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Sheridan VA Health System Makes Space For Native American Traditions In Healing

Catherine Wheeler
A sign marks a sacred circle, which is the site of many ceremonies held as part of the Native American Traditional Healer Program at the Sheridan VA Medical Center.

On the eastern edge of the Sheridan VA Medical Center campus sits a peaceful view over northern Sheridan. In the winter, the grass is dead and the mud is thick when there isn't any snow covering it. Along a path, there are signs marking a sacred circle.

"It's that area where Native American ceremonies and opportunities are provided. [We're] working with a host of different tribes to provide this very important, very traditional practice that brings a lot of healing and a lot purpose and meaning in so many of our veterans' lives," said Derek Schultz, a chaplain at the facility.

There's a teepee for talking circles, painted rocks forming a medicine wheel and a turtle-shell-shaped hut with a small fireplace made of cement blocks. That's the site of the sweat lodge ceremonies the VA is now hosting at its main campus.

For more than a decade a VA outpatient clinic has been holding these traditional ceremonies in Fort Washakie. But Schultz said Native American veterans at the Sheridan campus would come to him looking for guidance.

"It became important, saying how do we engage with that and strengthen that since it is so meaningful to you?" he said.

Stephen Seminole is Northern Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne. He's also a veteran himself and assists in guiding sweats with the VA.

"Sweat is to actually go in there and pray. Pray for yourself, pray for your loved ones, and for healing. It is a ceremony," Seminole said.

Sweat lodges are historically connected to many Plains tribes. For the ceremony, rocks are heated by a fire. Then the people participating head into the sweat lodge and sit in a circle along the walls of the lodge. Inside, the structure is supported with red willow branches that were brought from the Wind River Reservation.

The rocks themselves are the healing force and are brought in from the fire and placed in the pit in the center of the structure. Heat then fills the space. A cedar powder is sprinkled on the rocks. Each member takes a drink of water from a ladle. Then the door is closed and water is added to the rocks.

The elders lead songs of prayer and healing and encourage the participants to also sing, pray and let out what is weighing on them.

"It's dark in there...It's like being reborn again. It's like washing away your sins," Seminole said.

After about 20 minutes, the door is opened for fresh air and a round is complete. There are usually four rounds, building with intensity from the heat and emotions. Seminole said the power of the ceremony is self-healing.

"Throughout the day or your past experiences up to that point, maybe you can't express that anybody, but when you go in there, you can express it right there," he said. "Even though you don't say it out loud, you can just pray, you can be healed from this, whatever is weighing on me. And when I go out that door when we're done with the four rounds, I'm going to be better. I'm going to look at life better," he said.

Seminole said this ceremony and other methods of healing are a way of life for his tribe and many others.

But the program is also available to non-Native veterans. Seminole said the experience can be beneficial to anyone, as long as they open up to it.

"You gotta be sincere about these things. And also, too, you gotta be open minded about what's taking place. We've been doing these things for a long time. It's our culture, helping people," he said.

One of those non-Native American veterans is Jo Anne Sims. She was receiving treatment at the VA for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Sims said it was an honor to be a part of the sweat.

After the sweat, Sims said she was able to process some feelings that she hadn't been able to through other ways.

"In this process, I was able to feel my respect for myself and my honor. This was a very moving ritual to not just leave the past in the past, but to move forward with new strength and power," she said.

The VA chaplain Derek Schultz said he has been working on the Native American program for almost 10 years, but it's only in the past couple of years that the Sheridan VA built its own sweat lodge and started hosting sweats with more consistency. Schultz said the program is a part of the VA's whole health model.

"Spirituality is one of the components of being a human being. And so the sweat lodge, the Native American program, the smudging and those elements tie very well in with the whole health model," he said.

Schultz added that veterans who seeking treatment, from whatever it may be, can benefit from also connecting with their own personal spirituality.

"Whenever they depart from our facility, they are not as much focused on their past, but they learn the valuable lessons from that, so they can move forward with that gained knowledge and gained insight in a way that's meaningful and purposeful to them," he said.

Each tribe that practices sweats holds them in a different way. The Sheridan VA works with the region's Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN 19), which covers regional VA health systems, and the Helena Indian Alliance to find elders from regional tribes to come share their traditions.

W.J. Buck Richardson is the VISN 19 minority veteran program coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Health Care Network. Richardson works as the American Indian coordinator for the VISN, which includes more than 60 different Native American nations in the region.

"Because there are so many different vets from so many different nations that come into Sheridan, they went ahead and worked with Helena Indian Alliance to be able to access traditional healers from different nations to be able to come in there and do ceremonies at Sheridan," Richardson said.

He added similar Native American programs have been set up at VAs across the region.

Schultz said as they move forward, the Sheridan campus wants to hold more sweats for veterans and expand the program out to more local VA clinics in their coverage area.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at cwheel11@uwyo.edu

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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