Story and photos by Samantha B. Koss
Behind shrubbery and trees on Turkey Creek Ranch is a small clearing occupied by a 5-foot-5-inch high dome-shaped hut made of white willows tied together with twine and covered in thick blankets.
The entrance of the hut faces the Colorado Rocky Mountains and a small altar sits in front with small stones surrounding a buffalo skull. This area, tucked away from the modern-day hustle and bustle, houses a Lakota Sioux sweat lodge that holds a tradition passed down from generation to generation.
The ritual has been kept alive in the Colorado Springs area by the lodge’s spiritual leader, Michael Hackwith, who lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is a Marine veteran who served during the early 1990s.
“When I came back from the Gulf War my relatives brought me to lodge to release the toxins that fill my body from war,” Hackwith said. “God got me through the war and lodge got me ready to return to civilian life after.”
Hackwith conducts prayer in the sweat lodge for fellow believers.
The Inipi, the traditional term for sweat lodge, is a place for worshippers to spiritually connect with the creator, he said. During the ceremonies, Hackwith heats stones, sage and sweet grass, which creates a sauna-like environment.
“We use this intense heat to push us into a new endurance of prayer while forcing our body to push out toxins,” Hackwith said.
“It is a purification rite.”
In the 1990s, 4th Infantry Division and Fort Carson provided the area in Turkey Creek Ranch for people to worship. Since then, Hackwith has been conducting these ceremonies for those who want to take part in the rituals and tradition. Every year after spring, the worshippers take a day to clean up the area, expose the frame of the lodge and replace the blankets. Early Saturday morning the group began its after-spring cleaning, which was followed by prayer.
“We share the knowledge and beliefs with everybody, and everyone gets along here … we do this to help each other,” Hackwith said, referring to their acceptance of all people to include the mix of Soldiers, Airmen, veterans and civilians who attend lodge regularly on the ranch.
“There is a lot of camaraderie here,” said Spc. Phillip Benoist, 361st Aviation Detachment, 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment, 2nd Inf. Div., who has been attending the ceremonies weekly for almost two years. “I was brought up Christian, but after coming to lodge, I felt more at peace with everything around me.”
Worshippers, who consider the rituals as a way of life and not just a religion, believe that they bring their mind, body and spirit back together through their prayer.
“We support the military … the ceremonies can get rid of negative baggage, especially things seen during deployments,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Theresea Cocozziello, Air Force Academy, regarding the positive effect these rituals can have on combat veterans. “We are here for families before, during and after deployment.”
The group comes together for these ceremonies bringing children, pets, food and water to worship like a family.
“Everyone is very welcoming,” said Air Force Special Agent Kevin Cheek, Peterson Air Force Base. “Lodge gives me a way to focus my mind to be more at peace with myself, especially after multiple deployments.”
With all the stress that can come with being in the military, the servicemembers who participate in worship say it helps them avoid mental health problems and provides an accepting environment where they can encourage each other.
Spc. Jason Wall, 4th Engineer Battalion, who has been attending lodge for a year, describes the ritual as cleansing.
“Lodge also has helped me deal with the pressure that comes with the job,” he said.
Trying to keep everything as natural as possible, the spiritual leader said he makes sure the ceremonies are done as traditionally as possible to stay away from the contemporary forms of sweat lodges.
“I am dedicated to doing these ceremonies,” Hackwith said. “We do this for health and happiness … to pray, not to play Indian.”
Through song, prayer and heat, this sweat lodge has provided a traditional and accepting environment where worshippers are building a brotherhood of Soldiers, Airmen, veterans and civilians.