STOCKTON, Calif. (MCT) – Crowded in the womb-like sweat lodge, they seek purification. Their American Indian spiritual adviser pours water onto red-hot stones. The steam is hard to breathe. By the ceremony’s end, they writhe in the mud and thistles.
It’s a privilege for wards at Stockton’s N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility who are learning American Indian traditions.
“I’ve been coming out here to find myself. ... who I really am,” said Lucas Contreras, a 19-year-old ward from Merced County. He’s tall with broad shoulders. Part Choctaw by birth, he didn’t begin learning American Indian ways until after being locked up.
About a dozen wards rise early one Friday for the ceremony, held on a hard patch of land between the prison’s two perimeter fences. The wards tend a crackling fire to heat the stones and stretch canvas over wooden struts assembling the sweat lodge.
They crawl inside the turtle-shaped dome on their hands and knees and close the flap that traps the heat inside. No sun light can leak inside. It’s pitch-dark, except for the glowing stones.
They start out the hourlong ceremony sitting. Before long, they lay their faces near the dirt in an attempt to escape the heat. The physical pain is supposed to induce spiritual reflection.
These boys sitting in a tight circle know more about the dirty side of life than most people can imagine. They weren’t always like that. There was a day when they were still innocent. Now, they are marked youths learning manhood in a prison.
Spiritual adviser John James leads the ceremony. Out of respect, the wards call him “uncle.” They come from all races and religious backgrounds. Inside the sweat lodge, they’re the same.
In turn, James invites the wards to talk. Each does so in his own way. Some ask their brothers for help. Others sing to a drum tap. They crawled inside to wrestle with their pasts. At times, the damp heat becomes unbearable.
James imparts sweat lodge rituals so later the wards can join one back home. He tells them to imagine standing before their ancestors from the beginning of time and asking if they are proud of themselves.
“I believe it’s important for anybody to find out who you are,” James said. “These kids here, they get caught in that gang. That’s not really who they are.”
When asked, Contreras chooses not to give details about his offense. He is ashamed. His crimes are sexual. He admits creating a lot of victims and that it’s a challenge to understand why he did it. He prays for his victims.
Sitting in the sweat lodge circle, he reaches out to his ancestors. One day when he’s free, Contreras says he’ll seek out another group to sweat with, and he’ll travel as far as it takes to find one.
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