Locals build sweatlodge for PA prisoners

Volunteers arrive at CSI Benner Township prison to build a sweatlodge. (L to R) Lon Navarre, Lisa Yankton, Chaplain Erroll Wilson, Dr. Tom Weaver, Johnny Creed Coe (kneeling), Rev. Mattias Peterson-Brandt, and Joy Sorensen Navarre. (Photo courtesy of Cherokee Park United Church.) 

By Lee Egerstrom

A unique bond with Pennsylvania prisoners resulted in Minnesota volunteers spending a few days in early October building a sweat lodge for incarcerated Native Americans who wanted a place to pray to improve their lives.

“It was a life changing, spiritual experience,” said Lisa Yankton, a Spirit Lake Dakota, Minneapolis poet, and Dakota language and culture teacher at American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul. That was how the experience impacted a volunteer.

Getting the sweat lodge up and going was also “a deeply personal, sacred, religious moment” for the volunteers and for Pennsylvania Department of Corrections personnel at State Correctional Institution Benner Township, said retired Chaplain Erroll Wilson.

Department officials and CSI Benner Township (SCI Benner) corrections staff watched construction and monitored the drumming and singing from Native prisoners, Wilson said.
One Corrections officials told Wilson “he could feel the power of the spirit.”

“I don’t think there will be much institutional opposition to sweat lodges at Pennsylvania prisons going forward,” Wilson said.

But foremost, the sweat lodge was created for the benefit of prisoners.

Volunteers dig up ground where the sweatlodge will be placed. (All photos by Cherokee Park United Church.)

It is extremely important for incarcerated Native Americans “who want to change their lives. They need strength and a place to pray,” said former inmate Benjamin Simpson (Lakota/Taino). He is a Pennsylvanian and an original organizer of legal actions that brought the sweat lodge to reality.

“I explain to non-Natives, people who don’t understand, that the sweat lodge is a place for rebirth. It’s a lot like baptism,” he said in a telephone interview. “This is important for prisoners who want to turn their lives around.”

He and another former innate, Marvin “Running River” Banks (Native American/Congo), began petitioning corrections officials for at sweat lodge two years ago at SCI Benner, a medium security prison for males located at Bellefonte, near College Park in central Pennsylvania.

A prison in Pittsburgh had a sweat lodge about 35 years ago. It was destroyed in a flood 30 years ago and wasn’t restored. The Benner Township sweat lodge is the first since then in the state’s 26 prison system.

The prisoners went to court when their petition was rejected. They won. The court ruled SCI Benner and other correctional institutions should allow sweat lodge ceremonies for constitutionally protected religious purposes. It also ruled the institutions didn’t need to provide the sweat lodge.

Given security considerations mostly anchored in not understanding the religious nature of sweatlodge ceremonies, the agreement with the Department of Corrections will allow Native prisons to have four such events annually. A second one is scheduled next month on Dec. 16.

The sweatlodge’s “bones’ and overall structure is complete.

With legal matters out of the way, prisoners, Native American chaplains and others went to work finding allies and supporters. Not surprisingly, that brought them in contact with Cherokee Park United Church (CPUC) in St. Paul’s West Side. It is a civil rights-active congregation with long ties with the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community (MMDTC).

The church is a merger of both Presbyterian and United Church of Christ congregations and continues to be members of both church bodies. Active within the church are MMDTC members connected to Native causes and events.

These latter ties led to Simpson, Banks and another prisoner, Dale Arnold, along with their prison chaplain friends, to reach out to the church, said Sue Sorensen Navarre, a MMDTC member, Twin Cities business owner and CPUC church member.

She and her husband Lon Navarre, a pipekeeper for the Mendota Mdewakanton tribe and retired St. Paul Public Works employee, were connected with people involved with the project. That included Chaplain Ammon Bailey, a Native American who provides services under contract with Pennsylvania Corrections, and Johnny Creed Coe, a nationally known artist from Pittsburgh who is Lakota and originally from South Dakota.

Sue Sorensen Navarre told The Circle that Coe is a long-time sundancer who danced for four years at the American Indian Movement Sundance at Pipestone. “His sons dance there now,” she said.

Among Minnesota volunteers who pitched in on the effort was Dr. Tom Weaver, a retired Minneapolis and St. Cloud doctor who also had practiced medicine in prisons.

Such talents and personal commitments made a fit with the prisoners for the Cherokee Park church. It has a long involvement in civil rights activities and Martin Luther King Jr. observances, and with powwows with the Mendota Mdewakanton community.

Former Benner Township prisoners Arnold and Banks used an award from their successful litigation against the Pennsylvania corrections system to seed a GoFundMe campaign started by the Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt at CPUC.

In the GoFundMe appeal, Pastor Peterson-Brandt explains that the church (CPUC) is acting as the fiscal steward for United Native Prisoners of PA’s religious ceremonies and works to procure supplies needed for sweatlodges.

These efforts have been in the works for several years. The fundraising objective is $10,000 that will be used for the following items:
$2,500 for tarpaulin covers, $500 for saplings for the lodge frame, $1,000 for lava stones, $1,500 for outdoor heavy-duty storage boxes for sacred items and tools, $1,000 for materials to build a lean-to structure for changing clothes, $500 for sacred items, sage, smudge can, antlers, water dipper, and buckets for water; $1,300 for cords of wood sufficient for seven or eight sweat lodge ceremonies, $400 for shovels, globes and tools for tending fires; and $1,300 for miscellaneous costs such as permit fees, honorarium for helpers and elders, waterline installation to the ceremony grounds, plus twine, blankets and seating around the ceremonial grounds.

The sweatlodge is done and ready for use by the Native inmates.

“Establishing this sweatlodge will help many other inmates on their path of rehabilitation in the future,” Peterson-Brandt states in the appeal.

Such impacted prisoners do move on with their lives, Simpson and Banks said in an interview. They, for instance, are now working on establishing an American Indian Movement (AIM) chapter in Pennsylvania. Dennis Banks (Leech Lake Ojibwe), a founder of the AIM who died in 2017, continues to serve as an inspiration for the Pennsylvania movement but is not an ancestor, Running River Banks said.

The latter Banks has also written a book, published in 2021, Our Ancestors Are Proud! A Native American Prison Story. It is available through bookstores or from Amazon. And, he said, he has another book, Forgotten Nation, which will be published within weeks. It is a look back at the long Native American history of this country that is usually ignored, Banks said.

Several participants in this joint Minnesota-Pennsylvania sweat lodge project used terms such as “spiritual,” “sacred,” “life-changing” to describe what they experienced in building the sweat lodge and then watching Native prisoners put it to use along with drummers and singers.

They weren’t alone, said Lisa Yankton. “As we were finishing, two eagles soared above us.” It was as if they were “checking out what we had done. I’ll never forget it.”


The GoFundMe online link can be found at https://gofund.me/7a47c7dd. The search title on the site is: “Inmates Need a Place to Pray.”

Additional information is available at: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-native-inmates-religious-rights and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/cherokeeparkchurch/posts/10157972893303004.

Running River Bank’s book, Our Ancestors Are Proud! A Native American Prison Story, is on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Our-Ancestors-Are-Proud-American/dp/1637510268.