Special Commitment Center sweat lodge elder shares his journey to becoming spiritual leader
Entering the sweat lodge, residents appear in a sacred place. Inside, every song is a prayer, spirits become renewed, and each person can speak freely to their creator.
“It cleanses. It gives you an opportunity and safety and confidentiality, because nothing that is said in the lodge is disclosed outside of the lodge. You can speak freely without fear of criticism or recrimination, just you and your creator,” said Warren Gohl, a Native American elder who leads sweat lodges — the SCC Sacred Circle — at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. “Each one has their creator that they’re speaking to. It’s a purification process.
“We go in on our hands and knees. We’re returning to the womb of mother. The structure of the lodge resembles a womb; the lodge poles are the ribs of the mother; the fire is her heart, eternal heart. The smoke is our prayers that go up to her and all of creation, to grandfather and father.”
Gohl leads sweats two to three times a year for SCC residents when he visits Washington from his home in Mexico.
“I’m called to be there. And that’s been a way for 40 years now. I’ve been called to go somewhere, and before long, all of a sudden, I’m a part of it,” he said.
Journey to find his people
Gohl, a well-known Native American elder and spiritual leader, spent his childhood disconnected from his Indian culture. His Native American parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and when his mother remarried a white man, she hid her heritage by claiming to be Italian or Spanish.
“She and her mother and her father had buried themselves in Chicago to try to be white people, which was not uncommon. It was a law in the ’50s, relocation of Indian people into the cities,” said Gohl.
He had what he calls a “duplicity of spirit.” At 18, he wanted to get out of town and so he joined the U.S. Army.
“I was in nine different schools and 13 different houses before I joined the Army; I was looking for some stability,” Gohl joked, as enlisting took him around the country and the world, from the U.S. to Asia (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam) to Europe (Germany). He learned to speak five new languages: Czech, Chinese Mandarin, Japanese, Polish, and Vietnamese.
In Japan, he met his wife; they adopted their daughter, and years later, their son was born. His career was changing too, advancing from enlisted to a warrant officer, and from working in communications to intelligence.
In 1980, Gohl and his family moved to Spanaway after he retired from the military.
“We jumped in the car and drove across the country to sunny Washington. I had never been there before. The reason why I wanted to go there was to get the hell away from whatever I was running away from for the last 20 years,” Gohl said with a laugh.
He said that he was looking for a home.
“I’m Seneca-Cayuga on my mother’s side. One of my most treasured sayings in Seneca language is, ‘I thirst; I am searching for my people’ — that’s my soul,” Gohl said.
He said that his people ended up finding him.
Becoming a spiritual leader
His move to Washington began his second career with the Department of Corrections, starting as a correctional officer at a minimal custody work release facility 20 miles outside of Forks.
“My first six months was in Indian country. It was coastal; I was just up the road of Forks, Wash., home of Quileute people,” said Gohl. “When I finished my shift up … I would run into Indian people and just started talking, and I felt the power. It wasn’t long before until I met more and more Indian people with the dreams of starting power dreams of Indian life and so forth. By the time I’ve been there for 10 years, I was already involved pretty deeply within Indian life and became involved in the medicine part of it.”
Gohl also met Indian people in prisons, and from there got to know their families and started going to tribal powwows.
“Essentially I became known; the word passed that I was one of those who carried the medicine,” he said.
Gohl became an active American Indian Spirit Leader in the mid-1990s and joined the Inter-Tribal Warriors Society as a rifleman in 2001.
Soon after Gohl retired from DOC in 2006 — where he also worked as a classification counselor, a community corrections officer, and on a joint counterdrug task force — he became the chaplain for the Inter-Tribal Warriors Society’s honor guard. Over the next 13 years, he officiated more than 2,500 veteran funeral services at Tahoma National Cemetery.
While blessing the traveling Vietnam War wall, Gohl was approached to lead a sweat lodge at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. When he met the incarcerated Native Americans, “I just stood by the door and when they came in there, I gave them a blessing, each one. Then I had them gather a circle around me, and said, ‘If you’re here to hire me, you better think about firing me first, because I tell the truth, you’re going to tell the truth, and we’re going to speak from our hearts, not from our brains.’ And that’s how we got started.”
He said that a sweat lodge is a place to be healed, and to give thanks.
“We go in there because we’re beaten up, tired, and want to give thanks for everything’s that been given to us, and to always ask for help for our problems, but to give thanks for all the good that has to come us as well,” Gohl said.
After seven years of leading the Stafford Creek sweat lodge, Gohl received word that SCC needed a Native American spiritual leader as well. While he began joining special ceremonies at SCC in 2011, in 2015 he started leading the sweat lodge.
His path to becoming a spiritual leader was a gradual one. “One way to fill an ocean is you start with one raindrop, it’s kind of like that. You don’t ask questions either; you just say thank you, and keep going on.”
Gohl recalls the “powerful people, good people” who were his teachers.
“People like Billy Frank with the fish wars; he taught me so much, so quick. The man whose eagle staff I carry, the old medicine man. When that staff came, I was told I was going to be the one to carry it for him, a year after he had passed away. And I cried; I said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ They said it’s not important; the staff will teach you. And then it dawned on me that I don’t carry the eagle’s staff; it carries me. That’s how we look at the world. You don’t open the door; it opens you.”
Connecting cultures north and south
A few years ago, Gohl’s son encouraged him to move to Mexico to live with him in Guadalajara. His son wanted him to change his pace of life — in addition to serving in the honor guard and as a sweat lodge leader, Gohl was advising the Veterans Affairs administration, serving as an on-call American Indian spiritual leader for the VA’s Seattle hospital, and was involved with other Indian medicine work. He also served on state and city commissions, volunteered at Western State Hospital, and taught students at the University of Washington about Indian healthcare — and more. It was time to slow down.
In Mexico, Gohl still stays connected with indigenous people, who he began meeting through his son.
“Slowly but surely, I’ve come to be with the Indian people here; it’s a beautiful experience. I can carry messages back and forth between north and south now,” said Gohl.
He met the director of education for indigenous student support at the University of Guadalajara, and provided interviews to her staff, and he’s spoken for hours with a local radio station for indigenous people about his Seneca people and the Seneca experience in the post-colonization world. Gohl is currently providing guidance on a potential exchange program between Mexican and U.S. universities to study the nexus of traditional and conventional medicine.
When he does travel back to the U.S., he brings spiritual leadership to SCC residents. Inside the Sacred Circle, they pray, drum and sing traditional prayer songs. They speak to their creators, and afterward, they gather outside the lodge.
“We circle up after we come out and we say thank you for this experience that was given to us,” said Gohl.
“It basically is a sense of community … We are not by ourselves; we never consider ourselves alone in the world. We are always connected to everything.”
(By Suzie Ovel)