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Fast Draws Attention to VA Sweat Lodge Ceremonies

Native American sweat lodge at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center

  The Salt Lake Veterans Affairs Medical Center has promised to continue Native American healing ceremonies every week – but the spiritual leader who’s conducted them may not be leading them any longer.

Arnold Thomas, an ordained Paiute-Shoshone holy man with a master’s degree in social work, has been conducting sweat lodge ceremonies at the VA hospital for the past ten years.  But he resigned last week, objecting to plans to limit the number of ceremonies. Thomas says the VA was losing sight of its commitment to Native American veterans and others who’ve benefited from them.

“Sometimes the VA forgets who they’re serving," Thomas told KUER.  "This is working for the veterans.  We get 12-15 veterans every week, whether they’re combat or not, we get them participating, whether they’re inpatient or outpatient.”

Cory Navarro, an Iraq combat veteran with Apache heritage, began a fast last Friday to draw attention to the issue.  He stayed in the sweat lodge until Monday evening, when Steven Young, the director of the VA Medical Center, came to talk to him.  Over three conversations, Navarro says they were able to work out most of the issues.

Navarro says, “The fasting ceremony was done with a good mind and a good heart and in a peaceful way.  He came to that lodge in the same way, to hash out some issues and help.”

Young agreed to continue the ceremonies at the VA Medical Center every week and to provide wood to heat stones for the sweat lodge.  But Arnold Thomas’ status is still unresolved.  He’s retained a lawyer and he says he might come back, but it would have to be under the right conditions.

A spokesperson for the Salt Lake VA Medical Center said there would be no official comment on the situation.

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