BOLDUC PRISON, Maine - Even before the seven American Indian inmates entered the first Sweatlodge ceremony ever to take place in a Maine prison, the sacred fire awed them.
''It has been so long since we have stood by a fire, or even seen one,'' one man told Jamie Bissonette, Abanaki, director of the New England Criminal Justice program and a Sweatlodge organizer.
''There were smiles all around,'' Bissonette said about the May 18 ceremony at Bolduc minimum security prison.
The Sweatlodge ceremony was conducted by Micmac healer David Gehue, Penobscot elder Arnie Neptune, and Passamaquoddy member Brian Altvater.
It was a long time coming.
Bissonette, Neptune, Denise Altvater, Passamaquoddy and the director of the Maine Wabanaki Program, and her husband, Brian, met almost a year ago with Corrections Department commissioner Martin Magnusson and associate commissioner Denise Lord to request the right of Native prisoners to practice their religious beliefs, including the Sweatlodge ceremony.
That first meeting did not seem promising, Denise Altvater said, but with help from the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission, tribal representative Donald Soctomah and Lord, the historical day happened for the imprisoned Native men.
Soctomah introduced a bill during the current legislative session that would allow American Indians in state or county prisons to exercise their right to participate in religious ceremonies and practices. The bill is held over for the November legislative session, but meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee has written a strong letter to the Corrections Department, backing imprisoned tribal members' religious rights.
For a week before the sweat lodge, Denise and Brian Altvater organized all the items they would need. Brian chopped the wood, cut and prepared the alder pole, gathered the rocks and assembled kindling, cedar, mats, tarps and water.
Finally, the day arrived - and it was pouring rain.
''When we showed up we could tell they were in shock, because I think they didn't think it was going to happen; but we showed up and it did happen. The fire lit immediately. There was actually a brief letup in the rain while it got lit, and once it was lit no rain was going to put it out. It was really, really going good,'' Denise Altvater said.
Prison officials had given the project six hours. The Altvaters drove their truck full of supplies right to the area of the prison grounds where the lodge was built.
''They didn't even search our truck or us. We'd been working with them for well over a year to try to get this sweat lodge into any Maine prison, and they had enough trust in who we were. They were incredibly respectful,'' Denise Altvater continued.
The seven men were released to build the lodge. All of the prisoners were members of Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac tribes. One of the men had been imprisoned for more than 10 years, another for more than six years. One was being released two days after the Sweatlodge ceremony, a fitting closure for his time served and the new life he hoped to live.
''This was a healing sweat. They prayed while they were in there. You go into the lodge and when you come out, it's like a rebirth from your mother's womb where you come out almost with a fresh new start, with all of the other baggage left behind,'' Denise Altvater explained.
At the inmates' request, Denise Altvater remained outside the lodge, singing in the Passamaquoddy language.
When the lodge ended, Denise Altvater heard the men talk about their new responsibilities to each other, to the lodge and to their people, now that they had been through the lodge and knew what kind of life they needed to live, she added.
The lodge was a new experience for all the men except the one who had been in prison for 10 years. He stepped out and said, ''I feel more free right now than I ever did before I was put in prison 10 years ago.''
The spiritual liberation was also felt by others who were present.
''It was incredible, incredible,'' Denise Altvater said.