As the morning cracks Wyoming’s stark horizon, casting light east to west across the panoramic plateau, a group of inmates moves through an ancient ritual. They follow the sun’s direction, sweeping clockwise past a fire and pausing to smudge and bless themselves four times with sage, cedar, tobacco and sweetgrass. An unassuming mound of earth is adorned with the dried, smoldering plants and a quartet of flags – red, black, white and yellow to represent four racial groups. The mound holds at its core all the invocations from past ceremonies. One by one, the prisoners prepare to enter the sacred space. They kneel to crawl through the low sweat lodge door, filing into a circle around the central pit of glowing sandstone orbs. The ceremony’s leader, a 79-year-old cowboy from the Wind River Indian Reservation, ladles water over the hot rocks. Steam jets upward. The temperature rises. It is time to pray.
When first asked to provide spiritual guidance in Wyoming’s correctional institutions, Willie LeClair – “Grandpa Willie” to the inmates – hesitated. LeClair has inhabited many skins in his one life, forging a path that, more often than not, meanders betwixt and between. But it took him a long time to choose his spiritual journey, and years more to bring it into the prisons.
LeClair spent his childhood on a ranch in the foothills of the enigmatic Wind River Range, born to a white mother and Eastern Shoshone (Native American) father, both devout Catholics. Indian rodeos – a popular subculture of junior, amateur and professional circuits that fuses the traditional Native American focus on horseback skills with wild west flair – provided the first vehicle through which he embraced his dual backgrounds. LeClair started breaking horses at age nine, rode bucking bulls by fourteen, and competed in saddle bronc and team roping contests as a young man. In 1960, he began calling the events. “West of the Mississippi, I can say I’ve either participated or announced a rodeo in almost every state,” he says.
During the same years he rode those vexed and wheeling bovines, LeClair also served in the military and became one of the country’s first Native American air traffic controllers. For the past 35 years, he has been an ambassador and honored guest at Lander’s One Shot Antelope Hunt, a celebrated 77-year-old event that draws enthusiasts from oceans away, including star athletes and elites like former Vice President Dick Cheney and General Norman Schwarzkopf. LeClair helps welcome attendees to the event, performing ceremonies and dances that celebrate Wyoming’s living Shoshone culture.
He has built a life around bridging identities and connecting groups of people, including traveling to Rome and the Vatican, where, alongside Buddhist Monks and Catholic Priests, he performed a closing ceremony for the Journey of the Spirit, a traditional pilgrimage. He also performed throughout Ireland and Scotland as part of “Three Worlds Meet,” an intercultural exchange.
“I’ve got to live all of the worlds,” LeClair says. “That was my gift.”
But LeClair didn’t even practice Shoshone traditions until middle age. Rooted in Catholicism and wary of what they saw as deteriorating values on the reservation, his family had for generations discouraged the Old Ways. But as he came of age, LeClair became interested in these ancient traditions. He began dancing in pow wows in the late 1970s, after he and his wife Connie returned to the Equality State from Colorado. But, out of respect for his father’s wishes, he abstained from the more spiritual aspects, such as the Sun Dance. It wasn’t until March of 1984, the day after his father died, that LeClair began his quest in earnest. He was nearly 47 years old.
The night after his dad’s funeral, LeClair happened upon a friend who runs ceremonies. “I’ve got [an eagle] feather I’d like to get blessed by a spiritual elder or a medicine man or somebody,” he said to his friend. The friend invited him to a sweat lodge – he had never been – and LeClair began walking what he refers to as his spiritual path. “I took that feather to have it blessed by that medicine man, and I had my first experience in the sweat and from then on it just…I tell people, it’s not part of my life. It is my life.”
After attending his first sweat lodge, the self-proclaimed “Indian Cowboy” traversed the state, seeking the wisdom of elders and medicine men. He Sun Danced and sweated. Eventually, he earned the blessing to begin teaching dances and leading ceremonies. He built his sweat lodge west of his house on a hill overlooking stretches of pasture. LeClair has been running the rites at his home for over thirty years now, even building a cozy addition to accommodate those gathered for post-ceremony meals. No longer a practicing Catholic, he has fully embraced Shoshone traditions, but continues to work closely with the church, serving on the board of the St. Stephens Indian Mission, a Jesuit group that works with the Shoshone community.
He stood over a decade into his own spiritual journey when then-Wyoming State Senator Mark Harris, a close friend and mentee, had an idea. Harris asked LeClair to consider working for the Wyoming Department of Corrections (WDOC). From his seat on the appropriations committee, Harris saw that while the inmates could practice their faith, they didn’t have any spiritual representation. The call presented an unanticipated detour, but when LeClair saw the conditions in which inmates were trying to worship he decided it was time to take the new direction. “I got to go meet with the inmates,” he says. “And right off the bat, I felt that these inmates needed me, you know? They was kind of shoved off on the back burner.”
Native Americans constitute just 2.4% of Wyoming’s general population but over eight percent of the state’s prisoners. Thanks to constitutional protections of religion, the inmates had been permitted to improvise sweat lodges from available materials. But the structure LeClair saw on that first visit sat in disrepair and the prisoners lacked the resources to properly perform the rites. “They took us out to the area where they have their sweat lodge and I kid you not one bit, this was a complete disaster,” he says. “They shouldn’t have even held a ceremony in it because the lodge hadn’t been rebuilt for years and they would have boards and two-by-fours placing it up so the inmates could go in there and pray. At that time, they didn’t have a real good resource to get rocks or stones for the ceremony, or even the wood [for the fire].”
After meeting with the inmates, LeClair returned home and consulted with Connie, who he has now been married to for nearly fifty years. He held ceremonies of his own and sought the wisdom of his elders. Finally, he decided: “This might be something that I need to do.”
Despite his solid reputation on the reservation, he wasn’t accepted immediately in prison. Lance Toomey, 65, spent 22 years behind bars in Rawlins, and had been the advocate who made the prison’s earlier sweats possible. “When Grandpa Willie came, at first, nobody would sweat with him,” he says. “But I went and sat with him then I went back and told the others.”
Toomey’s years of liaising between the prisoners and authorities had earned him the trust of his fellow inmates. With his endorsement, the others began attending LeClair’s sweats.
After nearly two decades as a contract employee, LeClair remains the system’s only resource to serve the traditional faith of its Native American inmates. WDOC Deputy Director Steve Lindly believes the sweats likely “Provide as many personal benefits as [there are] individuals.”
Each prison institution in Wyoming detains distinct populations. The maximum security Wyoming State Penitentiary sits in the high sagebrush desert outside of Rawlins, an oil and ranching town off of I-80. Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution, in Torrington, serves as the state’s primary intake and assessment center for male inmates not sentenced to death and houses high-risk and protective custody cases. Riverton’s Wyoming Honor Farm and Newcastle’s Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp are minimum-security facilities that allow inmates considerable range of large properties. Lusk is home to the only all-women’s institution, the Wyoming Women’s Center.
In each institution LeClair, who, following Shoshone tradition, does not allow his ceremonies to be photographed, teaches and applies what he calls the circle of respect. “I think respect is probably the most important thing in anything that we do. You can’t give another person respect unless you got respect. I use the circle in every presentation, every training, everything I do,” he says. “I ask these men, I don’t care whether you’re red, black, white or yellow. You are of the human race. We are praying to one creator, one God, one Lord, one Jesus, whatever you want to call it. But we have to come in here and show respect to every person’s way.”
This practice provides a break from the tribal and racial fracturing that often dominates prison life. “Willie stopped the games,” says Toomey, who is part Cree, part white. “I’ve sweat with Apache, Lakota, Crow, Shoshone… Grandpa Willie stopped the political stuff. There was no more controversy.”
Just about everything in the Eastern Shoshone’s tradition emphasizes this idea of the circle, including the sweat lodge itself. Like the one on his own eleven-acre property, LeClair rebuilt the prison lodges with great care. The frames consist of young alder willow limbs, picked as the fresh buds of spring begin to unfurl into leaves, and woven into a dome. The walls are built in layers of cotton sheets and blankets to hold in the warmth. At the center, beneath the meeting of the branches, is the shallow pit where LeClair and an assistant pile an even number of stones – as many as 84 – heated in the fire. The door always faces east. The size varies, but LeClair’s structures can typically hold twenty to 35 adults at a time.
Inside the lodge, the inmates’ circle guides the ceremony from west to north, east to south. The first round, facing west, is purification. After the water offering, the door closes, dropping the lodge into heavy, humid darkness. If attending, an elder – sitting on the west wall opposite the door – leads off with the opening prayer. Next, the fire tender and LeClair speak before opening it up to the group. LeClair sits beside the entrance, guarding energy, protecting the vulnerable participants. The voluntary devotions orbit clockwise around the smoldering rocks as devotees say their prayers aloud or in silence, in any language of their faith. A simple phrase, “all my relations,” signals each prayer’s completion. The ladle of water also follows the circle as each person may splash a small offering to earth before sipping or pouring the cooling liquid over themselves. As round-one prayers close, the little door opens, letting heat and the worshippers spill into the fresh air.
LeClair cannot predict the length of a given ceremony, as every round serves a different purpose, fulfilling a different need for each person: purification, prayer, healing, and gratitude or transformation. Participants may choose which rounds to pray in and are not obligated to pray at all, just to respect the space and others’ experiences. Between rounds, as devotees cool off, conversations break out, giving LeClair the chance to watch, listen and interact with the inmates informally. These candid moments may be especially important for the male prisoners, who, unlike the women, tend to avoid scheduling one-on-one visits with the spiritual leader. “It’s not that the guys don’t want to talk to me,” LeClair says. “It’s machismo, or ‘does this show a sign of weakness that I’m talking to Grandpa Willie all the time, or that I go see him?’… But I get to visit with them all the time around the fire, while we’re in the sweat lodge, in between rounds. And what’s really beneficial to me is to just sit back and listen.”
As the ceremony concludes, inmates return to their everyday routines. They shower and eat lunch, exercise or go to work. LeClair emphasizes the sacredness of the space: what happens in sweat stays in sweat. It’s the lessons he wants them to carry back to their cells. But that integration, he says, isn’t always easy: “One guy, he asks me, ‘Grandpa, when we come out here [to the ceremony], it don’t make no difference who you are or what you done or how you act in the pod. We come out here and it’s totally different… Grandpa, why does it have to be that, as soon as we walk through that door, we forget what we done out here?’ I said, ‘That’s what I been trying to impress on you guys from the beginning of time: What you get out here, take it back in there. Let it germinate in there. Give it energy.’”
Inmates who let the lessons sow and sprout and bloom say they can stimulate great change and bring real peace. When Toomey was released eleven years ago, he found work on a ranch fifty miles from LeClair’s home lodge. He drove one hundred miles a day to continue his practice. Today, Toomey says, he still sweats with Grandpa Willie whenever he can. “[Sweating] brought me back to being clear-eyed…I believe in living life. I don’t let things upset me. After a sweat, I’m cleansed.”