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

Religious Freedom + Native American Spirituality

Over the years I have offered my spiritual guidance and direction to various programs in North America. Certain tribal ceremonies have given me the privilege and honor to conduct ceremonies for the people. It’s awesome to witness an individual’s life begin to be filled with joy and happiness. The gift’s that my ancestors left for me to utilize are priceless!

While residing in the Salt Lake Valley, I have noticed several disheartening issues. The Utah State prison system is allowing two individuals claiming to be Native American and ceremonial leaders to work in the prison with our Native people. It’s disturbing that Utah’s Tribal leaders are not doing something about it. What is worse, the Utah Division of Indian Affairs gave these two individuals an award! It’s disheartening that the L.D.S church has so much influence over our tribal and state leadership. What is really shocking is that Lenny Foster from the Navajo Nation is allowing the dog and pony show to continue with his approval. The corruption and intimidation has polluted the minds of some of our own Tribal people.

It’s sad when our relatives end up in the prison system. It’s not right when individuals break the spiritual and natural laws that govern us all. What is worse is when they are released from prison and tell people they have the right to perform ceremonies and carry a ceremonial pipe. Prison is not a place where individuals go to earn the right to be ceremonial leaders or pipe carriers. What has happen to our leadership to allow this to occur? It’s told that first you start to deceive yourself and then it continues to grow and grow. Before you know it, you began to believe lies and misconceptions as the truth.

For hundreds of years, Tribal people from North America have fought to insure that our various life ways would continue. It’s the tribal traditions they fought for! It’s about being proud of who you are! It’s not about pretending to be somebody your not. Each and every one of us was given original seeds of who we were to be.

At the beginning of the year 2005, I was asked by the George E Wallen Veteren’s Administration Medical Center to provide Native American ceremonies and rituals for patients. Within the last several years, the Medical Center has allocated land for Native American ceremonial grounds. This particular piece of land is called “the Healing Grounds”. On the property, there has been a sweat lodge constructed as well as a fire pit and other tools that assist us in the ceremony. Since 2005, I have been conducting bi-monthly sweat lodge, pipe ceremonies and talking circles. The participants who are involved are patients who are in the Medical Center’s Substance Abuse programs. Veterans who have been traumatized from combat experiences as well as other situations in life have received many blessings from the various ceremonies. It has been an honor to work with veterans who have served and protected this land.

In 2014, Mr. Arnold worked with a coalition of urban Native Americans and settler allies to ensure traditional ceremonies were not infringed upon or banned by environmental regulations. Air quality rules in many Utah counties restrict all wood burning during frequent periods of high air pollution, and not until 2014 was there an exception for ceremonial fires. The year-long campaign successfully installed a new administrative rule that exempts Native American ceremonies from environmental regulations.

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.