Native American activists say they see a void in northwest Iowa as their people try to heal from alcoholism, drug abuse and traumatic experiences. They built a sweat lodge over the weekend in Sioux City that they hope will inspire people to seek out the healing they need.
Native Americans have historically used small huts called “sweat lodges” as a means of prayer and purification. A person facilitating a ritual commonly called "a sweat” places heated rocks in the middle of the lodge and pours hot water over them, which gives off steam and heats up the small enclosed hut quickly.
While struggling with drug and alcohol abuse more than three decades ago, Calvin Harlan was approached by a tribal elder who offered him salvation through a sweat lodge.
At that time, he had no interest in attending, but reluctantly agreed.
“It was so sacrificing,” said Harlan, a member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska. “I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t like it at that time because I didn’t have a purpose for being in there.”
Two years later, he was approached by another tribal elder to, again, join a sweat. Feeling “spiritually bankrupt,” he saw no other way to help himself, and went in with more of an open mind.
“And I found my salvation there,” Harlan said. “I found my way of life in there. It’s quite a journey.”
Others in the Native American community and northwest Iowa may find similar salvation through a sweat lodge made from willows that, as of Sunday, sits near War Eagle Park in Sioux City.
The willows, Harlan said, represent the womb of Mother Earth.
“We talk to Mother Earth about our issues and when we come out we leave them in there so that they’re taken care of,” Harlan said.
Healing begins when those who talk about how they need it take action, said Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska in South Sioux City.
“And I see that from a native perspective, I see our community taking that first step and I see the rest of the community acknowledging that,” LaMere said.
Besides healing from addiction, people may choose to attend a sweat because they've lost a loved one, to pray for a child to heal, to find their way back to their native roots, or even to celebrate a birthday.
Harlan said there are two or three other sweat lodges in the community, but they’re more private and not Native-owned, to his knowledge.
There also used to be a group-oriented sweat lodge in the community close to where the new one is in the War Eagle Park area. It abruptly came to an end around a year ago when the person who owned the land died.
Around that time, a Native American community center closed as well, leaving a void, said Will Meier, a board member with the nonprofit Native Youth Standing Strong, which also helped build the sweat lodge over the weekend.
“For Native people, there was no sweat lodge to pray, there was no community center to go to,” Meier said. “There was really a lull in the community.”
The land they built the sweat lodge on is owned by Jackson Recovery Centers, which has a treatment facility there. Ben Nesselhuf, Jackson’s vice president and chief development officer, said the sweat lodge is one more way the center could better serve its Native American patients.
“Helping them connect with something that they feel comfortable with, helping them connect to their own traditions, their own culture,” Nesselhuf said. “In the past we’ve had patients that have gone off site for sweats, so this way we have it much closer.”
The group is still deciding how frequently it will hold sweats. Members held their first one on Sunday, which Nesselhuf called “a powerful experience.”
LaMere said as he looks forward and hopes to see the sweat lodge prosper, it could really make a difference for those who have lost themselves, helping them find their way through revisiting their roots and way of life.
“It’s time in our community to heal,” LaMere said. “Things have never been worse and we’ve undertaken to make this work.”
“It will work,” he said.