“Language is culture and culture is behavior. If you change the language you change the behavior.”
These are teachings from late Blackfeet language preservation advocate Darrell Kipp, which Blackfeet Seattle City Councilwoman Debora Juarez now passes on.
The State of Washington just made a change to its language—regarding a single word in state statute—that will reform institutional culture and behavior throughout our state corrections system.
On April 23, 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed HB 1485—a bill sponsored by Alaska Native Representative Debra Lekanoff—into Washington State law. The bill amends a handful of statutes by replacing the Christian word “chaplain” with “religious coordinator,” as applicable to the state’s Departments of Corrections (DOC); Social and Health Services (DSHS); and Children, Youth and Family Services (DCYFS).
Oxford defines “chaplain” as “a priest or other Christian minister who is responsible for the religious needs of people in a prison, hospital, or in the armed forces.” But for inmates of Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Indigenous faith, chaplaincy is not a religious norm that fits neatly or at all with their faith practices.
“Religious coordinator,” on the other hand, is a term that accommodates all faith groups, as illustrated by the now amended RCW 72.01.210:
Although this language change might be cynically viewed as simply more political correctness, it is not—it is reformational.
The language change will help diversify state agencies like the DOC, which, as of early 2019, employed 14 chaplains statewide—none were ethnic minority and only one was female. As a Jewish faith leader testified before the State Legislature, members of the Jewish faith do not honor chaplaincy as a faith institution, and could not bring themselves to even apply for a state chaplain position.
Non-Western faith practitioners might now think of becoming a state religious coordinator and helping our incarcerated state and tribal citizens seek and obtain spiritual rehabilitation.
More importantly, the language will, in practice, put non-Western faith practices—like Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Indigenous spirituality—on an equal footing with Christianity.
Until now there have been too any occasions when traditional Indigenous spiritual ways have been subjugated to Christian faith practices; when our ways have been consciously or subconsciously viewed and treated by state officers as different, foreign, or even worse.
Recall, for example, in 2010, when a Christian DOC “religious programs manager outlawed tribal sacred medicines, including tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and lavender…barred fry bread and salmon, preventing the prisoners from traditionally breaking four-day fasts during Change of Seasons rituals…scaled back Sunday sweat-lodge ceremonies [and] altered what an inmate could store in his sacred items shoebox, causing feather fans and beadwork to be disrespected by corrections officers” (Seattle Times).
By deemphasizing Christianity in three state agencies—including DSHS and DCYFS, which supervise our youth in custody—all other faith practices will elevate to equal status. This shift will empower inmates of non-Western faith; they will no longer feel spiritually “lesser than.”
In particular, Indigenous inmates will be more empowered to seek out opportunities to smudge, sweat, sing, drum, and participate in other spiritually rehabilitative traditional practices.
More broadly, by doing away with the word “chaplain,” Indigenous peoples both in and out of state Iron Houses will help reverse the effects of what Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s calls “spiritual subjugation,” which has occurred in great part through “the conscious elevation of the language of the coloniser.” (Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (1986)).
Although the term “religious coordinator” does not derive from our language either, we can and will consciously elevate Indigenous spiritual ways by affixing our own cultural power to the new term.
Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda is the managing lawyer at Galanda Broadman. He belongs to the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Gabe can be reached at 206.300.7801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.