Herbal Healing: Reducing Recidivism and Strengthening Indigenous Families by Sophia Boettcher

In Tacoma, Washington, the nonprofit Native Reentry Services (NARS) is making a difference in the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Indigenous individuals. Through the use of spirituality and herbal healing traditions, NARS helps break the cycle of recidivism and fosters a reconnection with community and cultural identity.

HEAL for Reentry is a volunteer-based program that incorporates Indigenous traditions and values to support successful community reintegration. It connects formerly incarcerated individuals with their cultural roots, helping them overcome reentry challenges and reducing recidivism.

About the Founder, Winona Stevens, M.S.W. (Hochunk Nation)

Winona Stevens, M.S.W. (member of the Ho-Chunk nation) is the founder and current director of Native American Reentry Services (NARS). While pursuing her master's degree in Social Work at the University of Washington, she focused on Indigenous populations in Washington State prisons. Recognizing the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system and the need for culturally appropriate support, Stevens established NARS to provide essential services to help incarcerated Indigenous individuals successfully reenter their communities. In 2016, Governor Inslee appointed her to the Washington Statewide Reentry Council.

What is Recidivism?

Recidivism describes a cycle of trauma where a formerly incarcerated person may face a higher vulnerability of reentering the prison system. By embracing herbal legacies, NARS addresses the emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual needs of Indigenous people. Cultural competency is crucial, providing access to tribal sacred medicine, Indigenous traditions, ceremonies, and values.

Iron House Medicine and Heal: Two Programs, One NARS

NARS operates two primary programs: Iron House Medicine and HEAL (Helping Enhance Aboriginal Lives) for Reentry. Iron House Medicine offers religious and spiritual services to Indigenous inmates in 21 sites across Washington State. It includes sweat lodge ceremonies, traditional teachings, and drum and dance circles. The White Bison curriculum, Medicine Wheel & 12 Step, helps address emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual challenges through cultural practices.

Herbalism and the Red Road to Wellbreity

Herbalism is vital for the well-being of Indigenous incarcerated individuals and their families. It promotes cultural connection, holistic healing, mental health support, and preservation of intergenerational knowledge. The right to practice herbalism is integral to religious freedom for Indigenous people, strengthening their connection to cultural heritage. This connection is vital during incarceration and reentry, nurturing a sense of identity and belonging.

Culturally sensitive reentry programs using spirituality and herbalism are more effective at addressing the unique cultural needs of Indigenous individuals. Emerging evidence shows that community-based, culturally competent reentry programs lead to better experiences and lower recidivism rates. For example, a study in Washington State found a 53% reduction in recidivism rates across 59 programs. NARS fosters community belonging and reconnects individuals with their cultural identity. The nonprofit also offers a supportive environment for reconnecting with heritage and traditional practices, addressing mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.