A place of healing: Gastineau Human Services builds sweat lodge

Traditional Native practice intended to help with recovery from alcohol, drug abuse

Posted: Monday, November 05, 2001

A 9-foot dome insulated with chunks of carpet and located near a junkyard may not seem like a grand achievement. But for the clients of Gastineau Human Services, it is a dream come true.

The khaki-colored dome, a Native American sweat lodge, was welcomed Friday afternoon with a prayer in Tlingit by Dr. Walter Soboleff, ceremony from medicine man Cy Peck Jr. and comments by other guests. Peck called the lodge "this beautiful place of healing."

"It's something that we have waited for and we have looked forward to for a long time, and we are very pleased that it's happening," said GHS mental health clinician Stephanie Loris.

Although particularly associated with the Lakota Sioux, the tradition of sweat lodges has spread across North America and Siberia. Various materials are used in their construction, from buffalo skins to cedar planks, willow poles, clay, bark and sod.

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Heat is generated in one of three ways: Lava rocks heated in a fire are brought inside and water is poured on them. A central fire inside the lodge provides heat, with no water used. A stone or clay dome uses a duct to bring in heat from an outside fire.

The lodge was constructed by Roger Sheakley of Craig, an Indian studies instructor for 17 years.

"Usually we use willow, but it was hard to find around here," Sheakley said. "So I used alder and whatever I could find, and scrap tarps."

The lodge seats 16 in a circle. Sheakley is waiting for lava rock from Sitka to use inside, because it can get hotter than granite or quartz without the danger of exploding.

Sheakley sweated for the first time five years ago with fellow veterans in Sitka.

"We like to use it as a healing process," Sheakley said. "For the (GHS) program, which is geared to drug and alcohol abuse, it will clean the system. The tradition has been around since time immemorial among the Eskimos, Athabascans and Tlingits."

GHS Executive Director Greg Pease said the events of Sept. 11 made the lodge even more relevant.

"This is a time in our lives when we are thinking a lot about healing, and this is something we can do in our little place on earth to share our healing," he said.

Cy Peck explained the sweat lodge process was symbolic of "coming out of the mother (when) everything is brand new." He learned the sweat lodge ceremonies and went through a vision quest in Montana with Cree medicine people as his instructors. In Montana, he had to sit for four days in the desert, in a place known for its rattlesnakes. Fortunately, he added with a smile, "We don't have to do this ceremony for four days, and there are no snakes here."

"Belief is the strongest force in the universe and symbolism is its storehouse," Peck said. "When I get up in the morning, and pour milk and eat corn flakes, it's all ritual thanking God for another day. When I say, 'What a beautiful man I am,' I compliment God. The hardest thing in life is to like myself. I can like everybody and may not like myself."

The 28 stones used in a sweat lodge are symbolic of a woman's life, of the menstrual cycle, Peck said. The sweat lodge faces east so it will be open to wisdom. The ceremony of sweating helps us "to understand where we are in life," to be born again, to start over, he said.

Peck used an eagle feather and a raven rattle in his ceremony for the lodge. The feather is a symbol is moving nearer to God, and the rattle is the sound of the elders, he said.

The lodge is just the beginning of a whole complex of healing, said Janet Forbes, GHS outpatient and continuing care coordinator.

"This is part of a goal. We want to provide Native-language training, to continue with the arts program and to teach subsistence, too," Forbes said. "A lot of people don't identify with what's on the blackboard but they can identify with this."

"We strive for sobriety," chemical dependency counselor Lenora Cooper said in her closing remarks. "I can feel that this will be good for everybody."

The sweat lodge may be used by the general public. Call Cooper at 780-3042 for details and reservations.


Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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