Shirtless men in shorts lined up on one side of a large open-pit fire. Women in full-length skirts and shirts stood on the other. Most ages were represented. Most had experienced this Saturday night ceremony before. Together, they all waited to enter the Lakota sweat lodge, a sacred, spiritual healing structure for many Native American cultures.
The sweat lodge belonged to Bryan Butler and Rose Little-Butler, who were raised in southwest Montana and within the Lakota tribal culture. Butler is a Lakota medicine man, and he and Little-Butler recently moved to Deer Lodge after spending 20 years away from home. Both believe they were called back to the area to help those in the surrounding communities who are struggling with depression and addiction.
Every Saturday night, the Butlers welcome anyone to join them in their sweat lodge ceremony, a four-part healing ritual. They believe in welcoming all people, regardless of their background, to take part in the Lakota way of life.
The sweat lodge is sacred, and so pictures of it are not allowed, the Butlers explained. A dome structure that stood about five feet high, it didn’t seem large enough to fit the dozen or so people standing outside in the snow. But inside, the lodge was big enough to fit at least five more bodies.
The floor was blanketed and soft, the air was dark and warm. First, the women entered on their hands and knees, then the men followed. A fire pit was dug out in the middle of the dome where the sacred rocks, or grandfathers, would be shoveled in from the fire pit outside. These were special rocks, the Butlers explained, rocks that had lain in southwest Montana for a long, long time.
The four-part ceremony lasted about two hours but felt like less than one. Butler invited in spirits, or the helpers of The Creator, who worked in different ways on those inside the lodge by pouring water over the sacred rocks. The Butlers said sometimes you could see the spirits as little blue dots of light or a glow throughout the lodge. Sometimes they presented themselves in visions or “wild dreams” in the four days after a sweat.
“When the door closes in the lodge, if you start seeing things, don’t panic," Butler said before the ceremony. "There is nothing in there that’s going to hurt you. Absolutely nothing. You are making a conscious decision to go in there. So if they (the spirits) decide that they are going to work on you, they’re going to work on you.”
Before the recent Saturday night sweat, Butler and Little-Butler talked about why they chose to move back to Deer Lodge about a year ago and open both their home and their sweat lodge up to those living in the surrounding areas.
The Butlers had helped cook and set up camp for the Dakota Access Pipeline protests on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation about two years ago. On Butler’s second trip back up to the Dakotas from the Butlers' home in Nevada, he got into a serious car accident. Little-Butler said they believed this was a sign that their family was needed elsewhere, needed back in the Butte, Anaconda, and Deer Lodge area.
Little-Butler grew up in Anaconda, she said. Her father was a smelterman, and she saw how the town’s businesses dried up and the people left when the Anaconda Smelter closed down. Little-Butler said she and Butler, who grew up in the Philipsburg area, left because there were no jobs. Twenty years later, there still isn’t much work in the area, she said.
“It’s a hopeless situation,” Little-Butler said. “If you can’t leave here and go somewhere else, well, get a job at McDonald’s. How do you raise a family on that? How do you pay rent on that?”
Through their sweat lodge and their Lakota culture, the Butlers invite people struggling with addiction to their home for healing.
“When you sit and you talk with people with addictions, 90 percent of the time you’re going to hear 'it’s my mom’s fault, it’s my dad’s fault, it’s the world’s fault.' They blame everybody but themselves,” Little-Butler said. “This process takes them to where they have to step out of that mud puddle and they have to start moving forward.”
This process includes prayer, letting go of addiction-related regrets by writing them on a piece of paper and placing them in glass bottles hung on a tree behind the Butlers' home, and other positive and therapeutic activities, Little-Butler said.
After the sweat, the group gathered in the Butler home for a potluck meal. One woman had come to the lodge to help with an illness. Another came with a young Native American boy in foster care who wanted to feel closer to his cultural roots. Others came for various personal reasons, addiction-related or not. Regardless, the Butler family welcomes them for support and strength through their Lakota traditions.
“We’re not perfect. We’ve been through the fire. We’re still walking through it. But we know how to handle it better,” Little-Butler said. “That’s pretty much all it is, your stories, your scars. They save lives and help others.”