Inmates Need a Place to Pray

We are raising funds to enable tribal inmates in the Pennsylvania DOC to build a sweat lodge and exercise the free practice of their faith traditions, rituals, and ceremonies.

This is the story of two streams uniting into one larger river of meaning and Spirit.

One branch of the river is a stream that begins in the hearts and wills of two American Indians currently serving time in a Pennsylvania prison.  Over the past two years inmates Running River Banks and Dale Arnold have been in a legal battle with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for violating their religious freedom and rehabilitation process.  Though the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, Native people are still being denied their right to practice their faith.  In August 2020, Banks and Arnold prevailed and now the inmates can have a sweatlodge.  The water is flowing but the journey is long. 

This is just one part of the river.   The second stream branches from a small but mighty congregation in Minnesota---the Cherokee Park United Church (CPUC). CPUC has a history of anti-racist activism and dedication to helping others.  And through a longstanding partnership with the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Tribal Community they learned about Banks’ and Arnold’s story---that winning the court case was a victory, but they still do not have a sweatlodge.

Though the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is now required to permit sweat lodge ceremonies, they are under no obligation to provide materials or support building the sweatlodge structure or materials for being able to hold the ceremonies. 

We are raising funds to build a sweatlodge and to have materials for many ceremonies to come.  Where other religious groups utilize indoor prison facilities to host mass or other religious practices, a sweatlodge is built outside in connection with the Earth Mother.  Therefore, the Department of Corrections will allow for donations for the lodge and ceremonies, but they will not provide funds or materials needed. 

Our goal is to raise $10,000 to build the lodge grounds and supply materials for at least one year of ceremonies. Below is the list of items and estimated costs

$2,500 Tarp covers
$500 Saplings for lodge frame
$1,000 Stones
$1,500 (4) Outdoor heavy-duty storage boxes for sacred items, tools, etc.
$1,000 Materials to build lean-to for changing
$500 Sacred items, sage, smudge can, antlers, water dipper, buckets for water
$1,300 Cords of wood for 7-8 sweat lodge ceremonies
$400 Shovels, gloves, and other tools for fire tending
$1,300 Msc cost such as permit fees, honorarium for helpers and elders, waterline installation at the ceremony grounds (yes, they will need to pay for their own water use!), twine, blankets, seating around the ceremonial grounds
**estimated costs include shipping to the facility

CPUC agreed unanimously to act as fiscal steward of funds raised for the United Native Prisoners of PA's religious ceremonies, and to work in collaboration to procure the supplies needed for sweatlodges.

Over the past year, we have built a relationship with Banks, Arnold and their Native American Chaplain, Chief Ammon Bailey.  Here is what River Banks wrote in one of our correspondences:

"Tell people who want to support us that freedom in all its forms is important to us, but what is more important to us is Our Identities. Many of us were confused and lost---in between two realms---now we have found who we truly are and beg for a second chance to share our radiance with the world."

Rehabilitation takes time and a rootedness in one’s faith.  River Banks has come a long way.  Identity crisis can cause depression, lack of judgement, suicidal thoughts, self-deprecation, and more. Many Native people suffer from this because they were historically removed from their land, prohibited from learning and speaking their language, and were forbidden to practice their faith. They were stripped of the practices, traditions, and belief systems that made them who they were… who they are. 

Establishing this sweatlodge runs deeper than the present-day collaboration with River Banks.  Your contribution to establish this sweatlodge is a response to a horrific history that has left generations of Native men and women lost between cultures and identities.  Being able to hold a sweatlodge ceremony restores sacred pathways that help people practice who they are.  The sweatlodge is a place for prayer, and the opportunity to have one---to practice building one---like these inmates will be able to do, is an act in restoring identity.

Your contribution will directly impact the lives of men who will build this sweatlodge now, and who will get to pray in it later. Establishing this sweatlodge will help many other inmates on their path of rehabilitation in the future.  But even more so, your contribution will be responding to ailments from the past that have borne fruits in the issues we see today.  This sacred ceremony has a deep history.  Together these streams from PA and MN are winding.  Will you help give this river a mighty flow? 

In December, we received two checks from River Banks and D. Arnold; funds from their settlement winnings against the PA DOC.  Donations from other inmates are trickling in.  Please join us in helping them reclaim Native religious rights and to practice this sacred ceremony.

Donations (47)

  • Anonymous
    • $60 
    • 2 mos
  • Jerry Lynn Cox
    • $50 
    • 2 mos
  • Heidi Peterson
    • $100 
    • 2 mos
  • Anonymous
    • $100 
    • 2 mos
  • Leah Witzig
    • $100 
    • 2 mos


Matthias Peterson-Brandt
St. Paul, MN
Cherokee Park United Church
Registered nonprofit
Donations are typically 100% tax deductible in the US.

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