John Funmaker surveys his congregation, a circle of bare-chested inmates squeezed into a low, beehive-shaped structure behind the wire and watchtowers of Chino state prison. The former convict-turned-spiritual adviser sees a vista of scars, tattoos and serious faces studded with dark eyes.
Funmaker nods, satisfied that everyone is primed for the coming rite of fire and water. He speaks briefly to the group, stressing that favorable portents bless the gathering. A hawk was spotted circling overhead not long ago, he reminds his audience. The east wind, strong and sustained, is a particularly good omen.
"Someone will be enlightened today," he says.
Then Funmaker leans toward the low door of the willow-framed, blanket-covered tent, directing the service to begin.
"Bring on the rock people," he commands.
A pitchfork, wielded by an unseen "fire-tender," pokes through the doorway and drops super-heated rocks in a shallow pit scooped in the center of the crowded space. Grunts of "Good one!" and "Yah!" greet an especially big rock--almost a junior boulder--hefted through the door to lie hissing on the dirt. The rocks keep coming until seven--a sacred number--lie in the fire pit, arranged according to ancient prescription.
Funmaker orders the doorway closed. The fire-tender drapes a heavy blanket over the opening.
Instantly, Funmaker and the 15 other men are sealed inside a world of darkness, disorientation and personal isolation. The only reference point is the dull red glow of the stones--and that is quickly extinguished when Funmaker splashes water on the rocks, enveloping the claustrophobic sweat lodge in scalding vapor.
So begins another service of the Red Hawk Native American Religious Assn., a group of Chino inmates who observe traditional Indian religious practices, most notably the sweat lodge ceremony, a time-honored purification ritual that mixes prayer, song, mystic symbolism, group therapy and, for the unwary, pain.
Funmaker, 45, comes to the prison this day in an unusual role. For about a year, he has been a California prisons employee, a part-time spiritual adviser hired to conduct traditional Indian services, mainly in Southern California.
These rituals have been practiced for about 20 years in California prisons, inmates say, and the Chino group formally organized about three years ago. Jim Archuletta, a state Department of Corrections employee who works closely with Indian prisoners, says a concerted push began in 1977 to have Indian religion placed on equal footing with mainstream religions. Archuletta, who traces his ancestry to the Pueblo, Maricopa and Karok tribes, is one of the founders of the Intertribal Spiritual Commission, an organization that lobbies for the increased availability of Indian spiritual leaders to Indian inmates.
Although the drive has been successful, Archuletta says Indian spiritual leaders, whose access is usually limited to few hours per month at each institution, are hard-pressed to meet all inmate needs. He estimates there are 40 to 50 sweat lodges in federal and state institutions in California and that as many as 1,200 Indians are imprisoned, out of a total inmate population of 97,000. (A spokesman for the state Department of Corrections puts the number far lower, at 200 or fewer. The confusion stems from the fact that American Indians are not identified as an ethnic category in prison system records.)
In the course of an hour--sometimes it seems like a preview of eternity--Funmaker leads "the sweat." He chants, preaches and sings, exhorting the inmates to practice virtue, to turn the other cheek, to give up crime and all forms of selfishness.
"I know it is hard, brothers," he says.
Some of the men respond by talking of their fears and asking for prayers. One, due for parole in four days, worries that he'll head for the nearest drug dealer once he is released. Another laments the recent death of his mother.
During the service, Funmaker opens the sealed lodge four times, providing brief breaks from the relentless heat. Each time he scans the faces in the lodge and urges the men to "not break the circle." And each time he orders a fresh round of hot rocks dumped in the center of the sweat lodge. Participants are warned not to wear glasses, earrings or watches in the lodge because they might melt.
By the end of the ceremony, the heat is unbearable. It is possible to breathe only by holding a swatch of sagebrush leaves to the nose and mouth. The lodge floor is muddied by sweat pouring from the packed bodies. Some prisoners cough or make guttural noises, some twist and turn in search of a tolerable position and cooler air. One of Funmaker's assistants sings and pounds on a drum, adding a pulsing sound to the overloaded environment.
Finally, it is over.
When the prisoners emerge from the symbolic womb, they are exhausted, mud-coated and gasping. But they also are elated, certain they have passed through a healing process.
"It cleanses me. It brings me back to my people," one inmate says.