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A Native Woman & Former Prisoner Speaks Out

I write this as a California Indian woman, a tribal woman, recognized as a member of the Tule River Yokuts tribe, which is my grandmother's people, also Kashaya and Lake County Pomo, which is my grandfather's people. I also write as an ex-prisoner of the state of California, housed at the California Rehabilitation Center located in Norco. While there, I was involved in the forming of the prison's first American Indian women's support group, along with the first women's sweat lodge built at a state prison in California. I am also a survivor of colonization by the European powers, against the original peoples of these lands and, especially, the indigenous nations of the state of California. This history of colonization is a tragic one and Native people still suffer the ramifications to this day.

The colonizers brought with them two tools of mass destruction, the bottle and the bible, both of which were forced upon Native people. The outcome of this was the erosion of these people's languages, cultures, life-ways, religions, land base and lives. Even their traditional ways to pray became illegal. As late as the 1930's "the BIA had openly promulgated a law called the "Indian Offenses Act" forbidding the practice of Indian religion."1 Since the beginning of colonization, the Native people of these lands were imprisoned as a form of social control, which could only be described as deliberate genocide. With these increased attacks on Indian sovereignty and culture, imprisonment became the government's principle means of intimidation and punishment. With the enforcement of these "foreign" laws, Native people were soon "locked up" in many different forms of institutions, such as military forts, missions, reservations, boarding schools, and now in state and federal prisons. These prisons can be seen as just another part of the historically violent mechanisms of colonization. The Prison Industrial Complex, is not new to the Native people of these lands, it fact it can be argued that it was built right through our ancestral lands and the very lives of the Indigenous people of this continent.


My Indian heritage is Yokuts and Pomo. Both of these tribes are indigenous to the lands now known as California. We have creation stories that will always connect us to these lands of our ancestors. We still continue to live on these lands.

The Pomo people occupied approximately seven widely separated localities, lying in the coastal ranges north of San Francisco Bay and the Yokuts held the most fertile land in California. The Yokuts were perhaps the most populous of the many diverse nationalities of aboriginal California. "The Yokuts tribes once held the whole floor of the San Joaquin Valley, plus much of the adjoining foothill belt on both sides, three hundred miles of range."2

Of all the Native cultures, Native California is the most diverse in ecology, society, and history. California had the largest aboriginal population with the most diverse groups of any area in North America. California Indians lived in deserts, on mountains, along the coastline, in the great central valley, on lakeshores, riverbanks, and in the lush foothills. The Indians of California were the most highly skilled explorers of North America. The Natives of this region we know call California lived in a well ordered society prior to the encroachment of the Europeans, and the collective base of their society and its governing bodies resided in their tribes and in their people. The people were guided by relationships that fixed the status and the position of every member of the tribe. Every part of tribal society was enriched and maintained through religious laws and traditions. "Religion was the primary method of social control, and conflicts were handled mainly through sanctions, not confrontation and warfare."3

The Indigenous Nations of California were nations of laws. "The law had been established over hundreds of years, and perhaps longer, so law became known, in song and oral histories."4 "There were no codes, no written laws, no constitutions put into writing, and laws became customs and as customs were ingrained in the very lifeblood of the people."5 When violations occurred, there was restitution rather than retribution. Exile from the tribe was the extreme penalty.


In the warmth of my fantasy
I awake to the cold gray walls
Of my reality

These were the words that thundered in my mind as the Judge read my sentence: "Ms. Ogden, you are sentenced to 5 years which will be served at the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco." My reality is becoming dangerously more common among women, especially among poor women, women of color, and the American Indian woman.

Yet, when trying to gather information on the number of American Indian women in prison, I found that it was almost impossible to find the truth. To quote American Indian activist Little Rock Reed, "the American Indian segment of the population of people. is the forgotten segment; the segment that is so small in other racial and ethnic groups warehoused in American's prison that it is insignificant." We get lost in the system because prison classification systems in most prisons only allow racial distinctions of White, Black, Hispanic, or Other.

Located outside the door to my cell was a small, white, 8x5 card that listed my last name, my state number, and my racial classification - "Other." Every morning as I left for my job assignment, I would cross out "Other" and write "American Indian," but each afternoon when I returned for count, there would be a new card with "Other" written on it. This went on for a few days when finally the Correctional Officer approached me, and said "Next time, Ogden, it will be a write up and a loss of good time." The next morning, before work, I found a permanent laundry marker, tore the card off the wall, and wrote American Indian.

All women in prison are fighting to maintain a sense of self within a system that isolates and degrades, a system that is designed to punish. As American Indians, we must also fight for our identity on the very lands of our ancestors.

Incarcerated women suffer different traumas than men do by going to prison. Their needs and the problems they have coping with prison life are much different from men's, and their emotional reactions are also quite different. To understand the emotional difficulties that affect many women prisoners there is a need to consider their backgrounds, the obstacles they face as mothers in prison, the medical and mental needs they have as women, the kind of harsh conditions and discipline they are forced to endure, and the sexual harassment that goes along with being a women prisoner.

While incarcerated, getting access to reliable health or mental health care was also a major concern for all female prisoners. "Women are afraid that incompetent medical attention, more than the any illness itself, will lead to death." In addition, most of the women that I knew were put on some sort of medication "to calm them down." Medicating these women, so that they walk around like zombies, is one way to control them. The reality is that psychiatry in prison has everything to do with control and management and nothing to do with effective treatment.

I was medicated the entire time I was in county jail. Before I was sentenced, the doctor prescribed me Elavil twice daily and Mellaril three times daily. These medications made me sleep most of the day and night. I would wake only to go to 'chow-hall' and to take a shower. These meds were given to me for the 9 months I was there. By the time I left for the state prison the pills had affected my speech; the thoughts were there but I had a difficult time getting the words out. My mouth and skin were dry and I was weak from constant sleep. Upon arriving at the prison I was given Thorazine for two weeks; it made me a walking zombie. The other Indian women there told me that many of them were also medicated. After being sentenced to 5 years at the California Rehabilitation Center and returning to jail I was given a med packet with a small pill inside. "What is this for?" I asked the Guard as she locked my cell door. "It came from the doctor this morning when he found out that you were being sentenced; take it Stormy it's just to calm down," she told me. The next thing I remember was my celli shaking me as I sat on the floor, watching my cigarette burn a hole into my nightgown. "What did they give you Storm?" "I am not sure what it was," I said to her with slurred speech, "all I know is that it was small." "Must have been Thorazine," was her reply, "the doctor gives that to all of us women, especially the Sisters that get sentenced to prison."


The American criminal justice system in Indian country is complex and highly difficult to understand, let alone explain. Its governing principles are contained in hundreds of statutes and court decisions that have been issued randomly, without the knowledge or consent of the Indian Nations. Because of these laws, almost every aspect of the internal and external relations of Indian people has been subjected to unrestricted control by the United States government. This control can be seen in the oppressive laws and policies designed to undermine the sovereignty of Indian nations, steal their lands, and weaken their culture.

Prior to American interference Indian tribes had their own laws, which had evolved through generations of living together. The U.S. government did not interfere with these traditional tribal systems until 1855 when Congress passed the Major Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C.A. 1153. With this law Congress rejected the application of tribal sovereignty to reservation Indians, imposing instead a policy of forced assimilation. This Act gave federal courts jurisdiction over crimes committed by Indians against Indians in Indian country, in utter disregard for International law, treaty law, and Article VI of the United States Constitution. The enormous effect of this has been to diminish tribal sovereignty. "Nearly every form of Indian religion was banned on the reservations by the mid-1800s, and very extreme measures were taken to discourage Indians from maintaining their tribal customs."8 Such control and destruction of our lands and our culture continued for generations. In January of 1895, the largest group of Indian prisoners to be confined on Alcatraz, a military installation on a rocky island in San Francisco harbor, was nineteen Hopi "hostiles." They were convicted of not farming as the United States government instructed them to do and they opposed the forced education of their children in the government boarding schools. Even as late as the 1930s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs enforced the "Indian Offenses Act," which forbade Indian religion, assigned English names to replace Indian ones, and even outlawed Indian hairstyles.

In increasingly imposing its criminal jurisdiction on Indian nations, ".the [United States] government relies on three arguments to support its jurisdiction over Indian country without the consent of Indian nations."9 These three arguments are:

  • (1) The Plenary Power Doctrine, which asserted that Congress had absolute power. This clearly contradicted internal law, as well as Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, ".which expressly states that all treaties between Indian nations and the United States government have supremacy over any law congress might enact which unilaterally abrogates a treaty within the consent of the nations parties to the treaties."10
  • (2) The Federal-Indian Trust Doctrine, which was defined as the unique moral and legal duty of the United States to assist Indians in the protection of their property and rights. This is always said to be in the best interest of the Indian nations and this is where the concept of the "Great White Father" in Washington comes into play. We are treated as children, unable to make our own decisions. This has been devastating for Indian nations.
  • (2) The Federal-Indian Trust Doctrine, which was defined as the unique moral and legal duty of the United States to assist Indians in the protection of their property and rights. This is always said to be in the best interest of the Indian nations and this is where the concept of the "Great White Father" in Washington comes into play. We are treated as children, unable to make our own decisions. This has been devastating for Indian nations.

These "three arguments" can only be explained as being instruments of racism and forms of social control.

Today, prisons are filled with Indians and Alaskan natives who have been convicted and imprisoned for hunting and fishing and subsistence gathering which they have been doing long before the invasion of the white man. "There are also many Indians who have been targeted and sent to prison because of their political activism."11


This Slave labor is not new to Native people, especially the Indians of early California. When the colonizers arrived they thought the Native people were good only for labor. The Spanish and Mexican invaders valued the Indian people only as an essential workforce necessary for building their missions, presidios, and pueblos, and for working in them and in the fields. After the United States defeated Mexico in the War of 1848, it annexed California and much of the modern-day U.S. southwest. In 1850, the California legislature passed a law called the "Government and Protection of the Indians" Act, which can only be described as legalized slavery.

The "Government and Protection of the Indians" Act provided for the indenture of loitering, intoxicated, and orphaned Indians, and the forced regulation of their employment. It also defined a special class of crimes and punishment for these Indians. "The law, enacted on April 22, 1850, established within its twenty various sections the mechanism whereby Indians of all ages could be indentured or apprenticed to any white citizen." A White man could give bond for the payment of the fine and costs of any Indian convicted of an offense punishable by a fine before a Justice of the Peace, and require the Indian to work for the White man until the fine was paid. "In the 17th section the act gave local justices of the peace jurisdiction over all Indians within their districts and provided for whipping of up to 25 lashes for an Indian convicted of stealing any valuable thing." "The same act also made provision for indenturing Indian children as servants and curtailed tribal land rights."13 The law was amended in 1860 to include adults. In the 1850s and the 1860s, there was a constant demand for Indians as domestic servants, which manifested in the frequent kidnapping and indenture of Indian women and children. "Under cover of the apprenticeship provisions of the laws of 1850 and 1860, the abduction and sale of Indians, especially young woman and children were carried out as a regular business in California."14 These provisions in the state law resulted in the institution of a slave mart in Los Angeles. California was particularly aggressive about enslavement because tribal Indians came into direct conflict with the expansion of the gold-base economy. This left California Indians at the mercy of the local population.


Just as alcoholism has touched the life of every Indian person so has the American criminal justice system, particularly prisons. Beginning with "foreign" laws criminalizing traditional Indian ways of dance, speaking, worshipping, hunting, and gathering, Indians were imprisoned and fined. The outcome of this can only be described as genocide. The criminalization and imprisonment of Native people can be interpreted as yet another attempt to control Indian lands and the ongoing attempt to deny Indian sovereignty.

For the American Indian people, these federal and state prisons are yet another part of the violent colonial mechanism. Criminalization is yet another tool (as were the bottle and the bible,) of the American colonial power's quest to control Indian lands and deny Indian sovereignty resulting in the disproportionate rates of incarceration of Native adults and children. "Colonialism as control and denial of culture is clearly evidenced by the number of incarcerated Native Americans and by their experiences in prison."15 We have been degraded to criminal status in our own homeland and become a people incarcerated.

What was my crime, why 5 years in prison?
Less than $2,000 of welfare fraud
What was my crime?
Being a survivor of molestation and rape
What was my crime?
Being addicted to alcohol and drugs
What was my crime?
Being a survivor of domestic violence
What was my crime?
Being an American Indian woman


1. Reed, Little Rock. 1993. The American Indian in the White Man's Prisons: A Story of Genocide. Uncompromising Books. Taos, NM, pp. 2-3.

2. Latta, F.F. 1949. Handbook of Yokuts Indian. Bakersfield, CA: Bear State Books, p.v.

3. The Advisory Council on California Indian Policy. September 1997. The Special Circumstances of California Indians, p. 2.

4. Costo, R., and J. H. Costo., eds. 1987. The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco, CA: Indian Historian Press, p.17.

5. Costo., op. cit., p. 20.

6. Reed, op. cit., p. vii.

7. Watterson, Kathryn. 1973. Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. Northeastern University Press, Boston, p.255.

8. Reed, op. cit., p. 2.

9. Ibid., p. 25

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., p. 31.

12. Norton, Jack. 1997 Genocide in Northwestern California: When our World Cried. San Francisco, CA: The Indian Historian Press, p. 44.

13. Harring L.S. 1994. Crow Dog's Case: American Indain Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, p. 45.

14. Norton, op. cit., p. 44.

15. Ross, Luana. 1998. Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality. University of Texas Press, Austin, p. 4.


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