Rite links ancient customs, today's veterans

Tribal members were at the VA Medical Center on Thursday to bless the site of a new sweat lodge.

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Armand Minthorn, left, David Wolf and Alan Crawford of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation perform a blessing song Thursday at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The ceremony was to bless the site of a new sweat lodge at the facility to serve indian veterans. (Aug. 25, 2011)

WALLA WALLA -- No matter that Thursday's sun was already searing the ground and burning skin by 10 a.m., Armand Minthorn was prepared for the job he was in Walla Walla to do.

Nothing could have kept him from it, he assured a rapt audience.

Minthorn was at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center with David Wolf and Alan Crawford, all members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. They had been invited to perform a ceremonial blessing over the future site of a Native American sweat lodge.

The lodge, in the latest incarnation, will replace the old and molding one that was potentially unsafe, VA officials said. It is being situated in a new location on the center's campus, to make room for the new outpatient clinic under construction.

Having a sweat lodge at a veteran's facility is unusual in itself and speaks to the relationship between this VA and his tribes, Wolf said. As well, there is significance in the signing of the 1855 treaty between the United States government and the Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse tribes in the Valley, Crawford said.

Past sweat lodges at the Walla Walla VA have been used by various veterans of every culture, but the ceremonial "sweat" holds a special meaning for members of the Umatilla tribes. It's a time of worship and self-reflection, Minthorn explained. The lodge, essentially, becomes a chapel.

"Our people have used the sweat lodge as far back as we can remember. A sweat lodge is big medicine for us," he said to those gathered under a sky of deep blue with white clouds hugging the horizon. "You not only cleanse your body, but it opens your heart for prayer and song."

Preparing the ground on which the new lodge will be constructed is an important tribal duty, Crawford said. The fact it is at a site that cares for veterans intensifies the honor he and the other two men felt in being asked to bless the land, he said. "So things can go on in a good way."

As if on cue, a hawk flew overhead, screeching out a greeting to the upturned faces as people made their way to the site.

Minthorn, chairman of the tribes' culture committee, extracted a brass bell from a beaded, leather pouch. This day's ceremony would be dedicated to Val Gavin, who died of cancer in 2008, he said.

Gavin came to the Walla Walla VA in the early 1990s and was instrumental in starting the center's Indian Advisory Council. She educated staff about Indian culture and acted as liaison between local tribal leaders, Native veteran representatives and the VA, noted Dave Beebe of the medical center's social work department.

The tribal trio sang three songs reserved for special days. "Not only to bless the ground, but to represent one for the body, one for the heart and one for the life," Minthorn explained.

"The songs are prayers, sung by our people since creation. These songs come from Heaven, the place we are all working for."

After separating his audience by sex, Minthorn began the blessing by ringing the ceremonial bell.

With eyes closed and beads of sweat blossoming on their faces, the three men sang as one.

The only accompaniment was the slow ringing of the brass bell and the breeze that made leaves dance in a percussion rhythm.

"Please pray," Minthorn asked, "so we can all be one for a while. Your religion is not better than mine and my religion is not better than yours ... as these songs are sung, you pray as you've been taught so we can be of one mind here."

The the traditional tribal blessing was given over a dusty patch of land covered with morning glory and button weed.

Wolf and Crawford, both Vietnam-era veterans, spoke to the audience of the duty they felt.

"It's an honor to be here," Wolf said. "I've always been told you're directed to be in different places at different times. I'm thankful to have been asked to be here."

He tries to encourage young people to serve their country, he added. "Because it's an honor, My father served and my daughter is going to be part of the Marine Corps the first of September."

The sweat lodge will be used by future veterans, Crawford said. "They will cleanse their minds, make their bodies stronger and make their spirits stronger."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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