Arnold W. Thomas, MSW, Ordained Holy One, Clinical Chaplain, Pastoral Counselor, Motivational Speaker

Spiritual leader's journey takes him full circle (Salt Lake Tribune, 2012)
Suicide Survivor Works to Eradicate Stigma (Indian Country Today, 2012)
Utah chaplains dedicate lives to serving others (Deseret News, 2010)
Back to the womb (Deseret News, 2009)
Solace of heat (Salt Lake Tribune, 2006)
A role model of resiliency (Indian Country Today, 2002)
A Vision in Darkness
Arnold Thomas profile By Dianna Troyer

Spiritual leader's journey takes him full circle

American Indian practitioner helps others after his own suicide attempt.

By Lisa Schencker | Salt Lake Tribune | Aug. 10, 2012 | link to original

Arnold Thomas often encourages troubled military veterans to give thanks for what they have.

The spiritual leader tells them to start with themselves. Be thankful for everything from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, Thomas urges them. Be thankful for the DNA imprinted on every cell of your being, and be thankful for the mother and father from whom it came.

It's not always an easy task for those with whom Thomas works as a Native American Traditional Practitioner at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Some struggle with physical ailments, others with substance abuse and others with mental illness. But if anyone knows that gratitude is possible, even after a rocky journey, it's Thomas.

"People say, 'Well, would you turn back the clock?' " Thomas said of his past. "Well, yes, I would, but the fact of the matter is it's done, and I'm here and I've worked my rear end off to get to where I am mentally and emotionally and physically, and I'm thankful."

Though Thomas has been working with the VA for eight years, holding sweat-lodge ceremonies for veterans among other things, he's never actually been in the military.

Thomas, 42, fought his own kind of war: a battle against himself.

As a teenager growing up on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, he wanted to end his life. Depressed over the suicide of his father, Thomas turned to drugs and alcohol. When he was 18, he stuck a hunting rifle under his chin and pulled the trigger.

He survived, but with that flick of his finger, he changed the landscape of his face and his life forever.

Thomas couldn't speak for years. His face is scarred and disfigured from where the bullet tore through it. And Thomas, a 6-foot-2-inch-tall former high-school athletic star, lost his eyesight in the attempt.

Decades have passed since Thomas tried to take his life, and he's still not through with the surgeries. But he's not bitter about it.

"I'm not sad I'm blind. I'm not sad my face is disfigured or I sound a little different," said Thomas, whose words are still sometimes a bit unclear. "I learned a really hard lesson. I'm thankful that I'm alive."

He didn't always feel that way.

After his attempt, he was racked with feelings of guilt and shame. He wondered why he was still alive.

He was sent to Utah for surgeries and to attend a school for the blind. There, he learned he could still function in society and make something of his life. But first he needed to move on emotionally.

"I came to understand I needed to let go of the anger and guilt and shame that stems from any suicide. I wanted to release and let go of some of that anguish, so I started looking around different churches, different faiths," said Thomas, a Shoshone-Paiute. He said he wasn't a very spiritual or religious person before the attempt.

"I eventually ended up back in my people's ceremonies, and it was a coming home," he said. "I could feel everything right down to the core click."

He attended more American Indian ceremonies. He learned from his elders. Thomas eventually began leading sweat-lodge ceremonies at the Utah State Prison in Draper. And he began his own consulting company, White Buffalo Knife, a job for which he travels the country talking about suicide prevention and other topics.

Then, one day, he was asked to take over leading the ceremony at the Veterans Affairs hospital. Thomas said he declined the offer twice before he accepted, knowing that if he committed to it, he'd commit to it fully.

He ultimately took the job to spend more time with his wife and two daughters closer to home in Salt Lake City. But he also took it to ensure that the ceremony would be conducted correctly by a qualified individual.

It's a ceremony of purification, in which stones are heated with fire and placed in a tent. Participants sit in the tent, and water is periodically poured over the stones to create an enveloping steam. They pray for others in the ceremony, which can last several hours.

"It's not a self-help group," Thomas said. "It's a part of a spiritual faith tradition that is originally from this land, and it's thousands of years old."

That doesn't mean the ceremony is limited to just American Indian veterans. It's something from which people of many religious and ethnic backgrounds at the VA seem to benefit, Thomas said.

He said it can be calming and help veterans find peace of mind.

"I hear from veterans all the time that [the] ceremony has a lot of meaning and impact in their lives," said the Rev. Father Joseph Westfall, who supervises Thomas and works as chief of chaplain services at the VA. "It speaks to them in a very basic way."

Westfall said Thomas isn't an official chaplain at the VA; he essentially works on a contract basis. But Thomas has completed a chaplain training program and said he has gained certification to be one as well.

Friends and family say working at the VA seems to be a good fit for Thomas, who can relate, in some ways, to the veterans' internal struggles.

Robertjohn Knapp, an American Indian elder who has helped to guide him over the years, said Thomas, like some of the veterans, has "gone to the edge." Knapp himself is a veteran of the Korean War.

"For me, all those things that we go through in life are not there to punish us," Knapp said, "but they're there to teach us, and Arnold's been through his own horrendous experience."

Knapp said Thomas had to decide to override his own feelings and instead care for himself and others and live a spiritually oriented life. That, he said, is what Thomas is trying to teach the veterans as well.

"For me … the mental, the emotional, the physical and the spiritual healing I've gone through over the years has helped me reach a place of balance," Thomas said, "so I could share that with the veterans."

Like some of the veterans, he's had to let go of grief and blame.

He's had to forgive himself.

He's had to learn how to carry on, and he's tried to find meaning in his journey.

When Thomas tried to end his life decades ago, he didn't know at the time he was actually perpetuating a long, sad family tradition. He learned only afterward that his paternal grandfather had died by suicide.

Arnold's grandfather was a traditional Paiute man, he said, and an Army veteran.

"That's one of the reasons he's chosen to work for the VA," said Ruth Miller-Thomas, his wife of 17 years, "to help families heal."

Suicide Survivor Works to Eradicate Stigma of Silence Preventing Indian Youth From Getting Help

Michelle Tirado | Indian Country Today | May 29, 2012 | link to original

Suicide may still be a hush-hush topic for many Indian people, but it’s not for Arnold Thomas, Shoshone-Paiute. And Thomas, who tried to commit suicide in 1988, when he was 18—and miraculously survived—has plenty to say about it. In fact, that is what he has done for most of the past decade. Under the banner of his Salt Lake City–based firm, White Buffalo Knife Consulting, he has traveled to dozens of tribal communities in the United States and Canada to speak about his attempted suicide. During the first half of the 2000s, he was telling his inspirational story to some 20,000 to 30,000 people every year, hoping to encourage more open communication of a problem that touches too many Indian youths.

Thomas, 41, was recently ordained the first chaplain from the Native faith traditions with the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, and he is a chaplain for the Veterans Health Administration. While he does not deliver his suicide-prevention talk as often as he used to, he is still eager to speak about his experience—what drove him to the point of suicide, how he survived, the healing process and how he emerged from it all with a soaring spirituality and a renewed love of life.

Tell me about your suicide attempt—how did you do it?

I used a .30-30 hunting rifle. I put it under my chin and pulled the trigger.

What brought you to that point?

Not understanding that the pain will go away, that pain of losing my father. Not understanding that other people would understand how I am feeling.

My father committed suicide when I was 16. I was the oldest of three kids, the only son, so we spent a lot of time together. So when he died, it was like the foundation that I had was ripped away. I really did not understand how to deal with those intense emotions and the stigma that comes with suicide—you’re not supposed to talk about what happened. Sometimes a person—especially a teenager—doesn’t have the words for those emotions, those thoughts. So I turned to drugs and alcohol to drown my sorrows.

How did you react when you became conscious?

After I pulled the trigger, I blacked out, became conscious, blacked out again. I shattered my whole face—my eyeballs, all the bones in my nose, my cheekbones, my upper and lower jaw. With every breath I was taking, I was gasping, bleeding to death. I knew that the bullet had not killed me, but I knew I was going to die. Some 40 to 50 minutes later, paramedics arrived.

I woke up in the ICU. I could hear people, but I could not see them. I could hear my mother at the foot of the bed crying. There was this doctor placing a notepad on my chest. He was explaining to me where I was, what they had done in surgery. There was a wire brace around my face, screws in my jaw holding that wire brace together, tubes in what had been my nose and my nostrils, a tracheotomy tube in my neck, and I was hooked up to a respirator to keep me alive. My face was the size of a basketball.

How did this change you spiritually?

I spent two years not being able to speak. I had to eat food through a gastric tube and breath through a tube in my neck. The physical pain is one thing, the countless surgeries—there have been a lot of bone-graft surgeries, skin-graft surgeries since 1988 to slowly rebuild my face. I had to teach myself how to speak, so people could understand me. I don’t have any lips, so I have to make an extra effort when I do speak.

Spiritually, I really came to appreciate life. It has been a hard lesson. I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive my father. I had to ask my mother to forgive me for how I hurt her. More than 20 years later, I am still asking for forgiveness from people who know me. I had to go back and forgive, way back, however long it was, when the first people came here, some of what happened in history.

I wanted to be able to forgive and let go, so I could be okay with those memories and they wouldn’t have power over me—to be okay with myself. And I have come to the understanding that I have a purpose.

Did you ever contemplate suicide again?

Oh, yeah. I went through intense feelings of anger and guilt, shame. One night I got so frustrated after my first surgery—they had taken my fibula out, below my knee, 12 inches of it, put it in my lower jaw, made me a nose. They took muscle out of my right forearm. When I went back home, I was so frustrated that I packed my bags in the middle of the night, grabbed my mother’s car keys, went out to the car and started it up. My mother came running out, and she was crying. She said, “What are you doing?”

One of my aunts hooked me up with Services to the Blind in Nevada, but because they had no training schools in Nevada, I picked Utah. I went because I was still young and I wanted to learn. I did not want to sit at home doing nothing. The director of that program said there are only two things [blind people] can’t do without help from others: You can’t read any printed material, and you can’t draw. He said anything else you want to do in life, you can. That gave me hope.

What is the lesson from your story that everyone should learn?

To be thankful for what you have, not focus on what you don’t have. Oftentimes, we really don’t realize what we have. When I speak, I tell people, “When you go home, whomever you live with, give them a hug and say, ‘Thank you for what you are teaching me.’?” People teach us good behavior and bad behavior. It’s up to us what we are going to do with that.

I have also been talking about love. When I work with Indian people, I say, “All right. Everybody say love.” More often than not, you can barely hear them. The love I am talking about is compassionate, kind, loving, and it’s gentle and caring.

Our ancestors knew that Mother Earth loved them. They knew because the grass grows, as do the fruit trees, the vegetables, the corn, squash, beans, the deer and elk, cows and chickens. I tell them, “Mother Earth loves us. She can say no, but she is giving.” All indigenous people had an understanding of this relationship to natural elements, natural law. A lot of our young people are yearning for traditional tribal teachings of how to be, how to live.

You’ve said suicide is not the “way” of Native people. Why not?

Because all the Native ceremonies and teachings are about caring for one another, being thankful for what you have, praying.

Utah chaplains dedicate lives to serving others

By Michael Brandy | Deseret News | July 29, 2010 | link to original

SALT LAKE CITY — For a moment, it seemed Ron Polk had died in the hospital. But when he came back to life, he opened his eyes to find chaplain Jody Smith holding his hand.

"It helped me a lot because I was terrified," Polk said. "Because I woke up in the ICU with that thing in my mouth and I was cold, I was naked, I was in pain. And she held my hand and I felt like, 'Hey, I'm not alone.' "

As a chaplain, Smith has been trained to provide spiritual, emotional and psychological care to those in need. She had been visiting the hospital when she felt impressed to enter Polk's room, sit down and hold his hand. Moments before, Polk had nearly died on the operating table.

"I felt called and moved by (a spiritual feeling) to hold his hand," Smith said. "I prayed with him and got to know him, and we've had many visits after that time."

On Thursday the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center held a graduation ceremony for 18 new chaplains.

"(The program) is wonderful," said Rebecca Loper, who is currently in training to become a chaplain. "It's full of happiness and sorrow and everything in between. It's just amazing."

People from all different faiths and professions go through the one-year training program at the medical center, although most will not go on to serve as military chaplains.

"It is an amazing journey," Smith said. "It will bring you both closer to God as well as help you develop awareness of what our veterans have done for us, and the journey our patients go through, and recognizing that spirituality is an inherent component of that healing equation."

The chaplains who graduated Thursday will go on to their individual churches and help those who need it. They will also do a lot of work volunteering in hospitals. Like Polk, many of these patients just need a hand to hold to get them through their illness.

"It's miracles," said Denis Walter, a volunteer lay leader. "A lot of the people I visit at the hospital, they really don't have any family or friends here. Just sit down with them, and that's what it's about."

Back to the womb

Native American ceremony process of purification

By Carrie A. Moore | Deseret News | Jan. 31 2009 | link to original

Burn Survivors form a circle around a campfire to share their stories at the University of Utah Burn camp on the Green River.

The large stones glow red hot near the feet of those seated inside the sweat lodge as the tent flap is lowered, immersing participants in total darkness. Water will soon mute the stones' glow, filling every crevice of the enclosure with hot steam.

The large stones glow red hot near the feet of those seated inside the sweat lodge as the tent flap is lowered, immersing participants in total darkness. Water will soon mute the stones' glow, filling every crevice of the enclosure with hot steam.

But first, Native American ceremonial leader Arnold Thomas speaks in reverent tones, his voice a mirror to the rising warmth that begins to fill the spaces between those inside, chasing away the winter night's chill. He talks lovingly of the air, the water, the trees and the glowing "stone people" placed in the pit as a foundation for the ceremony to follow.

As he sprinkles bits of cedar and sage on the sizzling stones, the smoke offers a sweet aroma — a "blessing" that he encourages participants to breathe in, with gratitude for the earth and her many gifts; for the ancestors that perpetuated life; for the lives of trees, animals, birds and plants whose bodies, furs, feathers and fruits provide sustenance for all humanity.

Designed to replicate the womb of mother earth, the lodge begins to swell as ladles of water bubble into clouds of steam, invisible to the eye in the pitch-black enclosure where white hands can't be seen in front of their white faces. Sweat begins to form on more than a dozen foreheads, noses, necks and backs. Droplets soon become rivulets, as the steam opens bodily pores.

More ladles of water sizzle on stone as Arnold's drumming and chanting rise with the steam. Clothing becomes saturated, and a towel can only temporarily stem the streams of sweat pouring from faces and foreheads.

Participants are urged to offer prayers, either silently or aloud, offering their gratitude to the creator and asking for assistance with ailments physical, emotional or spiritual, either for themselves or for others.

Once the heat becomes nearly overwhelming, the flap of the tent is lifted and steam pours out into the frigid January air. The ceremony leader continues his instruction, repeating many of the phrases he's used before, urging each person to absorb the words mentally while their bodies recover physically from the intense heat.

After the steam has cleared, those who watch over the super-heated rocks in the fire outside the lodge begin carrying more of the "stone people" to the pit inside with a shovel, each one place carefully atop the water-cooled stones until their warmth begins to radiate through the tent once again.

The flap is closed, the darkness returns, and round two begins.

These ancient ceremonies have been performed over the centuries by various Native American tribes as a process of purification. This particular lodge often houses veterans of war, seeking to purify both broken bodies and spirits that have turned to drugs or alcohol for comfort.

As participants in a clinical pastoral education program at Salt Lake's VA Hospital, those gathered in the lodge this night are immersing themselves in a faith and cultural tradition few outside the Native American fold know about, and fewer still have experienced.

And as the night wears on, with minutes becoming hours, each comes to understand with every physical sensation how literal that immersion will be.

Perry Schmitt is a soldier and Fort Douglas chaplain who served five tours of duty, two of them in Iraq. Stationed first in Baghdad and then Mosul, the scars he brought home are the emotions that rage inside after watching 46 of his comrades die.

He comes to the lodge without fear of the heat. It's 130 degrees under the Baghdad sun.

"Physically the strongest feeling came when Arnold poured the water on the red hot stones. The steam immediately got my attention. It was intensely hot, but after 30 seconds or so I got used to it."

As he and the others were asked to share why they chose to participate, Schmitt spoke of the emotional pain he brought home. Sensing he may be able to help in the healing, the medicine man asked Schmitt to stand at one point in the ceremony, and performed a ritual around his head and shoulders as the others watched silently.

"Emotionally, I felt the strongest feeling when Arnold smudged me with the cedar, wafting the smoke all over my body. I have not done this before. It felt good to receive this much care and attention. I was filled with gratitude to receive this much love and respect."

As a Nazarene, his Christian faith came to the fore as he poured out a series of verbal pleadings asking God for help and healing.

"Spiritually, I prayed as much as I could during the ceremony. I prayed intensely for my family and some friends having very tough times right now. I also prayed for myself. I resolved again to get rid of as much of my pettiness, smallness, littleness and resentfulness as I could. I hate it. I also resolved to make my life count for something bigger than me, to make it count for Christ and the people he loves."

Rosemary Baron said she found "parallels to my own spirituality, but such vast differences as well: the drumming and heavy chanting and the inclusion of every single person within the circle. Those are things I don't often find," in her Catholic rituals.

A retired school principal, she has traveled widely and experienced much, "but nothing like the lodge. … I felt so wholly purified in body, mind and spirit. I'd describe it as all-inclusive, because it touched every part of my being: physical, emotional and spiritual."

She found the circle of participants to be "very open, and very inviting, in that it lacks pretense. There was no show going on — it was all done in the dark."

The intensity of the fire and building of heat "played its part in purifying process — skin and body as we breathed in the steam, there was a purifying of the spiritual and emotional aspect of our being. That intensified as we went through the course of the evening."

After nearly four hours, Baron emerged from her journey through the ritual, prompted to pen a prayer, which includes these impressions:

"Purify Us, O Creator! encircled reddened lava rocks, rising tobacco incense; oh, heavens; altar of thanks and praise; snow fog moon star heavens. Purify Us, O Creator! womb emerging; relatives summoned; humans encircling.

"Purify Us, O Creator! drum heartbeat rhythm of soul; blessed Arnold; praise chants; petition chants; offering chants; prayer chants."

A retired pilot for United Airlines, Melvin Ward found the most meaning in the medicine man's words, as Native American faith practice is based in part on "being so grateful for things rest of us take so much for granted. How grateful they are for ancestors, grass, trees, clean water and clean air. I guess they have been environmentalists for a long, long time."

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ward sought out the chaplaincy program in pursuit of a childhood dream of learning about other faith traditions and using that knowledge to reach beyond his own.

"I was impressed with deep sense of gratitude I heard," which made him ponder on "what a miraculous blessing it is to drink clean water and enjoy the beauties of nature. We really are stewards of the environment."

Native Americans "refer to mother earth with great affection, and I was overwhelmed with his complete sense of gratitude. I think we could learn a lot from that."

While he wasn't impressed with any new spiritual insights or feelings "probably because I'm entrenched in my own culture," he "related to the ancestors theology quite well. I sensed there is almost a worship of ancestors whereas as LDS people don't worship them, but we have great respect for them."

At age 73, Ward said he "enjoyed the experience," but found he was "beyond medium-rare by the last round. I handled it okay, but I was ready for the closing prayer."

Solace of heat

Traditional Native Amercan sweat ceremonies at a veterans' medical center in Salt Lake City offer patients an alternative path to healing

By Jessica Ravitz | Salt Lake Tribune | Nov. 13, 2006 | link to original

Editor's note: Reporter Jessica Ravitz participated in a sweat ceremony at Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salt Lake City and shares a view from the inside. The names of veterans receiving substance abuse treatment have been changed in the story to protect their identities.

Native American men often returned home from battle haunted. The violent images of actions including their own left their spirits wounded. To mend that which had been broken, many tribes welcomed the warriors with the warmest of embraces. A sweat ceremony, a purification ritual, helped bring the men peace and make them whole.

Fast forward hundreds of years to Vietnam flashbacks, IEDs in Iraq, foreign deployments that last for months, even years, on end. Today psychologists regularly invoke the term "post-traumatic stress disorder." Combine combat trauma with perhaps a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, divorce, unemployment or even homelessness, and it's no wonder substance abuse programs at Veterans Administration hospitals see a steady flow of patients.

Shame and guilt, after all, can drive the most well-meaning of individuals to self-destruct.

Salt Lake City's VA Medical Center is tapping into an age-old tradition to help these troubled veterans, inviting them, voluntarily, to sweat, regardless of their backgrounds.

"Oftentimes vets who have been in combat, their spirit is still overseas," says Arnold Thomas, the spiritual leader who conducts the twice-monthly and year-round ceremonies in the VA hospital's sweat lodge. We want to bring "his spirit back into his body and welcome him home again."

Tucked behind Building 4 on the sprawling VA hospital campus, beyond the metal gate featuring a medicine wheel and the word Purtkwahgahm (Ute Indian for "healing ground") sits the sweat lodge, established more than four years ago.

A handful of veterans, including alumni and others currently in the North Star substance abuse program, help prepare for the ceremony. They chop kindling, for several hours, to fuel the fire that'll heat more than 30 lava stones. Several men, including one Native American in a T-shirt featuring an eagle and the phrases, "Pure American" and "Live Free," stand by ready to assist in building the fire, setting up the altar and doling out prayers.

James, an Anglo veteran in recovery after a 30-year addiction to cocaine, says the treatment program and the sweat ceremonies have saved him.

"It's a spiritual cleansing," he says about the sweat, which lasts about four hours. "It purges my body of toxins. When I'm done, I feel high."

Sweat practices vary by tribe, among those that observe the ceremony, but today's consists of four rounds. With the use of rattles, drums, herbs thrown on the hot stones, chants and traditional song, the spiritual leader and participants pray for others, not themselves. The first round is for the unborn and infants, the second young people, the third adults and the fourth the elderly and those who have "gone before us," Thomas explains.

"Our ceremonial rites are about giving... We're taught not to pray for ourselves," says the spiritual leader, who also invites participants to include prayers of gratitude and healing.

The actual sweat lodge, a small dome-like structure, is modeled in the Plains Indian tradition, framed in willow branches tied to replicate a buffalo's body (a long veterbrae and rib cage). It's heavily draped with thick military-green woolen blankets and a canvas tarp, all meant to hold in the heat and moisture while keeping the inside pitch black. The lodge symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth, and ceremony participants emerge from the experience reborn.

Thomas crawls through the sweat lodge door, or flap, which faces east. He's making final preparations, clearing out the pit inside, blessing it with tobacco and feeling his way as he sets up the altar that stands between the lodge and fire.

The Shoshone-Paiute, now of Salt Lake City but once of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and Nevada, has his own traumatic story. After his father committed suicide, Thomas - a former star athlete in high school - steeped himself in drugs and alcohol. At 18, he lodged a 30-30 hunting rifle beneath his chin and fired, trying to kill himself. Instead he blew off almost half his face and survived, leaving himself permanently blind and unable to speak for several years.

Eventually Thomas, 36, turned to tribal traditions to learn about forgiveness and deal with his pain, anger and guilt. He found healing and balance, relying on elders who taught him to help others. Along the way he earned a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah and now works with Volunteers of America. When he isn't at his day job, providing spiritual guidance or leading ceremonies at the VA hospital or Salt Lake's Indian Walk-In Center - he used to lead sweats at the state prison, too - he travels North America as a motivational speaker.

On this day, a group of men and one woman stand beneath an overcast sky as the ceremonial fire roars. Dan, an Anglo first-timer snug in his West Coast Choppers sweatshirt, looks for last-minute tips.

"I heard if it gets too hot, I should meditate, right?" he says.

"Be in your prayers, because then you're in your spirit. And your spirit doesn't know heat, fatigue or thirst," advises Rod Betonney, a Navajo who's worked in the drug and alcohol field for 20 years and is an addiction therapist at Eagle's Nest, the residential component of the VA's treatment program.

Betonney has laid the groundwork, giving participants a general understanding of the sweat, before the spiritual leader takes over.

From wooden boxes and ornate wrapped bags, Thomas pulls out the materials to create the altar, muttering prayers in Shoshone. A staff, the wood-burnings completed by a Vietnam veteran from Michigan, stands in the altar, a small mound of earth. Arranged around it are items including a buffalo skull, elk hide and cocoon rattles, a drum, a fan made of eagle feathers, a set of antlers and a can of tobacco.

Participants circle the fire, sprinkling tobacco and their own prayers on the flames. A tin can holding burning embers and cedar is carried around, the smoke directed toward each person with the waving of feathers. The plumes of smoke carry prayers skyward and bless the sweat before it begins. The men strip down to shorts or swimming trunks. Women are asked to wear a long skirt and short-sleeved T-shirt. While some tribes prefer single-sex sweats, others allow co-ed participation. The VA, a federal program, must be open - both to genders and belief systems. If a participant wishes to pray to Jesus or recite verses of Quran while sweating, that's just fine.

"Pray to whatever it is you believe in," Betonney says.

With Thomas seated in the lodge, the group of about a dozen slowly enter. On their hands and knees, the participants - about half Native American, the others Anglo - greet the spiritual leader with: "Permission to enter." He welcomes each person, one by one, as they add the words, "All my relations," and crawl in a clockwise circle to take their positions. The space is no more than 5 feet high and about 12 feet in diameter, and on some occasions, holds up to 25 people. In the center is the pit where hot stones will be placed. A bucket of water is on hand, not to drink, but to pour on the rocks and fill the lodge with steam.

No one can say just how hot it'll get. Answers, from people who've been to a sweat before, range from "damn hot" to "very frickin' hot." But the point is to separate from the physical, detach and lose oneself in prayer. James speaks of having hallucinations, seeing "fairy shadows" and images of a "veil blowing in the wind." If the heat becomes unbearable, some suggest putting your head on Mother Earth.

"She'll take care of you," they say.

The stones, said to represent ancestors or teachers, are brought in one by one by the "fire man," a participant who keeps the fire going and brings fresh hot stones into the lodge before each round. "When they're real hot" the man, who's both Navajo and Hopi, says later, "you can see their faces."

"They speak to you," Betonney adds, "through the steam."

The fire, Thomas says, "symbolizes the same fire that's in you ... that spirit that's burning in you."

The darkness inside is the kind where you can't see your hand in front of your face. Sometimes, when cedar, sage or sweet grass is sprinkled on the stones, which might glow if they're hot enough, you can see the orange of the burn. The sweet smells fill the crowded space, as do the rhythmic beatings of the drum and shakings of rattles, the Shoshone songs and chants. Participants pray, some silently, some in whispers, others in moans or cries. They pray for their loved ones - from the past, present and future - and pray for the people they speak of and share stories of between rounds.

One veteran, who's disconnected from his own children, asks everyone to "pray for fatherless chldren and childrenless fathers." Simon, an Arapoho, speaks of an uncle who just killed himself and a cousin who died in a car wreck. Betonney requests prayers for friends who are struggling with addiction. Many of the men, including Thomas, speak of soldiers and veterans who need peaceful lives and states of mind.

When the flap opens, after each round, the released steam carries the groups' prayers. The cool air that enters is said to be the breath of the creator.

Participants are encouraged to stay for all four rounds, to "complete the circle," but doing this isn't easy. Dan, the first-timer, begins a mad scramble toward the exit after the first round. "I've got to get out of here," he cries. "I'm sorry, but I can't do it."

Thomas reaches out to the sound and talks Dan down as the others look on. He asks Dan, who's fought in three wars, to bow his head to Mother Earth. Dan is blessed with special prayers. Eagle feathers and cedar smoke are waved around his drenched body. And in the end, this veteran breathes easier, finds a sense of calm and retreats to his spot in the lodge. "This is really something," he says later. "I'm never going to forget it."

Later, after the second round, Simon - his face to the ground - moans: "I'm going to be sick." He crawls from the lodge and wretches, repeatedly, outside. Thomas and several assistants join him for blessings by the spiritual fire. They pray for his healing and strength. Having just been in treatment for a few days, the poisons are still deep inside and need to come out. Purged, Simon crawls back inside to join the group.

Between rounds, participants sprawl on the floor. Some lie flat on their backs, knees up; others are in the fetal position or face down. Still others look around, sharing nods of encouragement and gentle smiles. With towels, they wipe away sweat as it pours from their skin, soaking their clothes and hair.

About a third to half of the 15 veterans enrolled in the Eagle's Nest residential treatment program do the sweat at any one time, Betonney says. The other participants are alumni, those receiving outpatient services, or - at today's sweat - Native American veterans getting treatment in the Volunteers of America detoxification program. Many share stories of gratitude. A Navajo vet, who was once living on the streets, says reconnecting with his spiritual side allowed him to move in the right direction.

"You can take yourself to this place [spiritually] any time and any place you want," Betonney likes to remind participants.

The sweat ends as dusk begins to fall. The group, in their dripping clothes, gathers outside and shares deep embraces. James, clean for 115 days, walks out smiling, likening the high, the experience, to doing "an eight-ball of cocaine."

But this is a high of another sort. The sweat lodge experience is one that this veteran, and the others who pray for him, hope will help build him up, bring him peace and make him whole again.

A role model of resiliency

Tom Wanamaker | Indian Country Today | March 21, 2002 | link to original

Like many young men, he seemed to have the world at his feet. One of Nevada 's top high school athletes, he excelled at both basketball and football and dreamed of playing collegiate and professional sports. But in a split second, Arnold W. Thomas completely transformed his life and his future.

Despondent over his father's suicide two years earlier, and wracked by alcoholism and drug-abuse, Thomas put a rifle under his chin at age 18 and tried to kill himself. He failed, but seriously damaged his face, leaving himself blind and, for two years, unable to speak. Yet Thomas, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of Idaho and, has bounced back to become a living lesson in perseverance.

Arnold Thomas had to start over from scratch.

"On top of losing my sight, I couldn't talk ? I had to learn to speak again," he told ICT recently. "I went to Salt Lake City to go to a school for the blind and, at 19 years old, I had to learn a new way of life, [with] independent skills ? basic things, like walking down the street, crossing streets, riding public transportation."

Now, at age 31, Thomas travels throughout the United States and Canada, speaking to school and community groups, both Indian and non-Indian, about suicide and substance abuse. His theme is resiliency, the ability to bounce back from adversity; he compares his personal experiences and struggles to those of Indian country as a whole. He spoke at the Dancing the Path Wellness Conference, held March 4?6 at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y.

"Resiliency is intuitive and, to me, spiritual," Thomas explained. "Native people for thousands of years have used the four basic elements to maintain balance and harmony ? By connecting with these elements through prayer, Native people have always been able to find inner peace no matter what type of trauma, tragedy or positive experience they go through. They've been able to take those experiences and find a silver lining and adapt to and find the beauty in whatever type of situation they are in and make the best of it."

Seeking strength and balance, Thomas looks to the traditional ways of the Shoshone-Paiute people. A sun-dancer, he also participates in sweat lodge and pipe ceremonies, vision quests, and the Native American church.

"They're very old, hundreds and thousands of years old," Thomas said. "The songs and language incorporated in the ceremonies tie me and connect me to the past and help me to maintain that balance in my life. So, the ceremonies are there to help me maintain balance within my mind and among my emotions as well as in my physical body. I got away from it [traditional ceremonies] when I was in high school, but came back when I got older."

Music has served Thomas as another means for spiritual release. He recorded a selection of songs entitled "Dosa Weehee, Sounds of the Great Basin." The CD features Thomas singing traditional and original songs in the Shoshone-Paiute language, accompanied by hand drums, rattles, flutes and guitars. "Dosa weehee" is Shoshone for "white knife." More information on the CD is available on the Internet at

In 1999, Thomas graduated from the University of Utah with a master's degree in social work. He views his specialty, clinical therapy, as a way to help and inspire younger students; if he can overcome the considerable adversity he's faced, then they can beat the obstacles in their paths as well.

"A lot of the young people I speak to come from broken homes, blended families, interracial families, or have parents who are abusive in every way we can imagine," said Thomas. "I just let them know that it's there, that they've got the ability to overcome and make a better life for themselves, but they've got to want to it. I got my degree in clinical therapy because I feel like a lot of Native people have that [same] ability; [I just try to] help them to find the positive qualities that are there."

Despite his blindness, athletic competition remains a key emotional outlet for Thomas as well as a viable means to a college education for younger athletes.

Once a star basketball player (he competed in a national foul-shooting contest in junior high and was pursed by collegiate recruiters in high school) Thomas\ belies the idea that a blind man cannot coach sports. With some help from a sighted assistant, he has coached youth basketball, stressing commitment and fundamentals from his players. He teaches defense, shooting and dribbling through a combination of demonstration and explanation.

"In basketball, playing defense, there's a certain defensive stance I'm looking for," Thomas explained. "I actually get out there and show them how to shuffle and how to have one hand higher than the other. I just kind of walk them through it, the spring in your feet, the technique, the follow through, dribbling with the right and left hands and passing. I help them to visualize" what they're doing.

"I break it down and tell them that, like anything in life, you've got to have the basic fundamentals and then from there build on them," he continued.

"I guess the big thing I tell young people is that athletics are 90 percent mental and ten percent physical. The game's won before you get out on the court."

Although not currently coaching, Thomas carries the message over into his inspirational presentations, asking his listeners to visualize things with their eyes shut. "When I work with young people I have them close their eyes throughout my presentation and make reference to various situations in my life," he said. "I run them through some visual images; if you can visualize things, there are a lot of things that can occur in a positive way. I was told by a blind person when I lost my sight that there are only two things that we can't do as blind people. One is that you can't drive a car and you can't read print on your own. I've driven a car since I lost my sight and I have other methods through which my tasks are accomplished."

Yet for all his strength in overcoming his personal adversities and setbacks, Thomas still deals with a very difficult subject, suicide. As a suicide survivor, and as one whose father and paternal grandfather both killed themselves, he can certainly provide considerable insight on the subject.

"Suicide is not just a native problem," Thomas insisted. "Through my research in graduate school [I found that] for a while the state of Utah ranked third or fourth in the nation in adolescent suicides. Not just native people but across the board. And we asked the question 'why?' A lot of communities, whatever race they are, tend to sweep the issue of suicide under the carpet." To get his audiences to open up, Thomas uses "the experience I've been through, as well as having it in my family, and having friends attempt suicide and other people succeed at it." He also, perhaps surprisingly, uses humor.

"Humor is a big piece I use when I work with any population talking about suicide because it's so sensitive in every culture," Thomas said. "Using humor helps me to open up the door so the people can hear what I have to say. And I use it throughout my whole presentation. I have refined my technique so I can help whatever population I'm working with ? The manner in which I present all this information gets real powerful. It's not just that, 'Hey, I shot myself ? I was an alcoholic drug addict.' It's not about that. I incorporate my skills as a clinical therapist to help people to write about how they feel in a journal or diary, so they understand how to make a connection with their emotions and can feel comfortable talking about it.

"This is a big key in Native country ?? we were taught for so long 'it's not OK to express how you feel. It's not OK to cry,'" he continued "As I work with more communities, I am finding out it's not just a native issue, it's a male issue. I was taught that a man is supposed to be tough and strong and not cry. I tell people 'That's a lie,' because we're humans. If we feel sad it's OK to cry and if you want to talk about it, that's OK. But don't make a split-second decision when you're angry or real emotional because you're going to regret it."

"The biggest thing in resiliency that I encourage in people is to have a dream, a vision, a long-term goal," Thomas said. "A lot of people don't have dreams.

Sometimes when they got older, they think they're too old and they don't need to have a dream. And with young people, I ask them what their dream was when they were younger and the second part of that question is where are you in accomplishing that dream. Have a dream, have a long-term goal, have a vision. We all need it."

A Vision in Darkness

By Arnold W. Thomas

In late June of 1988, I stuck a 30-30 rifle to my chin and pulled the trigger. My emotional anguish was great enough that I wanted to leave my lifelong goals and visions and the people who cared about me behind. Had it all come to an end? When the bullet raced through my face, it shattered bones, veins and severed muscles. There seemed no way in hell that I was going to live.

Why? This has been a common question asked of me by grandparents, parents, siblings and other individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide. In some communities where I have worked, there has been suicidal ideations on a daily basis. Even more disheartening, suicides in our communities have extended to a broader age range. Youth as young as 10-years-old as well as elders have been successful in taking their lives.

I have stood before Relatives throughout our land and have tried to answer the question, �Why?�. There are many reasons why our Relatives want to kill themselves. For many of us, it�s the inability to express our mental and emotional pain deep down inside with others that leads to thoughts of suicide. Some of us believe that no one cares about us, no one understands us or our current life struggles will never get any better. Often we loose hope and faith and slip into a state of depression. Then it is easier to begin thinking that suicide is the correct answer-- a permanent solution for our temporary problems.

Our Indigenous, spiritual, traditional teachings tell us that life is a gift. Suicide is not historically part of our culture. Taking your life is a selfish act. We are only given a certain amount of time to live this physical life. It is told that it�s wrong for a human being to cut their life short by killing themselves. Some elders say, when an individual commits suicide, their spirit remains earthbound until the day they were originally intended to die. It's our conscious choice to care or not to care and we as Original People of this land need to take a stronger and more compassionate stance against the issues causing suicides.

Our support as Relatives and friends is vital in decreasing the rate of suicide in our communities. Since 1988, I have been totally blind and have been living in a world of darkness. The support of my family and friends has been crucial in shaping the person I am today. This may sound ridiculous to some of you, but you never know when a smile, a hug, a pat on the back or words of compassion and encouragement like "I love you", "I care about you" or "you're special" will make a difference in someone's life. Often, just spending time with a friend or relative can be a valuable and precious gift to both of you. Our ability to communicate in all it's various forms with each other is powerful.

After my suicide attempt, I made a choice to ask the Creator to show me which direction and path I should take. Then I had to trust what the Creator was showing me, which was very difficult. TRUST-- I had to get real with myself. First, I had to forgive myself for trying to take my life. Next, I had to ask forgiveness from the Creator for trying to cut my life short. Then and only then was I able to take the steps I needed to ask my family and friends to forgive me. I had to make amends with those individuals who are alive as well as those who have passed on. By making the effort to bring the heart and mind together, I have been able to witness healing. In the process of journaling, talking to my loved ones and using ceremonial tobacco, I have been able to let go of my grief and move forward. By integrating spiritual traditional teachings and western therapeutic modalities I've allowed myself to walk through the pain and find some harmony and balance.

A question I have asked communities throughout my travels is, "What is your vision ?". The dreams and goals you have for yourself, family, community and Nation are important visions to work toward. Although I can't see through my physical eyes, I still have a vision of decreasing the rates of suicide in our communities. Since 1990, I have been sharing my story with individuals, families and communities with the hope that they will gain faith, strength and the motivation to live life to its fullest with gratitude for what they have. By sharing our personal struggles and triumphs with each other my prayer is that we can unite as a resilient People. Let me share with you what I see... .

Using the Sweat Lodge Ceremony to treat Veterans with PTSD

Arnold Thomas profile By Dianna Troyer

For Arnold Thomas, his attempted suicide in 1988 was a gift instead of a tragic regret. In seeking his own death, he says he instead found new life. By losing his ability to see, he says he has gained invaluable insight, so he, in turn, can help others cope with emotional pain.

"When I was 18, I tried to kill myself because I was unable to express my thoughts and feelings," says Arnold, an inspirational and motivational speaker who travels throughout the United States and Canada speaking at business and educational workshops."It's a miracle that I'm alive, "says Arnold, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, who grew up in Owyhee , Nevada , on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. "I've been given a second chance." Arnold tells his dramatic life story nationwide to help others - especially teens-learn to cope with difficulties, express their emotions and not attempt suicide. "I'm on the road eight to nine months a year, but to me, Owyhee will always be home," says Arnold, who moved to Salt Lake City to receive rehabilitation services after his attempted suicide in 1988. " Nevada didn't offer the rehabilitationservices I needed at the time. I still get back to Owyhee frequently to visit family and participate in tribal ceremonies." Arnold says one reason he attempted suicide is that he felt despondent about his father's suicide two years earlier. "I was an all-state basketball and football player and had a bright future, yet I still felt pain," he says. "One summer evening, I put a 30-30 rifle under my chin and pulled the trigger. I ended up shattering the majority of the bones in my face." He lost his eyesight and was unable to speak for a few years. "I have had to undergo about 30 reconstructive surgeries since 1988," he says. Arnold says the support of his hometown community, family and friends, along with a renewed will to live, helped him rebuild his life.

"The strength of Owyhee is that it is a close-knit community, and tribal members are willing to support each other," he says. "As I began to recover, I started to connect with our tribal healing ceremonies: the sun dance, sweat lodge, Native American Church ceremonies and many other tribal ways of prayer." To begin his recovery, Arnold says he set small goals to define success for himself. "At first, success for me meantgetting out of bed," he recalls. "Next, it was learning to eat through my mouth." His next goal was learning to live independently as a blind person. Arnold enrolled in a state program offered through the Utah Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Salt Lake City .

"I learned to read Braille, to use a cane for mobility, to cook, clean, vacuum and do laundry," he says. "A counselor told me the only thing I wouldn't be able to do that a sighted person can do is drive a car and read printed material." Once Arnold completed the rehabilitation program, he enrolled at the University of Utah , where he earned a psychology degree in 1997 and a master's degree in social work in 1999, with an emphasis on individual, group and family counseling. In 1999, after earning his college degrees, he launched his business, White Buffalo Knife Consulting, to tell his life story. He says the name for his business encompasses his indigenous origins.


Telling His Amazing Story Owyhee native recovers to inspire audiences across the country Arnold Thomas overcame years of recovery from an attempted suicide and now delivers his message to others.

"Many years ago, my clan carried white stone knives and were known for their strong medicine," he e xplains. "Also, I am a clan member of the buffalo people. The two clans I originate from have been withinmy people for centuries. The name White Buffalo Knife has a strong, significant meaning for me."

Arnold has been a keynote speaker at workshops for corporations,vschools, universities and tribes.

The topics he discusses include resiliency, overcoming self-destructive behaviors, grief and loss, the value of education, stress and anger management, substance abuse prevention, suicide prevention and learning to live with disabilities. "He's a role model for the disabled," says his sister, Claudia Thomas, business office assistant at Owyhee Community Health Facility. "He has come so far in his recovery and is excelling even without the ability to see. People look up to him here."

His mother, Glenda Thomas, says she is proud of how Arnold has recovered and is helping others. "He has struggled and come a long way," says Glenda, the lead teacher at Head Start in Owyhee . "His native teachings have really helped pull him through. Through his talks, he has helped teens and adults become aware of the negative effects drug abuse can have on families. He also makes them aware that suicide is not the answer. "One of Arnold 's favorite topics is resiliency. "I work to help people bounce back from life's challenges and encourage them to reach out to family and friends when they need help," he says. "We all have the ability to rebound. We all are resilient." He often speaks about fear, too. "It's a motivator that makes you either go backward, or you push through and move forward," he says. "Through daily prayers, I learned to walk through my fears." Each day, Arnold says he strives to maintain a balance of spiritual and physical activities.

"I say daily prayers to help me connect with the creator, which, in turn, helps me connect with the natural elements: air, water, fire and earth," he says. "Being in balance with creation helps bring peace." Besides praying daily, Arnold says he walks and lifts weights and sings traditional ceremonial songs. "Learning about tribal history, dances, songs and craft work have helped me to gain new insight and strength to achieve new dreams and goals," says Arnold, who began dancing as a Northern traditional dancer at powwows several years ago.

Since his suicide attempt, Arnold says his new vision in life is to work to decrease suicide rates throughout North America . "Despite all the things I've been through, I've been able to turn it around with help from others and make good things happen in life," he says. "We all face challenges and have the ability to overcome thosechallenges no matter what. Our lives are what we make them." ¦ More information about Arnold 's inspirational programs can be found on his Web site,