The reawakened interest of American Indians in their religious heritage has been sparked in great part by the prison experience. This odd irony in American ethnic society has been detailed in a unique film, The Great Spirit Within the Hole (PBS, check local station for premiere and repeats). Cinematographer Michael Chin takes viewers into several Western prisons where native Americans are allowed to build the traditional ''sweat lodge,'' a canvas-covered shelter in which water is poured over hot sacred stones to produce ''Grandfather's breath.'' During this secret purification ceremony Indians form a sacred circle of worshipers, smoke the traditional sacred pipe, and cleanse themselves of evil thoughts.
Produced by KTCA/St. Paul with original music by Buffy Sainte-Marie, ''The Great Spirit'' indirectly focuses on the alcohol and crime problems of many American Indians who have lost contact with their roots. In many cases, the prison contact with the revived sweat-lodge tradition brings about great changes in men whose vague feelings of lost identity have resulted in hostility, tension , and aggression, which ultimately land them in jail.
''Now that we have our sweats,'' says one American Indian, ''I know who I am. I'm proud to be what I am. Nothing else can make me feel that way.''
''The Great Spirit'' can make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of native American spiritual traditions. For many of us, it will probably be an amazing discovery that it wasn't until 1978, with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, that these religious practices were guaranteed to Indians in correctional institutions.
''The Great Spirit Within the Hole,'' scheduled to be shown last week, was bypassed by some PBS stations. You can call your local PBS affiliated station and request that it be scheduled again.