The Indians fast for two days before crowding into a dome-shaped lodge to chant and pray to the Great Spirit. Water is poured over 16 red-hot stones in a steamy purge of body and soul.
But this sweat lodge, a hallowed tradition among natives of the North American prairies, has an unusual setting.
It is erected every month in the recreation yard of Stony Mountain penitentiary in western Canada, where a dozen or more Indians strip down to their bathing suits and enter the sauna-like chamber for 2 1/2 hours of native communion.
“I’ve seen some awfully big, angry individuals melt after one or two sweats,” said Clark Morrissette, a Cree counselor employed at the prison.
The experimental form of rehabilitation is an attempt to break the Indian cycle of violence and alcoholism by restoring cultural pride.
The prison’s Native Brotherhood Organization is permitted to hold sweat lodges, sacred circles and powwows, to smoke the peace pipe, burn sweet grass and earn special passes to attend sun dance rituals on nearby reservations.
“We’re trying to get rid of the myth there’s two strikes against you just because you’re native. But we can’t do it without some form of religious awakening,” said John Stonechild, a Cree elder hired to counsel Indian inmates who form half the prison’s population of 430.
“These men are in search of something, and part of that search ends when they take up their rightful heritage,” Stonechild said.
For many of Canada’s 465,000 Indians, joblessness on the reservation and discrimination in the cities lead to drinking and violence, and natives go to jail far more often than other Canadians.
Half the Inmates
Half the prison inmates in Manitoba and 64% in Saskatchewan are Indians, although they make up less than 7% of the population in either prairie province.
On many reservations, bored youngsters deliberately break the law as a means of getting away, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Before the cultural program at Stony Mountain, seven out of 10 Indians would end up behind bars again following their release, said Curtis Fontaine, a Salteaux Indian who heads the Native Clan Organization in Winnipeg.
That rate is now down to 30% to 40%, and those who do return are surviving on the outside for longer periods, said Fontaine, whose agency has a contract with the government to supervise parolees and run a halfway house.
“Native people are still going through culture shock. For many, their frustration is out of control,” Fontaine said. “This program shows them they do have a place in society.”
Another result, according to Corrections Department official Ray Gawryluk, is fewer prison disturbances.
Inside the 20-foot-high walls of the maximum security prison, inmate Ed Sparvier, 26, said he adopted a “do unto others before they do unto you” life style on the streets of Winnipeg before his conviction in 1985 for aggravated assault.
Raised on the Waywayseecappo reservation in western Manitoba, Sparvier wants to return to life on the land when he is paroled next year.
“I remember history books in school telling me I was a savage and my culture and religion were heathen,” said Sparvier, who has “get high” tattooed on his arm and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well as two-hour sacred circles every Tuesday night.
“There’s times in my life I’ve screwed up severely. A lot of distractions can pull you off the Sweet Grass Road. But there’s a gap and a bridge across it, and it’s got a lot to do with self-esteem,” Sparvier said.
He keeps a bundle in his cell containing sweet grass, sage, cedar and a cloth depicting the medicine wheel on which the eagle symbolizes strength, the buffalo wisdom, the bear health and the mouse courage.
Brotherhood president Cecil Cooke, 28, has been in and out of prison since he was 15 for robbery and other crimes. He’s now preparing a proposal for Cree and Salteaux language lessons for inmates and plans to attend college when he is paroled.
He’s learned that he alone is responsible for his actions, not society or the system, he said.
“Every time I got out before I would either re-offend or be sent back for drinking. But what happens when you leave depends on how much you want to succeed. Alcohol and drugs are always available.”
Prison authorities began encouraging Indian culture 15 years ago, but native religion was not formally recognized until 1985 and it’s been difficult to find qualified elders willing to work inside prisons.
Other problems remain. Cooke said some unsympathetic guards have seized sage, cedar and sweet grass from cells on suspicion they were marijuana.
When an Indian made ritual cuts on his chest after learning that his family had died, guards thought he was trying to commit suicide and threw him into solitary confinement.
“To a white person, he was hurting himself. To a native, it was a ritual,” Gawryluk said. Guards now attend three-day native awareness courses.