Recently, a federal judge ruled that South Dakota's prison system's decision to ban the use of tobacco in Native American religious ceremonies infringes on their religious freedoms. Judge Karen Schreier stated that inmates and officials should talk and together propose an appropriate injunction that will restrict tobacco use outside of religious ceremonies but protect its use within them. Tobacco use is so vital in Lakota religion that the Native American Council of Tribes states that Native American prayer is only effective if it is “embodied in tobacco and offered within a ceremonial” framework. The prison system argued that the allowance of tobacco for religious use was being exploited and the tobacco was being traded and used non-religiously, so all tobacco was banned in October of 2009. As a result, inmates involved in the Native American Council of Tribes sued, but it is only now being judged by a federal judge. Both the inmates' attorney and Judge Schreier have stated that they are confident that a resolution that is agreeable to all can be reached.
While this issue is specific only to America, it reflects both overlying trends in how the American prison (and military) systems tend to strip the rights of inmates, and how marginalized, often native peoples are treated by dominating colonial powers around the world. Last week, I wrote about how Libyan prisoners were mistreated by their American captors, showing that this trend is widespread and affects international relations as well. American prisons in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay are also notorious for infringing prisoners' religious rights, often refusing Muslim prisoners the right to pray, taunting them when they do, and torturing them by forcibly exposing them to things that are forbidden or disapproved of in Islam. In addition, colonial powers have a tendency to infringe the rights of the native population. This is readily apparent ust in the history of how white Americans have treated Native Americans to this day – stripping them of their lands and forcing them to live on reservations, exposing them to disease as a way to take their land, and treating Native American women remarkably poorly (1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime, the highest incidence of this kind of sexual assault among any ethnicity in the country). Currently, the Sioux tribe are fighting the government for the rights to their sacred land of Pe'Sla. This is echoed elsewhere throughout the globe, from how old British colonies are still exploited for their natural resources despite being independent, and how recently ancient Aboriginal art in Australia was defaced with acid. However, the fact that a federal judge has ruled in favor of the Lakota inmates shows that perhaps there is more hope now for the decent treatment of both prisoners and native populations.