A place for ceremony, healing: Hennepin County will add sweat lodges to serve Native detainees

Person smiles outside
Joseph Bester, a spiritual adviser and elder in the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community, outside of a sweat lodge on May 6.
Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

By Katrina Pross | Sahan Journal

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal through a partnership with MPR News.

Hennepin County will soon add sweat lodges at the Adult Corrections Facility in Plymouth for Indigenous detainees to use. 

The Adult Corrections Facility holds people for short-term custody of up to one year. It is managed by the county’s Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, and can hold up to 477 people. 

Last month, Hennepin County commissioners approved up to $30,000 to go toward building the sweat lodges. The county will work with the American Indian OIC, an organization based in Minneapolis that provides education and training for Native people. 

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Two sweat lodges will be built, one for male detainees to use, and one for women. The lodges will be built this month, and Lyle Iron Moccasin, the American Indian OIC’s outreach and reentry coordinator, said they should be operational starting next month. 

Iron Moccasin said the addition of the sweat lodges is a step in the right direction for ensuring Native people who are incarcerated at the facility can meet their cultural needs. 

“Historically, the government has not been a big supporter of the Indigenous communities,” Iron Moccasin said. “Now that the state has gotten more of an attentive look from a cultural and spiritual standpoint, things are starting to change — they have changed. And we appreciate that.”

According to a Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesperson, all DOC facilities in the state have a sweat lodge.

Sweat lodges are dome-shaped, heated structures and are sacred spaces for Native people. They have spiritual and cultural purposes, and allow Native people to connect with the Creator, nature and others. During a sweat, traditional songs are sung and participants pray. 

Joseph Bester is a spiritual adviser and elder in the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community. He leads sweat lodge ceremonies, known as inipi, each month on the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota. 

He said sweat lodge ceremonies serve many purposes, but are especially needed during different transitions of life. Native people divide life into four stages, the East (birth and childhood), the South (adolescence), West (adulthood), and North (old age and death).

Bester said the transition from South to West can be difficult, as when people are young, they tend to focus on themselves. A sweat lodge ceremony gives people time to reflect on how they can help others and how they fit into a larger community. 

Bester said incarcerated people especially need to undergo sweat lodge ceremonies. One part of the ceremony involves participants expressing what they are grateful for, he said.  

“The worst thing that happened to them is a blessing, and so we get them in the act of transforming what they perceive to be a negative into a positive,” Bester said. “We can help them to understand that no matter everything in their life, no matter how horrific, they’ll at least be able to help somebody else going through something similar.”

Catherine Johnson, director of Hennepin County Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the county hopes that having a sweat lodge will reduce recidivism rates. 

“These sweat lodges and ceremonies that will be conducted within them will help to reinforce these connections for our Indigenous clients,” Johnson said at a county board committee meeting last month. “It is our belief that by honoring these ceremonies and ensuring clients’ access to them, that we will improve the safety of all of our communities.”

The board passed the resolution unanimously. 

Iron Moccasin said once the lodges are constructed, the goal is to hold ceremonies twice a month at the facility for both men and women.

According to the county, the percentage of Native detainees at the facility varies over time, but sat at 10 percent in December. In April, it was about 6.5 percent.