This Native American Cowboy is Turning Up the Heat in Wyoming’s Prisons—And the Inmates Love It.
“Grandpa Willie” LeClair has tamed bucking broncos and prayed at the Vatican. But he found his calling guiding inmates into sweat lodges to spill their regrets and fears.
Photos by Craig Okraska
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 corre…
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial