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MSUM, community groups collaborate to build sweat lodge on campus

Jon Tatro works on building sweat lodge at MSUM
Jon Tatro digs a hole where heated bricks will be placed as students in a society and environment class watch him start to build a sweat lodge at the Minnesota State University Moorhead campus to celebrate American Indian Heritage Month Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in Moorhead. Dave Wallis / The Forum

MOORHEAD - To Cera Swiftwater, the experience inside a sweat lodge is like a hot shower. It's a place to collect her thoughts and pray for family and a "cleansing for the week."

"It's honestly one of my favorite things," said Swiftwater, a Minnesota State University Moorhead junior who grew up with the sweat lodge tradition at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

But opportunities for the sweat are sporadic in the Fargo-Moorhead area, said Swiftwater, who is also president of the American Indian Student Association at MSUM.

To celebrate American Indian Heritage Month at the school, several school and community groups collaborated to build a sweat lodge on campus and make the ceremony available to the public.

The lodge, located between the Center for Business and the Sustainability House, will open at 7 p.m. today and Friday.


Last year, Laidman "J.R." Fox Jr., a Spirit Lake Nation spiritual leader, built a sweat lodge in the heart of the campus mall that was used periodically throughout the month. Those involved hope to make the structure more permanent this time around to provide more opportunities for the sweat.

Fox, who has been constructing lodges for more than 30 years, said it usually takes him four to five hours to put together the structure with help from his wife, Rebekah.

He relies on just a few materials - willow for the frame, rocks to heat the lodge and water to pour over the rocks and create steam. He uses blankets to cover the frame, though it is customary to use buffalo hides.

Fox said the sweat lodge ceremony is meant as a deep cleansing to clear the mind and purify the body.

He said learning to stay in the sweat when he was young, even when it was hard, prepared him for life's challenges.

"It makes us strong," he said. "You know things will be OK when you come out."

When he brought the lodge to campus last year, Fox said he was surprised at how many non-native students attended and had participated in a sweat before.

He said the experience inside the sweat lodge can be especially beneficial for students who are stressed out, lonely or homesick.


"We saw a lot of that last year, students missing loved ones," he said.

Inside the sweat, they can connect with others who are experiencing the same feelings.

In addition to the sweat lodge, the campus will host several other events this month honoring American Indian culture, including language and beading lessons, an Indigenous Peoples' Symposium and screening of the film "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

Swiftwater said this year's programming represents many different native perspectives including Lakota, White Earth and Dakota people.

Josie Green, a senior involved with the American Indian Student Association, said events throughout American Indian Heritage Month help connect students with others like them and gives them an opportunity to share their culture with the campus as a whole.

Green said because there are few native students at MSUM, having opportunities for American Indian cultural events create a "feeling of community."

"We can see there are people like us," Green said. "And we get the opportunity through Native American Heritage Month to celebrate that and share it with the campus."

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