Sweat lodgeThis seemingly humble structure, the sweat lodge,
became a legal battle ground when Indian inmates
wanted to erect them within the walls of some

In fact, the simple, temporary structures that become sweat lodges — usually built of bent willow poles covered with hides — have provoked on-going legal battles over the practice of spirituality. Sweat lodges are built to aid in ceremonies of prayer, healing and renewal. The ceremonies are most often kept secret from outsiders, but in general hot stones are placed inside the lodge to generate steam. Various tribes will use different herbs or medicinal plants to purify the bodies of the participants. After what can be hours of prayers, songs, chants or story telling the participants emerge renewed.

There is probably no population more in need of healing and renewal than those Native Americans who are behind bars. In A Seat at the Drum, the State Youth Prison in Chino used a sweat lodge to help drug dealers, rapists, robbers and murderers find their spirituality.

Watch how a sweat lodge is built and the participants cleansed as part of a rehabilitation program in a California prison.

Click here to watch a video clip

But not all prisons are willing to let Native American convicts practice these religious ceremonies. Inmates in Utah, Maine, Massachusetts and California have had to sue wardens to allow sweat lodges to be built. They are not always successful, even in institutions where Christian churches have stationed chaplains for decades.

It may be that there is no one "right" answer to the struggle over spirituality. For some, a strictly traditional Native religious observance will bring a sense of "being in a good way." For others, going to a Christian church will allow them to "get right with God." And there may be some who combine parts of both religions into their own belief system and find healing for the health challenges facing Native Americans today.

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