Lakota Nation Journal
Cal Thunder Hawk
VA celebrates tenth anniversary of sweat lodge
Story and Photos by Cal Thunder Hawk
Lakota Journal Staff Writer
PINE RIDGE BUREAU
HOT SPRINGS—“We are very pleased to have offered sweat ceremonies to our Native American veterans for the past ten years,” said William Lanning, Supervisor of Social Work Service for Mental Health at VA Black Hills, Hot Springs. “We look forward to continuing this spiritual offering for many years to come.”
Lanning was the master of ceremonies at the event last Wednesday.
The program began with a presentation of colors by the VA Black Hills Intertribal Color Guard. An invocation was given by Father Tierney, chaplain at the facility, followed by the “Sioux National Anthem” sung by the Porcupine Singers. After the flags were posted by the color guard, greetings and remarks by staff were presented.
Gwen Schroeder, Associate Director for Patient Services, Veterans Administration Black Hills Health Care System, welcomed the participants of the “Sweat Lodge 10th Anniversary Celebration, August 28” on behalf of the director of the facility.
She said, “This is a very important day for you and for us and for VA Black Hills. When we at Veterans Health Administration look at caring for veterans many times we focus only on the physical and mental health care of our veterans. And we are all pledged to look at holistic health care for all of our veterans. That means we need to be including spiritual and social health issues as well. And this tenth anniversary just demonstrates the commitment of many people in this room over the last ten years to put forth an effort to make sure and include the spiritual and sacred ceremonies of our Native American veterans,” said Schroeder.
She continued, “And I know that it took a lot of time, dedication, commitment and collaboration of VA Black Hills staff, of Native American veterans as well as the spiritual leaders. And I just want to convey to you today how much we appreciate, and thank, you for having made a commitment to begin this program and for continuing it for the last ten years because we know that it has been beneficial for Native American veterans as well as the staff at VA Black Hills.”
Dr. Robert Phares, Director of ACOS/Mental Health Services, said, “What we need to do is to continue to work together and this is certainly what we’ve tried to do at this facility. We can do a better job here because no one approach is going to answer all the problems. I’m glad that we’re able to provide the sweat lodge here.”
Owen Cuny, Addiction Therapist/Sweat Lodge Coordinator, said, “One of the things that was very important to me in my recovery was the sweat lodge. I had a lot of struggles in my own life—with addictions, with alcohol—and I never could get straight until I started using the sweat lodge … I never felt that I could fit. It felt like I was lacking something and when I was able to go through the sweat lodge and really start to listen to the other people and get in contact with my higher power through the sweat lodge, I couldn’t really put things into perspective. And the sweat lodge is the place where I feel really spiritual, intact.”
“I’m very privileged to be a part of this program. There are a lot of people who are dedicated to this. I want to thank all of them. It takes a lot of hard work. They’re always there for us … thank you,” he said.
Sharyn Richards, Minority Veterans Program Coordinator, said, “It’s a milestone. We’ve reached a milestone with our sweat lodge program. Dr. Phares mentioned earlier that we’re leaders of the pack but we’re eons ahead of other VA facilities. I attend many minority affairs conferences and our sweat lodge program is a source of pride for me. I boast about it, how well it operates, how smoothly it’s run. When I return here, for days and sometimes weeks, I receive email and telephone calls from the other VA programs that have heard me talk about this and I send out numerous copies of our sweat lodge policies to those VA facilities who request them.”
Richards said that, despite a budget crunch that has created a funding crisis, Lanning was able to get funding—from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she believes—that allowed the facility to have sweat lodge ceremonies every Friday.
Richard Galeano, former staff member and sweat lodge coordinator, said that his brother, Joe, who accompanied him to the celebration, had recently acquired more information about their Seneca heritage. Although their grandmother was enrolled in the Seneca tribe and had attended Carlisle Indian School, their family enrollment documents had been lost.
Galeano said, “For years we knew that we had Indian blood … so we’re pleased to find out, after all, that tunkashila hears your prayers.”
“I’d like to say a few words about the early days of the sweat lodge. One of the sweat lodge leaders that came was the keeper of the sacred bundle, Arvol Looking Horse. And he conducted a sweat here. We’ve had many others who have done so, too. Many have gone south. We pray for them consistently,” he said.
He continued, “There are two things that I’d like to point out today. The honor of having the first sweat lodge goes to the Saint Cloud, Minnesota VA. We were second. The other thing is that in the early days of the sweat lodge program, when we had a dying veteran in the hospital often I would get a call—two, three, four in the morning—and I would contact the Pine Ridge police. They would locate Dewey Brave Heart and his wife June. They’d get up that early in the morning and they’d meet me at the hospital.” “And to honor the request of a dying veteran we prayed with the channupa (“sacred pipe”). One time we had to do it during the daytime and the fire department cordoned off the area so that we could smoke the channupa inside the room. That patient died doing that. Those are some of the things I remember and I’m pleased to be here today to see many of my former associates and my spiritual leaders who kept this thing going.”
“The last thing I want to say is that in the initial stages of the sweat lodge program, I was amazed at how many veterans—Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, Arapaho and some Shoshone—would come to the sweat lodge in their mid-life, forty, forty-five-years old. And they were reunited with their faith, with their spirituality, and they left here walking tall. I was especially proud to hear Bill say that over 2300 veterans had gone through and prayed there. I thank tunkashila. Thank you.”
The Porcupine Singers sang a Lakota song to honor the sweat lodge leaders. The sweat lodge leaders who attended the ceremony were Dewey Brave Heart, Seth Noisey and Francis Two Charger.
“The sweat lodge is the Native path to healing,” said Brave Heart. He continued, “I’ve been there on the street. I came to this treatment five times and one time I had only one day to go and I walked out of here because I wanted to drink. And I really hadn’t found a path for myself at the time. In order to find a path for myself I had to heal myself first before I could help other people to help themselves. I look at being a sweat lodge leader as a part of my job as a common man. But most of all, I want to thank the people who are in power, who are in a position to maintain and keep this sacred ceremony of our culture to help our Native people.”
Brave Heart and his wife sang a ceremonial song that they first sang ten years ago when the sweat lodge ceremony was initiated here.
June said, “Ten years ago, the reason why we wanted to sing this song here was because it helped us through our sobriety. It helped us to sober up, to give us strength for our family and our children.”
Seth Noisey said, “I want to thank the supporting staff of Mr. Lanning and Sharyn Richards. My part with the sweat lodge is that I met Mr. Galeano at one of the conferences we had, I used to work with Virginia Satir. We were trying to bridge the gap between the Indians and the non-Indians in the state of South Dakota. I met Richard there. He was talking about the sweat lodge here. I think it had been in existence here for two years at the time he spoke about it. I was interested because I started working the sweat lodge when I was six years old. I used to haul water and build the fire. And I used to watch for the police because it was illegal in those days to have a sweat lodge ceremony. I used to tell the old men inside the sweat lodge, ‘If the cops come I’m going to take off first and tell you later.’”
Noisey continued, “But the reason I was interested in doing all of what I done with the sweat lodge was because the sweat lodge had helped me. For a number of years, I lived with this anger inside of me and all the hatred put there by racism. This was supposed to be America. I was an American. I put on a uniform to defend this country. Yet the people discriminated against me. The sweat lodge has helped me to work from the inside. So the anger came out. Now I’m really happy that I done what I did with the sweat lodge. I didn’t add anything to the sweat lodge ceremony and I didn’t change anything. I just did what I had seen over the number of years that I worked and helped with the sweat lodge.”
He concluded, “I’m very grateful that the sweat lodge program is working for the veterans.”
Francis Two Charger, sweat lodge leader, required an interpreter to address the audience. His nephew, Ben Good Buffalo, interpreted for him.
Good Buffalo said, “We follow the old traditional ways. It is hard. We express ourselves in our prayers. We pray for veterans and their families. We pray for those with alcoholism and one of the most important illnesses, diabetes.”
“Many of us are struggling on the Red Road. He gave thanks to Richard Galeano for the times he shared with him, seven years, and for the spiritual leaders here who expressed themselves in a sacred manner. He’s grateful to be here,” said Good Buffalo.
A Lakota song was sung by the Porcupine Singers to honor American soldiers who fought in wars.
The floor was opened to past participants of the program to share their experiences with the audience.
A man volunteered and came to the front of the auditorium to address the group.
He said, “I’ve been through this program probably five or six times myself. I remember Mr. Galeano and Dewey and everybody. The sweat lodge is what brought me back around to my spirituality, to the love of my people and all people. We need to take into consideration what someone said earlier. We need to work together, to do what we can for all of us. That means that I want to thank everybody for their participation for getting the sweat lodge together and for keeping it going for ten years. I’m sure that there will be many more vets that will come through who will enjoy it. I know that when I was going to sweats I’d come back and afterwards people would be asking me, ‘What did it do for you? How did it make you feel?’
He continued, “I said, ‘You just need to go. You just need to go. You’ll find out. And many people did try it.’”
Father Tierney provided the benediction.
He prayed, “Bless the work of the medicine men who have presided over the ceremonies of the sweat lodge for the last ten years. May the symbols, rituals, and religious insights of the Lakota people continue to bring wholeness, health and healing to our veterans who participate in the sweat lodge. Holy Spirit, we ask you to bless the staff of the Hot Springs Veterans Medical Center for having the insight to initiate the sweat lodge for our veterans. It has been, is now and will be a source of renewal, rebirth and re-creation for the veterans of our medical center.”
After the color guard retired the flags, members of the audience lined up and shook the hands of the spiritual leaders.