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Powwow adds color to local prison

Inmates at Mike Durfee State Prison participate in a drum circle Saturday during the opening ceremony of a Wacipi powwow. The Daily Republic was allowed to take photos at the event with the stipulation that faces of inmates would not be shown. (Jake Shama / Republic)

SPRINGFIELD — Feathers, beads and dancing regalia added color this weekend to a local prison.

On Saturday, nearly 400 people attended a Native American powwow, called Wacipi or "the dance," inside the armory at Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield. The event allowed inmates to spend extra time with their families over Mother's Day weekend.

Rebecca Schieffer, associate warden at Mike Durfee State Prison, expected Saturday's powwow to be larger than usual because it was taking place just before Mother's Day and because the next powwow, scheduled in August, was canceled so repairs can be made to the armory's piping.

The event's opening ceremony included performances by a drum circle and dancers in colorful dress, a stark contrast to the plain white T-shirts worn by the rest of the population. The ceremony is followed by a meal featuring indian tacos — fry bread with buffalo meat and other toppings — and wojapi, a thick berry pudding.

Everything is paid for by the Lakota Council of Tribes (LCT), a group made up of inmates at the Springfield prison.

Sylvester Pacheco, 44, president of LCT, said each powwow costs about $3,500. That's paid in part by inmates, who pay $3.50 per guest, and through donations from nearby tribes and other groups.

"Pretty much every tribe contributes something, whether it be firewood, rocks, botanical sweet grass, sage, whatever," Pacheco said.

Pacheco, who has been incarcerated in Springfield for 27 months, said he never attended spiritual events before becoming an inmate. After being sentenced to 45 years for three counts of second-degree robbery, he isn't eligible for parole until September 2040, but he said the powwows have given him hope.

"I came in here, and it's something positive to do. It gives you a different outlook on life," Pacheco said.

For Isaac Swan, a 43-year-old member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe sentenced to 30 years, the powwow marks an important time to spend with his family.

He's vice president of LCT and has been president of the Native American groups at the penitentiary and in Jameson Annex, South Dakota's maximum-security facility, and he said inmates at Mike Durfee, a low-medium security facility made up of approximately 30 percent Native Americans, are allowed to invite more family members.

"It has that feel of an outside powwow," Swan said.

But while local tribes donate gifts for the events, Swan wishes they'd take more interest in the Wacipis and come visit.

"I really don't think they realize how big of a network we are here," Swan said.

The prison holds a Wacipi four times a year, Schieffer said. Saturday's event was held in honor of Kimberly Rose Means, an 11-year-old Pine Ridge resident who was killed by a drunk driver in 1981 near Winner while she was running from Pine Ridge to Sioux Falls to protest prison conditions.

Four large powwows are also held every year in Sioux Falls, Schieffer said, with two each at the penitentiary and Jameson Annex, but Pacheco said the Mike Durfee events are the largest among South Dakota's incarcerated populations.

Schieffer said spiritual events like Wacipi — as well as prison ministries for inmates following other religions — are important because they provide hope for redemption in a difficult place.

"If you have your faith to rely on, that gives a lot of these guys hope for salvation, redemption, something to love and something that loves them," Schieffer said.

But there are tangible benefits, too. Schieffer said inmates who receive more positive social interaction with friends and family members have lower disciplinary rates and transition more easily into the community after their release. During a powwow, inmates get the full day with their families, which she said is incredibly important to them.

"When it comes to family visits, that is probably the most important thing to them," Schieffer said. "They really do value it so much."