May 30, 2007

Sweat lodges for prisoners

Sweat lodge ceremonies reconnect Native American inmates with their culture, people and landThe 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.
Some history:It’s been three decades since the first sweat lodge was built in a Nebraska prison, but American Indian 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 eight-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.”

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