By Stephen “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher
Chapter 2 A
2005 Vice Magazine Interview
From Chapter 2: While and during all these skirmishes, somehow word got out that I was battling the federal prison administration. I was asked by a reporter for Vice magazine if I would consider doing an interview over this “struggle” and my fights as a federal prisoner in securing Native American rights while incarcerated. I did this interview in 2005.
Now the lost has been found – Transcribed from a ragged old copy of the 2005 Vice Magazine interview written by Seth Ferranti that was published online under “Native Issues.”
By Seth Ferranti
There are over 500 Indian nations represented on American soil, and at least 465 of them have a son or daughter in the federal prison system.
The freedom to practice religion is a basic tenant of our constitution, and that right carries over to those incarcerated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. BOP Program Statement 5360.09 declares, “Religious accommodations will be made for all religions authorized to meet in Bureau of Prisons facilities.” The BOP recognizes Native Americanism as an authorized religion, but according to Steve Maisenbacher who hails from Hollywood, Florida…the fight for the should-be granted right to practice what he believes hasn’t been easy.
Steve’s been incarcerated for 23 years…and has blazed a trail of religious freedom in every lock-up he’s been in. He’s affiliated with such Indian rights organizations as the American Indian Movement and the Native American Rights Fund, plus he’s done time with Native American icon Leonard Peltier who is considered a political prisoner by Amnesty International.
“I know Leonard,” Steve says. “I know a lot of other prestigious brothers – Steve Jackson, Jimmy Youngbear, Michael Taylor, Bobby and Ricky Sams. After 23 years in the system I know some of these brothers pretty well and we have all fought for Native American rights.”
In 2000, Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which granted Indian inmates the right to wear bandanas and long hair in prisons nationwide. President Clinton said upon enacting the law that as a nation we are obliged to allow the indigenous people of our country to practice what they believe. But what goes down in Congress isn’t always put into practice at the local level.
“I am the spokesman for the group here at FCI Gilmer,” Steve says. “When I got here we had nothing. We had to fight all the way to DC to get a sweat lodge. We didn’t even have a piece of ground. We’ve come from nothing to sweating once a week.”
The sweat lodge is paramount to the Native Americans’ belief system. “We believe in the hoop and the circle of life and we hold everything in the hoop to be sacred. Everything revolves around the hoop. Everything in existence revolves around the circle – the sun, the moon, life cycles, the seasons.
“The sweat lodge is a sacred ceremony that represents to us a rebirth and cleansing. It involves prayer, traditional songs, and the four sacred directions – east, south, west, and north.”
Every Saturday morning the Native American community on the compound – which numbers around 10 to 15 – gathers at the sweat lodge during recreation to go through their ritual and practice their religious beliefs.
At 7:30 AM the sweat leader and firekeeper meet at the chapel and go outside with blankets, shovels, rakes, and a book of matches. “They won’t let us have flint,” Steve smiles. They build the fire with wood that is supplied by the institution. Rocks are arranged around the wood in the form of a pyramid, kindling is added, and a six-to-eight-foot bonfire develops to heat up the 50 or 60 rocks. When the rocks are heated, they are brought in on a shovel and placed in the doorway of the lodge, then put in a pit in the middle of the room. “This is called Inipi Sweat,” Steve explains, “We sit around the rocks and sweat.
“The sweat lodge represents the belly of a mother. A heat of between 125 and 180 degrees is generated from the rocks inside the pit. We beat a hand drum that represents the heartbeat of the people, and we pour water on the rocks to bring forth steam, which is the breath of the grandfather.”
The sweat lodge is not Sunday picnic though. “I’ve seen brothers get seriously hurt in there,” Steve says. “You have to be cautious. We spend two to three hours in the sweat lodge under conditions that would horrify normal people.”
The ceremony consists of four rounds. The first round is “rebirth” and is conducted facing east. Round two is the “nurturing phase” and done to the south. The third round, facing west represents confusion – “The place where we find clarity.” Steve says. And the fourth round, to the north, is the “Season of the Cold.” This, according to Steve, “is where we find courage, integrity, and strength.”
In federal prison, Native Americans like Steve have had to battle with administrators and the courts for years just to be able to perform their basic rites. But it’s just a continuation of an even bigger struggle the Indians have been waging ever since the white man landed on these shores. It’s tough to be an Indian in the United States, but, like Steve says, “I am what I am. A prisoner. A bank robber. And a Native American.”
Now the BUFFALO ARE gone Across the Plains a warrior does ride He’s searching for truth, justice, and life Then the soldiers came and took the land The settlers were next claiming all that he had Now the BUFFALO ARE gone Next they took the little girl, took her from her world Tried to beat her white with their Jesus and their might Punished this child for the language she had Allowed her only to speak your tongue, that’s so sad Way ya – way ya – way ya – Hi ya Way ya – way ya – way ya – Hi ya Now the BUFFALO ARE gone In a sacred place called Wounded Knee My brothers Dennis Banks and Russell Means A ten-week stand to end the corruption and the greed 200 AIM members, 2000 Native peoples strong All singing the same sad song Way ya – Hi ya – Way ya – Hey ya Way ya – Hi ya – Way ya – Hey yo Now the BUFFALO ARE gone Way ya – Hi ya – Way ya – Hey ya Way ya – Hi ya – Way ya – Hey yo Now the BUFFALO ARE gone Now the BUFFALO ARE gone Now the BUFFALO ARE gone We will wait FOR their Return By Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher ©