Utah State Prison officials are sticking to their ban on sweat lodges for Indian inmates, despite entreaties from tribal leaders and success with the ceremonial structures at penitentiaries throughout the West.
In the 20 months since a handful of Native American inmates filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state, the prison has steadfastly maintained that security concerns supersede Indian convicts' right to a sacred link to their traditional, ancient faith.The sweat lodge, a small domelike structure made of willow poles covered with blankets or earth, is used by practitioners of traditional beliefs for a variety of spiritual activities, including prayer, singing and meditation.
The lawsuit, filed in March 1987 on behalf of six Indian convicts, is set for trial Jan. 9 before U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene. However, plaintiffs' attorney Danny Quintana and others fighting for the inmates' cause have taken cautious hope in the election of a new Utah attorney general, Democrat Paul Van Dam.
While Van Dam said he plans to review the case, he will not discuss the likelihood of an out-of-court settlement. "It's simply a matter that will take me a few weeks to get to . . . (but) that is an important case."
Quintana said he is confident and ready for trial if necessary, but hopes Van Dam will abandon a rec-ord of obstinacy on the part of state officials concerning the sweat lodge issue.
Larry Foster, director of intergovernmental relations for the Navajo Indians, said while the tribe will watch Van Dam's arrival with interest, it will "continue, regardless, to assist those inmates in the practice of their religion."
Meantime, Foster said, "We will just pray that the new attorney general will be open to negotiate a settlement."
The 25,000-square-mile Navajo Reservation includes parts of Utah, Arizona and Nevada. And officials of the 180,000-member tribe have expressed frustration that only the Beehive State has resisted nearly four years of patient lobbying.
The Navajo Corrections Program has repeatedly offered to construct a sweat lodge, estimated to cost about $50, free of charge - and provide medicine men to conduct ceremonies.
"It wouldn't cost the state anything," Foster said. "Given the fact that we've been able to work with all the other states, I guess in a sense it's perplexing."
Corrections Executive Director Gary DeLand, who is named in the inmates' suit at the head of a list of prison wardens and administrators, declined to discuss the case because it involves pending litigation.
However, in a policy statement on religion at the prison issued two years ago, DeLand said the state makes an effort to meet all reasonable requests for religious observance - within the scope of its security requirements.
He said that allowing a sweat lodge would be unreasonable, akin to allowing "a mosque and minaret for the Moslems, a shrine for the Buddhists, a temple for the Latter-day Saints, and a cathedral for the Catholics."
Tribal officials contend the comparisons are unfair, since sweat lodges can be quickly and cheaply constructed and have proven beneficial in rehabilitation programs in nine Western states.
Clifford Duncan, director of the Ute Indian Museum at Fort Du-chesne, said security risks are minimal. Practitioners enter the lodge to pray and sing around a pit of heated stones in order to be purified, seek forgiveness and spiritual renewal.