Magazine article Humanities

Healing Spaces

Magazine article Humanities

Healing Spaces

Article excerpt

UTAH A CAMERAMAN DUCKS THROUGH THE SMALL opening of a traditional Blackfeet sweat lodge in rural Montana and shoots video of a sacred space usually off limits to outsiders. Leo Pard, a spiritual healer from Canada, has crossed the border specifically to help a young soldier who has recently returned from Afghanistan. It is a ritual that has been performed for hundreds of years to integrate Indian warriors back into the tribe, and it is being practiced again for a new generation.

Traditionally, the ritual of purification and cleansing in the sweat lodge, a domed enclosure formed of willow branches and cloth exterior, was performed before soldiers went into battle and on their return, before they were reunited with their families. The interior is heated by rocks that have roasted for hours in fire. Once the rocks are brought inside the lodge and the door is closed, the healer pours water on them, like in a sauna, and leads a ceremony that lasts for several hours, using ritual songs and chanting. The sweat lodge was one of four steps that a returning new warrior had to complete: First, they were isolated and cared for apart from the rest of the tribe, then they underwent purification in the sweat lodge, next storytelling of victories and losses, and then a final ceremony to welcome them home.

A new film by Taki Telonidis and supported by the Utah Humanities Council, Healing the Warrior's Heart, examines the roots of the sweat lodge and its increased use among Indian and non-Indian veterans to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Native American traditions recognize that the wound is fundamentally a wound to the soul," says psychotherapist Edward Tick, founder of the support group Soldier's Heart, in the film. "A spiritual crisis and problem that needs to be responded to with specifically designed healing practices for warriors. And it needs to happen in a tribal context or community context."

Of course PTSD is not a new phenomenon. It was called "soldier's heart" during the Civil War, labeled "shell shock" during World War I, and its current name was coined in the 1970s and recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. It is estimated that 30 percent of Vietnam veterans experienced PTSD, and between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. …

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