Sweat lodges offer spiritual survival for Inmates 5-26-07

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ESTANCIA, N.M. (AP) - So much anger and frustration.

The volatile cocktail of emotions that was mixing in Melvin Martin had reached a boiling point. He felt like he was about to go crazy.

Far from his home on the Navajo reservation and far from his people's ancient healing traditions, he could do nothing but fester inside a Sandoval County lockup as he waited for the justice system to run its course.

Today, the soft-spoken Navajo from Crownpoint says he's a different person. He seems more relaxed, respectful and reconnected to his culture.

All that, he says, thanks to the chance he gets each week to take part in a traditional sweat lodge at the Torrance County Detention Center, where he's now serving his federal sentence for assault.

“We look beyond these wires,” he says, pointing to the pair of fences and rolls of razor wire that separate the prison from the endless prairie.

“Me and the brothers here, we look beyond all that even though we know were within. Once we start this and we get the ceremony going, our minds go back home, they go back to the places of our people, our land,” he says. “We can get away from this place.”

The privately run Torrance County prison is one of many lockups across the nation - including state and federal prisons - that offer the traditional ceremony for American Indian prisoners.

The goal, says Chaplain John Moffitt, is the same as the other religious services the Torrance County prison provides for its inmates of various faiths.

He says prison wardens have come to recognize the constitutional rights of inmates to practice their religions and the benefits that can have for the inmates and for keeping order on the inside.

“The spiritual programming, that's what's going to change lives,” the chaplain says.

It's been three decades since the first sweat lodge was built in a Nebraska prison, but native prisoners in some states only recently won access to such religious ceremonies and others are still fighting for it. Security is usually the top argument against native ceremonies.

In Maine, a group of prisoners is suing over claims that their constitutional rights were violated because they have no access to sweat lodges or ceremonial music and food. In New Jersey, lawyers representing a handful of Indian prisoners are close to settling an 8-year-old lawsuit involving religious rights.

“We have had to pursue litigation, legislation and more recently negotiating with prison officials to implement these programs,” said Lenny Foster, a Navajo spiritual adviser who works with hundreds of prisoners across the country and has testified before Congress and the United Nations on native rights.

“I think for the longest time we've been denied, as Indian people, that right to practice our tradition, our culture,” he said. “We were told not to speak our language, we cut our hair, we were told to convert to Christianity. Our sweat lodges, our medicine bundles, our pipes were burned.”

Foster, head of the tribally funded Navajo Nation Corrections Project, built his first sweat lodge for inmates at Arizona State Prison in 1980 and in the time since, he has seen the positive effects.

“The intense heat or the steam, what we call grandfather's breath, opens up not only the pores, the physical aspect, but it opens up the mind and the spirit and there's a real purification and a cleansing of the soul that takes place,” he said.

He noted that a lot of the inmates he works with are locked up because of alcohol problems, drugs and anger issues.

“They need to detox and purify themselves so they have a clarity of mind and realize the mistake that they made that led them into prison,” he said, adding that sweat lodges are one of the most powerful forms of counseling for American Indians.

To prison officials in Torrance County, the sweat lodge is both a right and a privilege for prisoners. As long as they behave, prisoners can look forward to sweating on the weekend.

“Having an inmate spiritually look within themselves and leave their (religious) services a different person, even for a while, that's helpful to us security-wise,” said prison spokeswoman Ivonne Riley. “Security is the number one thing, but anything to help anybody to make it a little better, we look forward to that.”

Riley acknowledged that a few inmates take advantage of the sweat lodge as a way to spend time outside and smoke tobacco, which in all other circumstances it a forbidden item inside the prison walls. But, she says, most Indian prisoners take the lodge seriously and won't do anything to jeopardize their participation.

On a recent Thursday, Foster paid a visit to Torrance County for a special ceremony.

In a quiet area on the east side of the prison, some inmates tended to a fire surrounded with lava rocks while others draped blankets and canvas tarps over a frame of willow branches to form the lodge.

Foster gathered the group and talked quietly as they rolled their tobacco into cigarettes. They took turns puffing, using their free hand to catch the smoke and let it wash over themselves as they prayed.

By now the rocks were hot. One by one the men crouched down and disappeared into the canvas dome, not to be seen again for about an hour. The guards waited in the hot sun.

The silence was eventually broken by a drum beat and voices resonated from inside the sweat lodge. The chanting erased the tension in the prison yard.

By the time the ceremony was over and the men crawled out of the lodge for the last time, they were less like prisoners and more like longtime friends, smiling and laughing and jumping in puddles left from the rain the night before.

“We tell them that they're free when they're out here,” Foster says. “They join the sunlight, the fresh air, the wind.”

Martin, who was immersed in his culture growing up on the reservation, hasn't seen his family in two years. But he says the sweat lodge helps him maintain a connection to his heritage.

“It really helps out a lot,” he says. “It keeps me with a sound mind.”

For some Indians, it has taken a prison sentence to learn about their culture. Foster calls it a “sad fact” that these Indians never had an opportunity to learn the songs, prayers and ceremonies before being locked up.

But Foster is hopeful that a movement across Indian Country to rekindle interested in native traditions and languages will help young Indians regain their pride and dignity so they don't end up like the men and women he works with.

Walter Echo-Hawk Jr., a staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, helped litigate the case of the first sweat lodge in Nebraska's prison system in the 1970s. He said there has been a long history of religious discrimination against indigenous religions in the United States.

But like Foster, he sees education as the key to acceptance.

“We have found that the American people are fundamentally fair-minded people and once educated about the bona fide nature of native religious practices and the need for native people to have equal access to their religious opportunities, most policymakers have been very quick to act to do the right thing,” he said.

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