Volunteer’s commitment keeps Native American culture alive, even in prison
By Robert Stevens
Joe Bennion of Spring City jokingly refers to his volunteer career at the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) as a “life sentence.”
In reality, Bennion, who has been involved in volunteer work at the prison since 1994, calls it that because he feels a deep commitment to the task.
Bennion facilitates a safe and supervised opportunity for Native American inmates at the prison to participate in the religious and spiritual practices of their native culture.
“I don’t teach this stuff, and I am not a medicine man,” Bennion says. “They call me a spiritual advisor, but I look at myself not as that but as an ally who holds the door open for the inmates to participate in these sacred ceremonies.“
Bennion is a member of the LDS Church, but while serving a mission in Toronto, Canada he spent a large portion of his service on an Indian Reservation and became acquainted with the Indigenous spiritual practices.
Bennion says he grew a strong attachment to many things the Native Americans held sacred and wanted to maintain an involvement with it.
In 1994, he would get that chance after meeting a Native American man who facilitated the sacred ceremonies at CUCF.
Bennion stuck his toe in the waters of volunteer prison service by helping out his new friend and participating in the ceremonies.
“Over time the fellow that brought me in moved on and it fell to me to keep this going,” Bennion says. “Whether its LDS, or Muslim or Catholic or Native American, they can’t have their meeting without a volunteer that is not a paid employee.”
So Bennion has been visiting the prison without fail since 1994 and making sure the Native American inmates can practice their religious traditions just like the LDS or Catholic inmates can, and he takes it very seriously.
In addition to preparing the sweat lodge structure for the inmates to take part in the sweat, Bennion is also the keeper of a very special responsibility—providing tobacco for use in the sacred pipe ceremony.
“I am the only person authorized to bring tobacco into the prison,” Bennion says. “I grow it myself and bring it in for each ceremony. I am very careful about it, because I don’t want to do anything to risk having these privileges taken away.”
Bennion says from time to time a medicine man from out of the area will come in to check on the Native American inmates to see how things are in regards to their spiritual practices, but he expects to be handling it for a long time to come.
Like his predecessor, however, Bennion is trying to involve others in the volunteer work as well, and Robert Buckner of Spring City has given volunteer service at CUCF a chance now by helping him with the ceremonies.