SHERIDAN — Near the eastern edge of the Sheridan Veteran Affairs Medical Center campus, an area sits slightly removed from the bustling complex of buildings. The quiet parcel of land offers a peaceful respite with a view overlooking the north end of town. A Native American sacred circle lies on a portion of the land. Native American elders blessed the circle, which includes a teepee constructed in August 2018.
The land recently received another addition: a sweat lodge.
The lodge will help provide traditional spiritual and healing services and is likely the first sweat lodge at a Wyoming VA. Other VA locations with sweat lodges in the area include Salt Lake City and Helena, Montana.
The sweat lodge exterior is composed of materials that include tarps and blankets. It is supported by willow branches, and rocks hold down the outer covering, which allows the lodge to be sealed during the ceremony.
VA chaplain Derek Schultz said the process to open a fully operational sweat lodge took about three years. The lodge received its first use Sunday, as elders from the Arapaho Tribe led a ceremony that included 16 participants and lasted about five hours.
Schultz provided water between rounds and checked on the participants, which he called an interesting, educational experience. For now, sweat lodge participants can only be inpatient veterans at the VA, though Schultz hopes it will eventually be available to all veterans.
“There’s an opportunity to really reach out to our Native American veterans and provide them the chance to connect with their spirituality, connect with their tradition, to help them go through the process of whatever they might be wrestling with,” Schultz said. “…We want to make sure that we honor them in their tradition as well as their service.”
VA voluntary service program assistant Brad Fauber helped coordinate efforts to construct the lodge, which was erected over the course of one day last week. It was the first structure used but actually the second lodge built at the VA. A sweat lodge was built on campus late last year but needed to be rebuilt after damage from strong winds.
Going forward, volunteers will help with safety and precautionary measures. Sweat lodge temperatures can reach high levels, so participants must pass a physical and go through medical screenings beforehand.
Schultz said there will be at least one sweat per month led by tribal elders. Other options at the site include a medicine wheel, drumming circle and talking circle inside the teepee.
Neither Schultz nor Fauber — who is part Cherokee — have participated in a sweat ceremony, and they said the most rewarding aspect of the process involved learning about the history behind sweat lodges and rituals of different tribes.
“It was so educational just to sit and listen to them tell their stories and tell about their tribe,” Schultz said. “It was a part of western America that I didn’t have … that opportunity to experience that. It was very affirming in a lot of ways.”
The VA worked with the Helena Indian Alliance in spreading the word and seeking out tribes to coordinate performing a sweat every month, something that will continue going forward.
Venessa Sandoval, executive assistant at the Helena Indian Alliance, said the organization became involved in the sweat lodge process about a year ago and discussed how the program would work.
The HIA also found the appropriate people to provide construction materials and build the lodge.
Sandoval said it was challenging to sort out logistics, language and details, but the end reward was worth the effort.
“I think [veterans] are just happy that they have that service available,” Sandoval said. “… It’s a healing process … If a Native American wants a Native American traditional healing service, it’s there.”
Schultz, who leads the non-denominational VA chapel, said the sweat lodge represents an important element to the spiritual and holistic health aspects of veterans residing at the VA.
“We want to understand them so we can help them in their journey become more healthy and more whole,” Schultz said. “…Years back, [sweat lodges were] kind of lacking, but now we have something that’s meaningful.”
The sweat lodge represents a small yet important addition for veterans and could help them handle life’s trials and tribulations.