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Smoke from a fire pit rose to meet the glare of a shimmering July sun Saturday at the Utah State Prison as a group of Native American inmates and their friends repeated one of religion's oldest rites.

The prison sweat-lodge rites celebrated not only the strength and beauty of the human spirit and man's relationship to deity, but the anniversary of a victory.A year ago, Native Americans at the prison won the legal right to practice the sweat-lodge rites. After two years of litigation, a federal judge ruled on March 16, 1989, that the native customs are protected under freedom-of-religion provisions. Some prison officials had seen a sweat lodge as a potential security problem.

Soon after the court decision, the first sweat lodge was constructed of lithe willow poles adjacent to an interdenominational chapel on the prison grounds. Draped with a heavy covering of blankets and canvas, the lodge traps a thick vapor of steam that rises from heated rocks doused with water. Coupled with prayers and sacred songs, the steam is part of a purification process.

The lodge is used by prisoners weekly, but Saturday's ceremony was a special remembrance.

John Powless of the Governor's Office for Indian Affairs joined the ceremony late, shedding a business suit and tie to participate in the lodge rites.

Also among the group was Danny Quintana, who was instrumental in pursuing the two-year suit through the courts.

"We could never have done it without the help of many people," he said, giving special credit to his wife, Martha.

Quintana, who is not native American, joined about a dozen Indian males who disappeared into the lodge for four rounds of chanting, singing and purification rites. The thrum of monotonal drums and the rise-and-fall cadence of age-old chants were a stimulating anachronism in a world where airplanes flew over a parking lot filled with man's mechanized machines and unheeding non-Indian inmates conducted a noisy basketball game in a nearby court.

With each round of rites, seven large stones were taken from a hotly burning wood fire. Water poured over the heated stones converted to steam as a major component of the religious ceremony.

Four of the stones represent the four major directions of the compass, said Lula Red Cloud, whose husband, Larry Foster, was among the group of volunteers who joined prison inmates for the ceremony. The others represent an individual's relations or descendants, the creative spirit and Mother Earth.

Other trappings of religious ceremony rested on a mound before the fire - a pipe, a stick with two feathers attached, drums, a buffalo skull, whisks of sagebrush and other plants, deer antlers, an animal pelt - each symbolic and important to the rites conducted behind the closed flaps of the lodge.

Because several Indian tribes were represented, songs and chants were a mix of native languages, said Red Cloud, who is an Oglalla-Sioux.

Foster had recently participated in 13 days of Sun Dancing at the Big Mountain Navajo Indian Reservation. The ceremonies were particularly important because a sacred pipe had been brought from Green Grass, S.D., he said.

"The ceremonies are for the people to survive," said Foster. Traditional Native American reverence for the land and for life is taking new directions, he said. Indians are contributing to the debate on such issues as environmental pollution and questions that impinge on religious rights.

An Oregon case regarding the use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies may set the tone for one such debate, he said. A historical hallucinogen, peyote has been declared illegal. Utah could well become involved in the question.

Participants emerging from the lodge, glistening with a mix of steam and sweat, were continuing rites that have been traced back before written history.

"This is the oldest religion on the planet," Quintana said. "Carbon dating puts it as far back as 40,000 years ago."

Native Americans who are involved in prison rehabilitation believe that the link to a proud past and the spiritual renewal of frequent rites such as those conducted Saturday will help keep young Native Americans out of prison - or from returning to prison.