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SWEATING IN THE JOINT: PERSONAL AND CULTURAL RENEWAL AND

HEALING THROUGH SWEAT LODGE PRACTICE

BY NATIVE AMERICANS IN PRISON

By

Emily R. Brault

Dissertation

Submitted to the Faculty of the

Graduate School of Vanderbilt University

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for

the degree of

DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY

in

Religion

August, 2005

Nashville, Tennessee

Approved:

Professor Volney P. Gay

Professor Leonard Hummel

Professor Beth Conklin

Professor Bonnie Miller-McLemore

Professor Michael McNally

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Copyright © 2005 by Emily R. Brault
All Rights Reserved

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heart.” “It’s not like a church where you go to services and you’re preached to,” it’s more about

sharing and supporting through learning and advice. Values of trust, honesty, and confidence

were also mentioned in this regard, and “what is said here, stays here” in the lodge. Participants

also stressed the importance of being able to work out problems together with openness and

honesty and without aggression. Values of loyalty and like-mindedness were also expressed.

All of the above qualities are predicated on an attitude of acceptance and unity with one

another. If you are participating in ceremony with someone, you are participating in a sacred

relationship of mutuality and positive regard. Everyone in the circle is valued, and everyone is

related. Different people “bring a certain something to the circle that has to be there in a way for

the circle to keep going around and around the way it does. Without them, there’d be something

else gone.” And these different people offer strength and power to the circle as well.

Everybody is accepted. If you’re white and you proved over the years that you’re sincere
to this religion, we don’t have (any) prejudice against you. That’s one of the things that
our religion teaches is not to be prejudiced, don’t be judgmental. Respect all religions,
respect all people, no matter what color or race they’re in. Regardless of how they may
view us, or how prejudiced they are against us, it’s not us to do what they do. This is the
way we are, this is the way we’ll stay. So if you come over there and you’re half-breed,
your white, if you’re black, if you’re Mexican, you know, if this is where you’re at, this is
your religion, this is where you pray, this is the altar you pray to, then we accept you just
as much of a brother as we are. Because through you, our prayers are being heard. Our
family is being secure and safe because of you.”

This acceptance is mitigated, however, by a unity of purpose and sincerity. As one man said,

“the sweats like everybody. It doesn’t matter what kind of people are over there, they just got to

be going for the same thing.”

Some of the men also talked about acceptance in terms of accepting life, or rather

accepting that their life is in the hands of the Creator. This is not an attitude of abdicating

responsibility for one’s life, but of trusting that there’s a bigger force that might be working

things out in a way that you cannot see, and that there is a bigger picture in which your life fits.

The creator knows the best way to take care of any problem. And so, if there’s any action
at all, or if there was anything done about it at all, then that was they way he felt it needed
to be taken care of. It (isn’t) up to me to argue about that. The Creator works the way he
wants to work.

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I’ve become a lot more willing to accept what’s truly meant in life, and not the life that I
wanted to make it. It ain’t so much about me, it’s the overall picture… . It ain’t about
what I have, or what I want. It’s about what I can do for other people.

This last quote also reiterates the importance of helping others. Here, it is what is meant in life,

the purpose of being alive. When this purpose is accepted, one becomes less selfish and more

aware of the interconnection of all things. Many of the men mentioned that sweating “makes me

see more of what’s meant for life, and that “there’s a better way to live.” This better way is

intimately tied to community.

Qualities of humility and respect are valued as well. Humility is often in reference to

being aware of all that one does not know, and being humble with the Creator. One man said

learning to be humble helped him in prison especially, because “you have to swallow your pride

a lot.” Respect is mentioned in reference to respecting each other, their differences, the

community, the traditions, and the sacred grounds.

Suffering in the sweat is highly valued as well, primarily in the way that one suffers for

the good of others. Because of the nature of the ceremony, a sweat provides both symbolic and

actual suffering, and participation requires endurance and perseverance to get through. While it

is not meant to be too harsh, and temperatures are regulated in various ways by participants (and

anyone is free to exit the sweat if they need to), suffering is believed to intensify the strength of

prayers and is a way to give back to the spirits and to each other. Suffering is also a form of

sacrifice, purifying the body and making a person worthy of spiritual intervention. When my

collaborators talk about suffering, they do so in ways that express the selflessness of suffering,

the ways that suffering gets one out of oneself and centers one in community. This says much

about the way that identity and community are formed through the ritual transformation of pain

into suffering, of self-centeredness into community centeredness. This community is not limited

to those that are sweating with you, but includes those that have come before and will come

after. It reiterates the hardships of life and binds one to the struggle of staying alive (and keeping

the ways alive). It enfolds one in a larger story.

Suffering for somebody else. That is a great and tremendous meaning. If somebody can
go in there and suffer for me, for my health and for my well-being, and suffer for my
family, well I’m gonna do it for you also… . You suffer through pain for somebody else.
And that’s very important. That’s what we do every week. We suffer for one another.
We suffer for our families.

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