In a purification ritual, eight men in a garage huddle around a drum, as a haze of burnt sage hangs in the air. The drummers, all of whom have done time in prison, sing a song that honors the pipe and tobacco used in traditional ceremonies.
The group is part of Red Road Home, a pilot program based in Bemidji that aims to help former inmates from the White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake reservations stay out of prison.
American Indians make up less than 2 percent of Minnesota's total population, but they account for more than 8 percent of adult offenders in the state's prison system. In January, 789 of 9,429 state inmates were American Indians. Indians are also more likely to reoffend and get sent back to prison.
The Red Road Home program in northern Minnesota aims to slow down the revolving door, through American Indian cultural and spiritual practices. There are early signs of success, but the program may soon run out of funding.
About half of the 100 or so ex-offenders who return to the communities each year become active in the program, and participate in weekly sweat lodge ceremonies and talking circles. They learn about the traditional values many never knew.
Robert Thompson — known to his friends as Buddha — has been part of this group since he got out of prison last fall. At 38, he has served time for domestic assault, driving under the influence and dealing methamphetamine.
"My whole family is like alcoholics and stuff, but also was dealing drugs," Thompson said. "That's how I grew up and that's what I knew."
Thompson, who is now attending White Earth Community College, said he is committed to sobriety and to learning his language and culture.
"This is who I am today. If it wasn't for this program, I don't think I'd be there," he said. "Honestly, to tell you, I'd probably be back in prison."
Red Road Home is less than three years old and has worked with more than 140 clients, but doesn't yet have much of a track record. Those who stick with the program are heading back to prison about a third less often than those who quit, said Terry Kemper, outreach coordinator for Red Road Home.
Indians who return home from prison face huge challenges, said Kemper, who was born in prison and grew up in foster homes. He served 12 years at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater for killing his girlfriend.
Released in 2008, he has dedicated himself to helping other former prisoners.
"One of the things that you hear from ex-felons is that ... it's easier to go back to prison than to deal with these things we face out here," Kemper said. "Our communities right now in Indian Country are really struggling."
Those struggles include high rates of alcoholism, unemployment and suicide.
Run by the nonprofit Northwest Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Bemidji, the Red Road Home experiment is funded by about $600,000 over three years from the state Department of Corrections. The money runs out in July. Given the state's $5 billion deficit, it's unclear whether the program will continue.
If it ends, the state will have lost a vital link between ex-offenders and their traditional culture, advocates for ex-offenders say.
The Department of Corrections has been criticized by some in the Indian community for not welcoming traditional teachings and ceremonies inside the state's prison walls. Some studies show the traditional approach is more effective with Indians than other models.
Joe Day, former head of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, said Indians are allowed to practice their culture to some degree in prison, but prison personnel are not well trained on what Indians consider sacred. Guards are only given limited information about feathers, drums songs and tobacco use, said Day, who has worked with the Department of Corrections to develop ways to help Indians re-enter society.
"Their not understanding or accepting our traditional values is probably the key aspect of this," said Day, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. "But how do you change a whole organization to do that, because there is so much misperception about who we are?"
Department of Corrections officials say there are challenges to running traditional programs for American Indians.
One obstacle is that there is a shortage of credible traditional leaders willing to come into the prisons and give guidance to offenders, said David Crist, deputy commissioner of the agency's facilities division.
"In the absence of that, offenders offer their own interpretation of culture and traditions that often they don't really understand themselves," Crist said. "And it's when that happens that I think we find some tension between the legitimate security needs of a facility and the desires of offenders to practice their traditions."
Like every state agency, the Department of Corrections anticipates budget cuts. No one knows how big the cuts will be, but agency officials say it's clear that programs like Red Road Home will be on the table for elimination.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of money the Red Road Home experiment receives from the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The current version is accurate.