Sweat lodges on the grounds at Sioux San Hospital are as much a part of Native American clients' healing as the prescribed medical therapies administered.

But that could change.

A series of fires within the past year - two that gutted the sweat lodges - left Sioux San officials, groundskeepers and the Rapid City fire department concerned about the safety of the hospital, its campus and the surrounding neighborhood.

The hospital's sweat lodges are used frequently.

"It's used everyday and two to three times a day on weekends," said Melvin Miner, formerly of the Rapid City Indian Health Advisory Board, speaking about the importance of the sweats.

"People use them to pray for relatives, not only here, but at Regional, too,"

said Pansy Hawk Wing of Rapid City. She said that the sweat lodges were used daily by Native people from Rapid City as well those from the reservations while their relatives are in Rapid City hospitals.

But the lodges may be a thing of the past if people using them don't follow the rules.

On Thursday, Jacqueline Arpan of Indian Health Services met with Native community members.

"The fire department asked us to revisit our fire procedure," she said.

Arpan told people at the meeting that if they were to rebuild the sweat lodge this spring, the wooden structure and poles must be painted in flame-retardant paint. And to increase accountability, users' contact phone numbers now must be listed on a check-in sheet, and the sweat lodges would be enclosed and locked when not in use.

"If we rebuild, we need … to prevent people from coming and leaving the fires burning without anyone knowing about it," she said.

Typically, when groundskeepers find fires smoldering in the lodge's fire pit, the fire department is called. Recently, fire crews were called to the hospital campus on four occasions in a single month.

Fire department officials have allowed the group a fire permit for future sweat lodges, but they want to see better fire suppression after each use. There isn't a hydrant or water at the site. Sioux San is in west Rapid City at Canyon Lake Drive and 38th Street, between West Middle School and the Canyon Lake Senior Citizens Center.

Community members at Thursday's meeting agreed to the new restrictions, which are designed to enforce the city's fire codes, and are planning to rebuild the sweat lodges.

Miner said it was especially important that those who violate the fire codes be made responsible for any fines, or they may lose sweat lodge privileges.

"If you don't enforce it, people will take advantage of it," he said.

To participate in a sweat

To reserve sweat lodges for future use, contact the Okiciyapi Wellness Center at 335-2271 or 355-2221.

Participants must check in at the Okiciyapi Wellness Center; on weekends, they must call the security guards, where a schedule and calendar are kept. A legitimate name and current contact number must be provided.

Staff will review with the sweat participants the policies to use the facility, including fire height restrictions.

All fires are contingent on wind speed and dryness.

Before building or lighting a fire, participants must alert fire officials to the time the fire will be lit and when it will be extinguished. The following people must be contacted for approval:

  • Rapid City Department of Fire & Emergency Services Battalion Chief, 394-4180.
  • Fire Dispatch, at 394-4139 or 394-4135, must be notified so it can inform the community that the smell or sight of smoke or fire is coming from the sweat lodges.
  • Sioux San Security at 390-0228.

Participants must clean up after the sweat and care for offerings in timely a manner.

Contact Jomay Steen at jomay.steen@rapidcityjournal.com or 394-8418.

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