Path to the ceremonial grounds, escorted by Counsel Elder Jacque Martinson. • Photo by Joseph Denton
Path to the ceremonial grounds, escorted by Counsel Elder Jacque Martinson. • Photo by Joseph Denton

After several months of being being pricked, poked, prescribed, diagnosed, and processed through the VA American Lake Veteran’s Hospital, I was left feeling like a robot under repair. Unplugged from society and detached from myself.

In the midst of my clinical rehabilitation, the VA also offered an alternative means of healing through the Veterans Sweat Lodge at American Lake Hospital. The Veterans Sweat Lodge did not simply provide a therapeutic outlet, but it gave me a sense of connection between restoring my complete mind, body, and spirit.

What is a Sweat Lodge?

The Inipi Olwan, also known as a sweat lodge, is a traditional Native American purification ceremony rooted in thousands of years of tradition. “Inipi” means to enter into a bath. “Olowan” means to sing.

As Chief Elder Mike Lee explains it: “A purification ceremony to cleanse our spirit, to purge our body of the toxins of our everyday life.”

The sweat lodge is a safe environment located on the grounds of VA American Lake Hospital.

Veteran’s Sweat Lodge entrance, VA American Lake Hospital, Tacoma, WA. • Photo by Joseph Denton
Veteran’s Sweat Lodge entrance, VA American Lake Hospital, Tacoma, WA. • Photo by Joseph Denton

Although it’s intended for Veteran use, people from all walks and ways of life are accepted in it’s embrace.

Participants enter a dome shaped structure whose door always faces East. Sitting in a circle on the cool Earth, heated stones are strategically placed in the center.

The door is then closed, leaving it pitch black. Prayers are offered, medicinal herbs are burned. Water is poured on the glowing stones, singing commences, and the healing begins.

Access to the Women’s Ceremony was particularly difficult. To create an environment rooted in safety, men simply are not allowed on the grounds during the ceremonial process.

The Women’s Healing Ceremony was a world that was directly under my nose for years, but I was totally unaware of.

Women Elder Jacque Martinson explained that often times, at least one of these women have suffered some form of trauma or abuse at the hands of a man. Whether it happeneds as a servicewoman or civilian doesn’t matter to the woman’s acceptance to the Lodge. What matters is the comfort and safety of every participant at the Lodge.

Stories of strength. Stories of healing.

Estelita R. served in Army between 1977-1980. She described her battles with mental illness, physical disabilities, and a traumatic Brain Injury. But more so, she explained how the Ceremony has helped her overcome her struggles, and dramatically improved her quality of life.

“15 years ago I suffered a brain injury. I was in a wheelchair. I had to wear an AFO, which is a brace. Since I started coming to the lodge, I got to put away that brace. I no longer use that brace and it’s all because of coming to the lodge, and what I’ve let go, that anxiety, that nervousness.”

She explained the importance of having a secure ‘women only’ environment, and how what the woman to woman connection does to heal the spirit.

“Family unit. It’s family you can trust. You can trust family. Healing, very healing.”

“We work together as a team. A unity as women, we assist each other. Military is in a different mindset as being a civilian. We work together, to put them together, so that we can understand each other and help each other out as women. As WOMEN.”

Veteran Germaine Newman served in the Navy between 2004 to 2005 until suffering a career ending injury on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. In the following years she suffered from physical pain, mental illness, and detachment.

“I come from Native American lineage,” Newman said. “When I was younger I did a lot of running away from my family and in turn I also ran away from heritage from traditions. I was very shut off, very distant. I didn’t want people to know me, I didn’t want people to see me.”

After participating in the ceremony over an extended period Newman highlighted amazing physical recovery.

“When I started coming to Inipi I was still using a cane, barely able to walk from long distances,” Newman said. “I still have back trouble, but not near as bad.”

She went on to explain how the connection with fellow veterans and nature nurtured the growth of her mind, body, and spirit.

“I was uplifted from two separate directions in the same place,” Inipi said. “I had my Veteran brothers and sisters there supporting me and I had the spirituality of all of us together. I’ve had emotional healing, I’ve had spiritual healing, and I’ve had physical healing. I don’t even know how to describe it, how to put it in words. … This is a blessing.”

She offered advice to any women who still suffer in silence: “This place is sacred. We as women are sacred. We are the givers of life. This is an amazing place to come and just let things go. Come out here and get this natural medicine. Come out here and receive the freedom. Come home.”

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