A strong focus on culturally-relevant First Nations programming at a British Columbia women’s jail has been transformational for Indigenous inmates, an elder and spiritual advisor told the Council of Yukon First Nations’ justice conference April 5.
Darla Pratt is a First Nations elder and spiritual advisor who works at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women (FVI) in Abbotsford, B.C., and was one of several speakers at CYFN’s “Exploring Justice: Our Way” conference. The programming available at FVI — daily access to on-site elders, cultural ceremonies like sweats and smudges and, for inmates who are doing well, chances to be taken out on the land — have been invaluable for First Nations inmates when it comes to rehabilitation and healing, Pratt explained.
“Women benefit from having a team, the security staff, especially, who are open and understand that the elders play an important role in the institution, so fostering a culture that is inclusive of the women’s needs, I can’t say enough about it,” she said.
In her role as an elder and spiritual advisor, Pratt said she works with women housed at all security levels, with those in maximum security receiving constant outreach while those in minimum security are expected to reach out to her.
“(I help) bring them to an understanding that to be an Indigenous woman does not mean that you are without. It actually means that you have a rich and beautiful, historical culture and knowledge that you can tap into,” Pratt said.
“I can’t say to you how many times I have had a woman come into a room and say, ‘I don’t know what this is, I don’t want to be here!’ And she’s rough, rough, tough and really ready jut to rock the room, and they hear that drum — bang. And they hear the singing. And the next thing you know, they’re weeping and they don’t know why. They don’t know why. And so we start to take them back to the teachings of their grandmothers.”
Reconnecting with their cultural heritage can be transformational for inmates, Pratt said, grounding them in traditional values and teachings while also offering them a form of therapy, escape and release.
“The women go into the ceremonies and they don’t feel like they’re in prison anymore,” she said.
One of the biggest ceremonies happened on March 16, Pratt said, when the entire FVI was smudged. The initiative was led by the women, who had said building had negative energy that it needed to be gotten rid of, and they prepared all the medicines as well as the feast that followed. Several elders arrived the day of to lead the smudge.
“And every door in the institute was opened, every room was smudged,” Pratt said.
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