by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Deep inside Turkey Creek Ranch there is a small dome hut made of willow branches and covered with heavy blankets and tarps. The Lakotas call it an Inipi, a sweat lodge.
Here, Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, their families and supporters come to pray in a traditional Native American purification ceremony. Inside the Inipi, they leave their inner “pollution” in the hot stones, said Michael Hackwith, a Lakota Sundance spiritual leader and retired U.S. Marine who runs the lodge at Turkey Creek Ranch, about 10 miles south of Fort Carson on State Highway 115.
“In the old days we sent warriors into battle,” he said. “Before we sent them to battle, we brought them in here, prayed over them, gave them protection, blessed them with Eagle fans and sent them into battle.”
Sweat lodges are part of many Native American cultures and used for purification ceremonies. Between 30 and 50 red hot stones are carefully put into a center pit inside the lodge and the door is covered so that the lodge is dark inside. The spiritual leader offers water, pouring it on the stones to create steam, like a sauna. Over the next two hours, he leads the group in prayer and song – mostly in the Lakota language.
The Turkey Creek Ranch sweat lodge was started in 1994 by two Native American military members who wanted a traditional place to pray. Fort Carson Army Installation gave them a permanent spot inside its Turkey Creek Ranch. While most of the participants are Native Americans, the lodge is open to anyone who wants to pray for military servicemembers, Mr. Hackwith said.
“The war and the politics ends at the gate,” Mr. Hackwith said. “If you come in here, it is to support the troops.”
There are no laws restricting free exercise of religion in the military. Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Randall Kitchens, 21st Space Wing chaplain, said Airmen are guaranteed the right to exercise their faith. Spirituality is one of four pillars in the Air Force – physical, social, emotional and spiritual, he said. He supports Airmen who want to participate in the traditional purification ceremony.
“The Air Force isn’t here to establish religion,” he said. “Instead, we are here to accommodate each individual’s First Amendment rights.”
Tech. Sgt. Theresa Cocozziello, noncommissioned officer in charge Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment Program, U.S. Air Force Academy, was raised participating in lodge. Now, she attends lodge with her children.
“It regrounds me,” she said. “It reminds me of where I come from. I get a lot of prayers answered in there.”
A sweat lodge ceremony lasts about two hours. It begins with participants making offerings, like tobacco, and placing them on the altar. Mr. Hackwith explains to participants what will happen inside the lodge. Lodge has its traditions – in proper attire and proper offerings.
“It isn’t an endurance contest,” he said. “We are here to pray and support the troops.”
Inside the steamy Inipi, Mr. Hackwith leads four rounds of singing and prayer. Between each round, the door is opened to allow steam to flow out. A person can step out of the lodge at anytime. Safety takes precedence, Mr. Hackwith said.
“If any (military member) have just come back from the war, or are going to the war, they sit in the honor position – there, they get the most purified,” said Mr. Hackwith, who has been a Sundance spiritual leader since 1993.
Military members are invited to tell their stories inside the lodge. Some share their experiences in the war. Mr. Hackwith said the purification ceremony benefits military members dealing with their emotions and feelings about the war, including the effects of post traumatic stress disorder. Everything said in the lodge, stays in the lodge, he said.
“We give (military members) the opportunity to share about victories and defeats,” Mr. Hackwith said. “We don’t take them out.”
Chaplain (Maj.) Cope Mitchell, Fort Carson command chaplain staff, said spiritual fitness is important to Soldiers, especially those struggling with their feelings about the war.
“One thing we can learn from the Native American culture is the rites of cleansing – purification after battle,” he said. “There is a lot we are trying to learn about how do we reinvigorate Soldiers back into the community. (Sweat lodge) is an option here that has a lot of merit in reaching out that we all need to learn from.”
n The next lodge will be Aug. 7. Anyone is welcome who is serious about participating in a traditional Native American purification ceremony. There are rules about attire and offerings. Call Michael Hackwith at 719-285-5240 or e-mail him at NdnVet65@yahoo.com to get the time of the lodge and the rules.
n Airmen who have questions about the lodge, especially about rules that pertain to women, can call Tech. Sgt. Theresa Cocozziello at 719-333-5171.