haa Latseen–strength of body, mind, and spirit–the program is designed to connect potentially vulnerable Alaska Native tribal members to their culture, help them transition from incarceration to release, and to provide skills that will help supplement their income, paving the way for long-term change.
SHI President Rosita Worl said she became aware of the problem first-hand when she was invited to speak at the prison some years ago. Looking around the room, she was overwhelmed by the presence of so many young Native men. In creating the Haa Latseen project to address this issue, SHI built on the groundwork laid by its culturally relevant education programming in regional schools.
“What we learned through our work in the schools is that students develop a stronger sense of self-identity, motivation, and commitment to learning when they are exposed to their history and language,” Worl said. “We wanted to help build those same strengths in Alaska’s prison population by connecting Alaska Native inmates to their culture through arts and language.”
The project, which will continue in 2018, includes a parallel strand of workshops for other artists interested in Northwest Coast arts and business training. SHI is currently examining how to incorporate indigenous language classes, as well. Applications for 2018 will become available by December 2017.
The first pilot workshops at LCCC were taught by Tsimshian master artist David A. Boxley in August 2015 and Tlingit master artist Wayne Price in November 2015. The success of these workshops, and the enthusiastic response from inmates–100% said they were extremely or very satisfied–prompted SHI staff to seek funding for a full program.
Realizing that the first workshops only reached male inmates, SHI also piloted a moccasin-making class for female inmates taught by SHI staff member Carmaleeda Estrada in October 2016. Ten women completed moccasins that they were able to keep or give to family members. One participant commented after the class: “I couldn’t believe the work I’ve done, it made me feel real good about myself and know that I can do anything I put my mind to. At first I thought it wasn’t possible, but with help of Carmen she made it possible.” Another said, “They’re the best project I’ve made in my life!” Another moccasin class was provided to residents of GHS in 2017 for a mixed class of five male and four female participants.
The Haa Latseen Community Project was officially launched in February 2017 with a business management class for Native artists that was offered to both the male and female population at LCCC. Saunders McNeill of the Alaska State Council on the Arts led workshops for five female and 18 male participants. One respondent said after the class “When I get out I plan to look up and try to be involved in everything I learned.” McNeill offered one-hour, personalized follow up sessions through August.
Two mask carving workshops were also offered at LCCC, led by Ray Watkins with assistance from SHI staff member and artist Donald Gregory, in July 2017 for 15 participants. Participant feedback included: “Thank you for teaching me something that’ll highly affect my life,” and “I can only hope for more carving classes at LCCC.”
Gregory said from his perspective as an instructor, the workshops have been entirely positive. He has continued to teach carving workshops throughout the summer, focusing on halibut hook carving, small carvings such as barrettes and pendants, and small totems, to groups of about 10 inmates. Future workshops are scheduled for Aug. 29-30, Sept. 12-13, and Oct. 17-18.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to go in and share with them,” Gregory said. “I’m passing on what other people have taught me, and I’m happy to show them what I know.”
Passing on knowledge is one of the obligations the carvers themselves signed up for, and Gregory said he can already see that happening, as carvers share knowledge among the group.
Gregory said one of the things he likes about the program is that in addition to learning skills that will stay with them once they are released, the inmates are able to sell their work through the prison, with a portion of proceeds going toward payment of the inmate’s court-mandated restitution, costs, and support obligations. The Sealaska Heritage Store also offers a limited selection of art pieces made by inmates. Gregory said he recently told an inmate that one of his pieces was in the case at the SHI Store.
“You could see him grow about 5 inches taller,” Gregory said.
Studies have shown that in addition to building inmates’ practical skills, arts activities can influence motivation, morale, intellectual agility, social skills, self-reflection, and discipline, among other things. A 2014 report in the Justice Policy Journal, “The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior,” cited multiple studies that showed that “cognitive, social and personal competencies are cultivated through arts instruction and practice.” A 2013 article in Psychology Today, “Art Behind Bars,” cited a study that revealed that art-making can “decrease the number of disciplinary reports written on inmates,” and a report from the California Department of Corrections that found that recidivism decreased for those who participated in the state’s Arts in Corrections program.
Project partner Alaska State Council on the Arts emphasized in a recent newsletter that the benefits of the Haa Latseen project extend way beyond individual lives, helping all Alaskans build stronger communities.
“The time, training and relationship building embedded in this program are an investment in all Alaska individuals, families, and communities,” the ASCA wrote.
The parallel strand of workshops is being offered through October at Gajaa Hit and the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau, and includes carving practice, business classes for artists, Northwest Coast mask carving and Northwest Coast formline design. Those interested in applying for the 2018 program should contact SHI Art Director Kari Groven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Haa Latseen is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council, in partnership with Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority and Lemon Creek Correctional Center, with additional support from the Haa Aaní Carving Program, the Juneau Re-entry Coalition, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes Second Chance Program and the City and Borough of Juneau.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research and advocacy that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Southeast Regional Language Committee, and a Native Artists Committee. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.
CONTACT: Kathy Dye, email@example.com, 907.321-4636