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American Indian Healing Altar

A sacred collection of cherished icons added to U. Hospital chapel

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Like the hub of a prayer wheel, the Hope Chapel at the University of Utah Hospital is a center for a dozen religions.

Muslims visit the chapel to pray. Baptists sing. Buddhists meditate. Mormons have their Sunday meetings there.

And on Monday, the chapel added another hue: an American Indian Healing Altar — a sacred collection of natural icons cherished by native people. It was designed by Anthony Smith of Salt Lake City and the Navajo/Apache Tribe and was fastened to the wall after an impressive ceremony.

Chanting a Ute blessing song and fanning sage smoke over the altar — a process he called "smudging" — Smith sanctified the shrine and then took a moment to answer questions and explain the altar's meaning.

Eight elements went into the making, he said. Earth (in the form of purified sand) filled the bottom of the glass to represent the birthplace of us all. A red willow stick was included for its healing powers, sage was added for cleansing and sweet grass for blessing. Tobacco, another healing plant, was included, as was a strip of red felt for protection and blue colors for healing. An eagle feather finished off the altar. The eagle is the messenger who takes all prayers to heaven.

"Every tribe has something similar to this," Smith said. "We also honor individualism, so the way you use the altar depends on what comes to you. People may want to take off their hats, their sunglasses. Some may kneel."

Response from American Indians has been positive. Rios Pacheco, a Shoshone craftsman who runs a trading post in Box Elder County, sees the altar as another good step.

"People will use it," he says. "It will help people feel more comfortable. A lot of Native Americans were raised by their grandparents and have been taught the traditional beliefs; they are people who haven't adopted the 'new' ways."

Mathew Johnson, a Navajo sheepman from Flagstaff, Ariz., also thinks the altar will be used. Many beliefs are held in common by tribes, he says. Most tribes, for instance, see the eagle as a messenger to heaven, most believe that smoke is a visual image of prayer and that earth is the first mother. The difference comes in the details.

"In our ways," he says, "we use the right-wing feather of an eagle to fan the smoke — never a tail feather. But other tribes use the entire eagle wing."

Smith, a former hospital social worker, knows such things and has been careful to include universal items. He describes himself as a "servant worker" and a "practitioner of traditional ceremonies." When asked if he hopes to become a medicine man someday, he smiles.

"Everybody wants to be a medicine man," he says.

Mark Allison, the senior chaplain at the hospital, says he is happy to have the altar to add to an expanding "diversity" of religion at the medical center.

"A lot of faith groups donate things," he said. "Right now we're planning a small font filled with holy water and a collection of books that will include the Koran, the Bible, the LDS triple combination (Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants , Pearl of Great Price) and other sacred works."

The chapel is never locked and is available to any religious group. Allison says he often finds people sleeping there in the mornings after a long, hard night of waiting and worrying.

Now, American Indians will have a place to wait that feels more like home.

"Grandfather," reads a prayer from the Ojibway People of Canada, "Sacred One, teach us love, compassion and honor, that we may heal the earth and heal each other."

At Hope Chapel, the prayer — like the Healing Altar — has a universal feel.

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com