- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) - Colby James isn’t afraid to talk about his storied past of addiction. He isn’t afraid to face it either.

On a chilly, overcast afternoon, James joined at least 20 others to engage in a sweat lodge hosted by Raven House Healing, a Castle Rock-based center that teaches shamanic studies. The center helps troubled youth - particularly native youth - by reconnecting them to native traditions.

Before the ceremony began, James bantered with friends. A fire roared not far from the opening of the sweat lodge, a humble structure made from interlaced tree branches and covered with a number of blankets.

Lava rocks were heated in the center of the fire. Once the sweat began, the rocks - glowing red - were transported one by one by pitch fork from the fire to a pit in the center of the lodge.

When it was time, James and others stripped down to shorts and bare chests. Women donned loose gowns. For some,

it was their first time sweating. Others were more familiar with the tradition.

“I was 14 when I did my first (sweat lodge),” said James, beads of sweat drying on his forehead. He’d just exited the lodge at the end of the sweat, which lasted several hours. The lodge can heat up to as much as 150 degrees during the purification ceremony.

Saturday’s event had four rounds. At the start of each, two fire tenders cajoled rocks from the fire before brushing them with a cedar branch and placing them inside. The rocks, fresh from the fire, turned up the heat with each new round.

Songs chanted in Lakota were audible from outside the lodge, as were multiple hoots and hollers.

“When you hear those sounds, it means we’ve done our job very good because it’s very warm in there,” said Crystal Lorensen of Longview, who worked as one of the two fire tenders at Saturday’s lodge.

James, who lives on the Swinomish Reservation on Puget Sound, has participated in a number of lodges. He began regularly attending them when he was 16 years old, sweating “at least a couple times a week,” he said.

For James, it’s more than something fun to do. The 19-year-old admitted he has struggled with addiction, and the sweats are a way for him to heal.

“I’m not afraid to admit it now, but last time I got sober is when I was 16, and that’s when I was doing sweats regularly, and it helped a lot,” he said. “It’s a good healthy activity to do while you’re sober.”

James said the lodges are helpful in maintaining his sobriety.

“I didn’t really go to (sweat lodge) while I was using because it’s kind of disrespectful,” he said. “This is like a ceremonial-type activity. When I was using, it kind of kept me away. When I’m sober and everything, it’s fun. It’s a good way to help you want to stay sober.”

Sweat lodges - and experiences like James’ - are an integral component to the work accomplished at Raven House Healing. Using traditional ceremonies to help troubled youth is an important component of the center, which was started by Kyle Ward in 1980. Ward, who is of Metis, Red River French Canadian, Walla Walla and Cherokee decent, said he’s been working as a healer for most of his life.

“I’ve been practicing as a practitioner all my life since I was a teenager, so (Raven House) just kind of evolved out of that,” he said.

Ward, 59, said he began counseling others when he was just 12 years old. However, it wasn’t until about eight years ago that Ward introduced sweat lodges.

“That’s when I really got my rights and privileges (to hold ceremonies),” he said, noting that the knowledge was passed down from the elders. The teachings go back thousands of years, he said, and anyone can participate in the ceremony, regardless of whether they are seeking counseling at the center.

Molly Henry, sweat lodge head woman, described the lodges as a healing and purification ceremony.

“You can come to the lodge and pray on (a problem) and basically give it away, give it away to the stones and ask for healing in return,” she explained.

But sweat lodges are only part of the equation at Raven House Healing. Vision quests, pow wows and other ceremonies such as the sacred sun dance are all part of the healing process, and Raven House - located on 10 acres of land 4 miles east of Castle Rock - hopes to add to what they can offer native youth.

For now, Henry said the center accepts one to two people each month, working with them on a weekly or monthly basis.

“We can only help youth to a certain extent when we don’t have a place to offer them to stay,” she said. “It’s kind of the difference between an inpatient treatment and outpatient treatment. So far the only thing we’ve been able to do is outpatient treatment.”

With more funding, however, could accept more people and offer the treatment daily, Henry said. The center has set up a Go Fund Me page to accept donations. They also hope to achieve nonprofit status in a matter of months. With additional funding, they hope to create a place youth can stay for treatment.

“It’ll be a more in-depth healing experience because they’ll be able to be on the land, and we’ll be able to work with them on a daily basis instead of a weekly or monthly basis,” Henry explained.

She added that once the nonprofit status is granted, the center will change its name to the Loowit Center for Traditional Healing.

“We wanted to give it a separate title to designate a new organization we’re trying to create,” Henry said.

At the end of Saturday’s ceremony, James redressed, wiping sweat from his forehead. For James, the event is a source of healing, and he believes more native youth can benefit from it.

“It’s a good way to pray for yourself and your life,” he mused.

He said the sweats can sometimes be draining, but that they offer him a sense of relief from life’s stressors.

“It just gives me a whole new perspective on life,” he said. “Hearing people talk while we’re sitting in there. Just like … I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s a good feeling.”


Information from: The Daily News, https://www.tdn.com

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