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VA Chooses New Contractor for Sweat Lodge Ceremonies

Canvas tarps cover a framework of willow branches to create the sweat lodge used by veterans at the Salt Lake VA medical center.

  The Salt Lake Veterans Affairs Medical Center has chosen a new contractor to provide sweat lodges and other Native American healing ceremonies.  That’s disappointed supporters of Arnold Thomas, who’s been doing it for the past ten years. 

Ten years ago, ordained Paiute-Shoshone practitioner Arnold Thomas began holding sweat lodge ceremonies for Native American veterans and others in a garden behind the main VA hospital building.  Thomas says he resigned under duress earlier this year when the facility’s chaplain wanted to cut the number of ceremonies back from every week to just 18 a year.

The VA put those services out to bid earlier this year after a multi-day fast by a Marine veteran led to an agreement to continue holding them every week.  This week, Thomas and his supporters took the sweat lodge down after finding out his bid had not been accepted.

“If any other ceremonial leaders were to come in, and not be invited in by myself," Thomas tells KUER, the lodge would need to come down.  And that’s a protocol within our faith tradition.”

Cal Bench is a Vietnam vet who’s been attending the ceremonies since they began.  He’s disappointed Thomas wasn’t chosen to continue, but he says he’ll be there when the new leader arrives.

Bench says, “I heard from some people that they just won’t.  But y’know, that’s pretty silly without giving ‘em a chance.”

VA spokesperson Jill Atwood says GC Green, a contracting firm owned by a Native American veteran from California, has been selected to provide the services.  They’ll be led by Louise Fischer from the Helena Indian Alliance in Montana, starting the week of June 23rd.

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