On the west side of the San Quentin Lower Yard, Native Americans gather at their sacred sweat lodge to pray, study and perform ancient rituals of worship and purification.
Called Shasta Lodge, it is the world’s first fireplace sweat lodge in a prison, said Hector Frank, San Quentin’s Native American chaplain.
“Basically they learn how to pray,” said Frank. “The lessons taught here in the sweat lodge are about our history, our way, our connection to our church.”
About two dozen Native Americans, most of whom are from northern Californian tribes, gather in the sweat lodge to worship and share tribal culture, learning Native American language and ancient traditions like ceremonial song and dance.
It is a re-birth, Frank explained. When the men come into the sweat ceremony, they let go of everything, and when they go out, they are thoroughly cleansed.
“Just entering into this atmosphere is special, because we are entering inside Mother Earth’s womb.” Frank said.
“It’s like a purification ceremony,” said Frank Whipple, of the Wylacki Tribe in Covelo, Calif. “We’re sweating out the negative energy and putting positive energy back in.”
Robin Guillen, of the Commanche Chippewa tribe, who has been incarcerated for nearly 40 years, recalled his first sweat ceremony.
“I was 12 years old when my parents took me to my first ceremony,” Guillen said. “I learned that for guidance, this is how we as native people connect spiritually with the creator.”
Guillen said the sweat lodge can bring a person balance — emotionally, physically and spiritually.
“It’s my center,” said Guillen. “I would not have been able to receive the guidance to accomplish what I have, if I had not remained true to the sweat lodge.”
The history of San Quentin’s sweat lodge is intertwined with that of another famous prison.
In 1976 Frank and several other spiritual and civil rights activist embarked on a trek from Alcatraz Prison to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the religious rights of prisoners.
“It was called ‘The Longest Walk,” Frank said. “All the believers were there (including) Buddhists from China and Japan, along with several priests from other congregations and churches.”
At the culmination of the walk, and with the approval of the United Nations, the Freedom of Religion Act was signed by then-President Jimmy Carter, who has Cherokee Indian ancestors, says Frank. Today this law is known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects institutionalized people from discrimination based on their religious beliefs.
As an Indian priest, Frank has guided Native Americans at other prisons such as Folsom, Chino, Nevada State Prison, Arizona State Prison, and Pleasant Valley. He also helped put the lodge up in Chowchilla and Valley State Prison for Women.
“I’m 61, and I’ve been coming into the prisons for over 40 years,” said Frank. “Forty years ago I made a commitment as a Sun Dancer to come in here and help the Indian people.”