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Charmaine White Face in her home in Rapid City, South Dakota. Photo by Richie Richards / Native Sun News Today
Fighting for Religious Freedom…again
Friday, May 21, 2021

Only forty-three (43) years ago, in 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) was passed in the United States Congress. That’s not that long ago.

Many of us were adults who remember this. The fact that such a Bill had to be written in the first place, and then ultimately passed was astonishing because it exposed the hypocrisy of the United States. The establishment of the United States and the U.S. Constitution were based on Religious Freedom, as long as it was Christianity. That is not Freedom.

So in 1978, after more than 100 years of religious persecution in the middle of North America, AIFRA was passed. Now, American Indians could pray and practice our spiritual beliefs openly. This author was an outlaw prior to 1978, practicing our old spirituality (life philosophy) for years and teaching my children…in secret.

South Dakota Department of Corrections: South Dakota State Penitentiary Chapel

In our language for the Tituwan people, the Lakota language, there is not even a word for “religion.” Our spirituality is a way of life. It does not separate the physical from the spiritual. So denying our spiritual practices for more than 100 years has messed up generations of American Indian people.

For the past fourteen (14) months, one of the ceremonies specifically for men, the Inipi (sweat lodge), is being denied to American Indian men at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. They are allowed to go to one Pipe ceremony a week, but not allowed our oldest ceremony, the Inipi, which they desperately need in there.

The Inipi provides a time for them to release their anger and stress, and is a time for them to pray and grieve. Although the prisoners have asked for months to be allowed to do this ceremony, they are constantly denied.

Yet on Sundays, all of the Christians are allowed to have their priests and ministers come into the prison to do their masses or other prayer ceremonies. Those of the Jewish faith are even allowed kosher food. There is a special room for Muslims to pray.

So why are American Indian men denied the Inipi? No one even needs to come from the outside. They have everything they need in there.

They are told it is because of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, heat kills the virus, and all the prisoners have been vaccinated. Besides killing the virus and other bacteria, in the Inipi ceremony, through the heat of the stones and water as steam, both the spirit and the body are purified.

This is especially important for men who need the prayers and ceremony to heal (purify) themselves in all ways. It helps lessen their stress, anger, and grief and strengthen them in patience, endurance, understanding, and compassion.


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Charmaine White Face (74) is Oglala Tituwan Oceti Sakowin, a great-grandmother, scientist, and writer. She can be reached at

Note: Copyright permission Native Sun News Today