Sweat lodge gives imprisoned Native women moments of spiritual freedom

Sweat lodge gives imprisoned Native women moments of spiritual freedom

Overview

Navajo Times | Adron Gardner A fence surrounds the women's sweat lodge at the New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility in Grants Feb. 18.

Navajo Times | Adron Gardner
A fence surrounds the women’s sweat lodge at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants Feb. 18.

GRANTS, N.M.

A six-hour session set aside for sweat lodge once a week at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants gives Native American women a reprieve of spiritual freedom from physical imprisonment.

New Mexico’s only women’s prison opened in 1989, policies regarding the practice of sweat lodge listed on their website date back to 1984, and the prison uses New Mexico’s Native American Counseling Act of 1978 as a guide for what rights and privileges Native American women receive with regard to religious freedom.

Prison officials supervised a visit to observe the sweat lodge at a distance on Feb. 18. Women who signed releases to be interviewed were allowed to be interviewed with regard to what the opportunity to participate in sweat lodge meant to them.

Stephanie Mendez, 33, a Navajo from Bloomfield, N.M. identified as a “shalady” explained the sweat lodge.

Navajo Times | Adron Gardner Erma Bearshield, 32, left, Ilene Escalanti, 30, and Jennifer Wilson, 36, laugh together when being interviewed at the New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility in Grants Feb. 18.

Navajo Times | Adron Gardner
Erma Bearshield, 32, left, Ilene Escalanti, 30, and Jennifer Wilson, 36, laugh together when being interviewed at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants Feb. 18.

“I help the girls run the sweat lodge and share my belief with them, learn from them too, and also teaching them what I know,” she said.

On a personal level the six-hour session gives her a break from the life lived in very close proximity to the other 748 inmates. She said part of that is the rare opportunity of privacy.

“It brings us isolated, where we can actually sit down and talk among each other, in a circle, and keep everything private,” she said.

The lodge itself, built from blankets, faced the east outer fence of the prison. Women gathered around a fire and cooked grilled cheese, fried baloney, soup, and other foods.

She and other women compared the sweat lodge with elements of Christian life.

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