Story and photos by Rick Emert
Tucked behind trees at the end of a barely noticeable, winding driving trail – and well outside the stable area of Turkey Creek Ranch – sits the He Ska Akicita Inipi.
Translated as the White Mountain Warriors Lodge, the dome shaped sweat lodge is made from a willow frame and covered with blankets and tarps.
For those who know it’s there, it seems to be worth the trip for the ceremonies held every other Friday or Saturday by spiritual leader Michael Hackwith of the Lakota tribe.
“The sweat lodge is a purification ceremony.
We use it to clean emotional spirits, physical pollution,” he said. “You go to work all week. Some people go to church on Sundays; we come here and get rid of that pollution from all week. The pollution amounts to anything; you could have a fight with your spouse (or) a fight with your boss at work. It helps get rid of that pollution.”
The ceremony also offers a means for Native American servicemembers to get back to their roots, according to Tech. Sgt. Theresea Cocozziello, a substance abuse counselor from U.S. Air Force Academy who attends the ceremonies.
“I personally come because I was raised this way,” she said. “(When) I joined the military is when I no longer had a lodge to go to. For almost 10-12 years, I didn’t have this. What I get from it is it regrounds me. It reminds me of where I come from. It reminds me of my traditions and my culture. I get a lot of my prayers answered in there.”
There is no set schedule of ceremonies, but anyone interested can contact Hackwith to find out when the next sweat lodge takes place. He also holds emergency sweat lodge ceremonies and spends extra time with people who have not participated in a sweat lodge before.
“Most people will contact us ahead of schedule,” Hackwith said. “If they’ve never done this before, we’ll give them a general briefing: this is what you can and can’t do; this is what we recommend that you do.
Just because you are Indian, doesn’t mean you’ve done any ceremonies. There are lots of … Indian Soldiers that haven’t participated in a traditional ceremony.”
Before attending the sweat lodge, people should drink plenty of water. There is a dress code of sorts, and some items – such as crystals and certain types of feathers – cannot be taken into the lodge, Hackwith said.
Medical issues are also considered, said Wendy Chunn-Hackwith, Hackwith’s wife and leader for the women who attend the sweat lodge.
“He also will ask them if they are on any medications he needs to know about. If somebody has epilepsy or any type of seizure disorder, then they sit right there beside us so we can watch them closely,” she said.
“My children come here. My children have gone in. I have a 16-month-old, a 5-year-old and an 11-year-old. We’ve all been in there,” Cocozziello said. “Obviously I wouldn’t stick my kids in if I didn’t think it was safe. I do it with them, too, so they understand that this is where you come from. This is somewhere safe to pray. This is how I want them to be raised. I don’t want them to be raised being afraid of it.”
The ceremony lasts a couple of hours and includes four rounds of prayers and spiritual songs.
“The ceremony normally lasts about two hours. We open the door (after each round of singing and praying),” Hackwith said. “We’re here to support and pray for our troops; it’s as simple as that.”
In the past, sweat lodges were held for warriors going into and returning from battle. The lodge ceremony can serve that same purpose today, Hackwith said.
“Before we sent them in battle, we brought them in here and … gave them protection, gave them that medicine, blessed them with eagle fans and sent them into battle,” he said. “When they come back, we clean them up.
“Usually we’ll have any Soldiers who’ve just come back from the war or are going to the war … sit in the honor position so they get the most purified. If they come back from the war, they can release some of the things they’ve seen, some of the things they’ve felt. Sometimes they just talk a little bit, sometimes they talk a lot about the things they’ve seen or done. They know that once they leave it here, it’s not going to go anywhere. They get to leave it here, and it’s a little less pollution for them.”
The cleansing benefits of the sweat lodge can be helpful even to non-Native American Soldiers as they return from deployments, said Chap. (Maj.) Cope Mitchell, command chaplain’s office.
“One of the things … we can learn from part of Native American spirituality is the rites of cleansing, purification after battle,” he said. “The war is nasty; evil is sticky – it sticks to you. This is an option here that has a lot of merit in reaching out that we all need to learn from.”
Attendance of Native American rites and ceremonies – as with any other faith’s religious ceremonies – are rights protected by the Constitution and advocated by the U.S.
Army Chaplain Corps, Mitchell said.
“Let’s go back all the way to 1775. When the Continental Congress commissioned the Army to fight in the Revolutionary War, the first branch they commissioned was the infantry. (The second branch commissioned) was the Chaplain Corps,” he said. “The Constitution says Congress shall make no law requiring you to worship a certain way or prohibiting you from worshipping a certain way.
So, we have chaplains in the military to guarantee people’s free right of exercise of their faith. That’s a big part of what we’re about, and that is why the Army, particularly, has made such a great effort to support this kind of spirituality and ministry.”
Mitchell said that spiritual fitness can be as important to a Soldier’s effectiveness as physical fitness.
“The Army likes to talk about spiritual fitness; we’re a body, we’re a mind and we’re a spirit. I think for us to truly function at the height of our ability as human beings (we must) exercise all three,” he said. “The Army certainly does a lot to make sure the physical body is in shape. If you are going to advance very far in the military, you have to exercise your mind. They all work together, and the Army is … I think exercising the importance of spiritual fitness and spiritual resilience and the ability to get through the things that we’ve got to go through.”
For more information about the sweat lodge, contact Hackwith or Chunn-Hackwith at 719-285-5240 or e-mail Kanasitafoundation@yahoo.com.