Sunday night was a change of pace for me, in almost every way. I was ecstatic about the invitation to a sweat lodge. I have been interested in doing one for about thirty years. Reading about them is definitely different than participating in one. I can tell you that.
It started out with a hasty gathering of my things at camp, namely my running shorts, another t-shirt, and my towel. I let Dad know where I was going, and climbed into the van with 8 or 9 other people. Some I knew, David and Bryan, my good friends Erika and Allie. But the others were new faces I had met in the last 24 hours or so. Bill and Nicole, and the rest who's names I could not remember. I am so bad with names. It turns out I would grow to really like them all over the course of the week.
As we drove out to the Swalley residence, the sun was heading down. I felt bad that they had all been waiting for me to return from the hospital run, but very thankful as well. I didn't know when I would have this sort of opportunity again. We turned off the main road onto a dirt road, passed a few farms, then the dirt road became a field road, and we passed many a cow and calf. The latter of which seemed to enjoy running directly in front of the van. Panicked calves are pretty goofy. We all had a good laugh at the calves seeing us coming, then seemingly intentionally running down the road in front of us, eager to escape. We also saw one of the fattest cows I have ever seen. She was as wide as she was tall, and would have rolled in a cow tipping event.
Eventually we came up a rise and the Swalley trailer came into view. It was set in a field, with trees and open skies. It could not have been a prettier place to live. Allie's brother Almadon was out front shooting his bow and arrows, and as we disembarked from the van, he graciously let me use his room to change in.
In ones and twos we made our way to the sweat lodge. The women wore full length mumu type dresses, the men got to wear just shorts. I was introduced around, to Larry's sister and her husband Dallas, and to Larry again. The sun was just setting behind the trees giving view to an amazing sunset. The fire pit was in line with the door to the lodge, all pointed West. There was a buffalo skull alter just outside the door.
I was wondering how it started, when the women started entering the lodge. It was explained to me that the women entered first, moving in a clockwise, or sunwise, manner around the inside, followed by the men. Larry told me to take my glasses off and set them by the alter. It was going to get hot enough in there that the metal frames would burn my skin. I set them down and followed Bryan in, crawling around until I was sitting near the back of the lodge. When we were all inside, there were 7 or 8 women and 6 men. It was already warm as Larry entered, taking his place by the door. He greeted everyone and welcomed us. He welcomed me and told me to ask questions if I didn't understand something. Then he told me that since I had never done a sweat before, it was traditional for me to sing a few verses of a song to open the lodge. Now, I had at least read about the sweat lodge ceremony, and I had never heard of this, but being open to the new experience, I started pondering what to sing.
There were a few chuckles and giggles around the circle as I thought, and I realized this may be a joke on the new guy sort of thing. So I said, "Hearing the giggles around here, I am suspect that I might be having my leg pulled, so I will sing "White Christmas" as performed by Don Ho." Or something to that effect. There was laughter around the circle, and already I felt welcomed.
Larry explained what was going to be happening. The stones would be brought in, as red hot as they could get. He explained that getting them red hot brought them back to life, as all rock started out as molten lava. Then the water would be poured on them, and the steam would be the voices of the rocks. He explained the four segments of the ceremony, with the first part being the opening prayer and calling in of the spirits. The second part would be individual prayers. The third part would be the passing of the pipe. And the fourth part would be the sending of the spirits, to carry our prayers back to Wakan Tanka.
As the rocks were brought in glowing, he told us that they could not touch the ground until they were in the pit. From there, he moved them around with a deer antler. As each rock arrived, he greeted it, sprinkled a little tobacco on it, and his daughter Allie touched it with the pipe. I lost count of how many rocks were brought in, but there were quite a few.
I remember during my teen years, a friend in our group had a pool in his basement, along with a steam room. I spent most of my time in the pool, and very little in the steam room. This was my only experience with steam type scenarios. So I was more than a little apprehensive at what was to come, and wondered if I would - A) be able to take it, and/or- B) disrupt the ceremony if and when I passed out from the heat.
The door was closed and the lodge was in complete darkness. The rocks glowed dull orange. Larry started drumming and singing. Others joined in. Water was poured onto the rocks and I was soon covered in steam and sweat.
The drumming and singing were very powerful. It is hard to describe. I could not understand more than a few words, but I could tell from the tone and the rhythm that it was a beseechment. The heat was overwhelming. But I sat and breathed as shallow as I could, not wanting to suck too much hot air into my lungs. I was moved by the song he sang. After a verse or two, I was able to hum along.
And I prayed. I prayed for understanding. For guidance. For the people around me who had invited me and welcomed me. It was very moving and powerful stuff.
Soon the door was opened, much to my relief, and cool-ish air came in. Larry asked how I was doing.
"All right so far." I said.
"What?" He asked. "Did you say 'Is that all you've got?'"
I was VERY quick to say NO! The first steam made me feel like my bones were melting. Yet most of the others seemed unperturbed. I was amazed that Larry could sing like he did in that heat.
The ladle was passed around for drinking. I learned that after finishing the drink, to say "Mitakuye Oyasin" or "We are all related" "All my relations" to indicate I was finished. By acknowledging this, we send prayers out to everything in the universe, because the Lakota believe that we ARE all related. Everything is connected. A belief I have held for years.
There was laughter and chatting as this happened, and I wondered how my church would do if we laughed and joked between sections of the service. I would definitely get stern looks from people for that.
The second section was about to begin. Now, let me explain a little here.
I had eaten lunch around noon. I missed supper because we were driving home, and I had not had nearly enough water that day for the activities I had been involved in. I was later told that one should not go into a sweat lodge thirsty. So, by the time of the sweat I was hungry, thirsty and nervous. Nervous because I didn't want to do something I shouldn't or not do something I should. Because I was entering a ceremony I had been waiting for for thirty years, and I was with a majority of people that I did not know. So my stomach was a bit... iffy. I could feel it grumbling throughout the first section, and by the start of the second section I realized that... how can I say this politely...
I really needed to pass some gas. That's all there is to it. I didn't want to disrupt the ceremony by leaving just to toot, and I certainly didn't want to let 'er rip inside a confined space. So when the door closed again to begin, I was absolutely mortified at what my body was wanting to do.
The drumming and singing started again. As did the steam. I tried to concentrate on the song, the lyrics were beautifully sung, and it nearly brought me to tears. But soon, my gut was telling me to (as my dearly departed aunt Bobbi would say) poop or get off the pot. (She used saltier language for the poop part, but I digress.)
I was incredibly uncomfortable, and as I shifted around trying desperately not to explode, I took a nice deep breath to try and hold everything in. Unfortunately, this coincided with a ladle of water being poured over the rocks, sending forth a scorching blast of steam. I felt it all the way down to the base of my lungs. Great. Now I couldn't breathe.
The individual prayers had begun, starting with Larry's sister. I had been warned by Jen that when the Lakota pray, they pray for everyone in their families. Everyone. Cousins. Second cousins. Friends of the third cousins twice removed. I wasn't worried when Jen told me this, because I've been in some prayer circles with others that went on and on and on. I had no problem with anyone feeling led to pray for as long as they wanted. Or so I thought.
I tried to focus on her prayers. Pray along with her. But my body was a series of cascading failures and I was in a bad way.
This was not the magical, mystical, spiritually moving event that I had always dreamed about. This was rapidly becoming a Very Bad Dream. My stomach was cramped and threatening to come out through my navel, my rear end was clamped shut so hard I could have made a diamond from a lump of coal, I couldn't get a breath, and I couldn't move around. Bryan asked if I was OK.
"Um. I can't breathe." I said. One of my pet peeves as a medic was when people told me this. I heard that little voice in my head again. If you can talk, you can breathe, dumb ass.
He suggested that I get lower to the ground where the air was cooler, but I really had no way to do that without bowling him over, or crawling onto Bill, who sat next to me.
"Mitakuye Oyasin" Bryan said. It was then I learned that saying this opened the door. A nice code word for "I've had enough, let some air in." Bryan said it for me.
"Eeeverybody, ooopen the doooor!" Larry called out. The door was opened and I was encouraged to go out and catch my breath.
My worst fears had been realized. My first sweat lodge, and I was booted out in the beginning. I crawled out feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I sat on a nearby bench and tried to listen as the prayers continued, feeling like a failure.
I'm a little embarrassed to report that the cool air giving me the ability to breathe, and the distance from any innocent bystanders encouraged my gluteus maximus muscles to relax enough that in biblical terms, a great wind spewed forth. Thankfully there was also a natural breeze flowing away from all habitation. But it was a record setting release.
Anyway, as I sat there feeling at once a great physical relief, but a terrible emotional burden, Bryan came out of the lodge as well. He took some deep breaths and sat next to me for a moment.
"Don't worry about it." He said.
But I did. Now what? Was I relegated to sitting on the bench for the rest of the ceremony? Should I go get dressed and go in the house? Should I tend the fire? I had no idea what came next.
Bryan was asked to fetch more stones for the pit, which he did skillfully. When he was done he came back over and told me that if I wanted to go back in, to just sit by the door and ask Larry to rejoin. No big deal. Then Bryan went back in. Easy Peasy.
This made me feel a little better, but still I was cursing my general anxiety and worry and no eating or drinking before that had led to this situation.
I released a little more wind to the breeze and went to sit next to the tent, waiting for a chance to ask Larry to rejoin.
"You want to come back in?" He asked.
"Uh. Yes. Please. Yes please." I felt like such an idiot.
"OK." he said, and motioned for me to go back to my place.
I crawled back into my spot, and noted that only three people had prayed in my absence. I was thankful that the door was left open for the prayers, as I needed the extra time with the moderately cool air that was coming in. Everyone prayed, and it was as powerful, as moving, and as holy as any other prayer circle I had been a part of. When my turn came, I babbled something or other, a little shocked that all of my experience in prayer circles would fail me at this moment. I offered a heartfelt prayer of thanks for the Swalley family, not just for letting me come tonight, but for inviting me into their lives the last time I was in Pine Ridge. They are a very special group of people to me. I also prayed for healing for the two that had broken bones in the Badlands earlier in the day.
The prayers ended with Bryan, and more chatting and joking ensued. Larry asked if I was OK to continue. I told him I'd do my best. Nobody said anything directly, but I wondered in my heart if they were disappointed that I had left.
Soon it was time for the third round. The door was closed and the steam began again. It was intense, but this time I followed the lead of Dallas, who was on his knees, head on his hands on the ground. The air was marginally cooler in this position, and I could breathe well enough. But every ladle of water added to the rocks sent a wave of steam over me that felt like it was cooking the skin right off of my back. Pretty soon I was back to a sitting position, as my knees were hurting a bit.
I found that the area directly behind my back, right against the canvas wall of the lodge, was pretty cool air, so between ladles I tucked my towel behind me to 'soak up' the cool air. Then when a ladle was added, I breathed through my cool air towel. It usually lasted long enough for the really intense steam to pass.
Someone else called out Mitakuye Oyasin, and I sent up a silent thank you to the Great Spirit for the relief. The pipe was lit and passed as the cool night air danced around us. There was still enough heat from the rocks to keep me sweating profusely, in case you were thinking it was all snow cones and wintry in there.
As the pipe made it's way around, I grew more and more nervous. I have never smoked anything in my 40 years on the planet. I've been in the path of campfire smoke quite a few times, but have never intentionally breathed in smoke from anything. So I worried about coughing, gagging, puking, passing out. All that stuff.
Larry explained that what we were smoking was the dried bark of the cherry tree. Each year the bark splits apart in the spring as new growth occurs. This new bark must be collected between the popping time and the first thunderstorm to be considered holy for the pipe. I noted that it did smell more like campfire than cigarettes, much to my relief, and I hoped I'd be OK when it came to me.
I watched the others intently, trying to discern the method of lighting, inhaling, the timing of it all. When it reached me, I tried not to goof it up. At first I sucked a little, but nothing was burning. I took the lighter and tried that.
Did you know that inhaling with the lungs will suck the smoke right down into your lungs when the fire is lit? Yeah. Something else I learned that night. I coughed a little and passed the pipe along.
I said a silent prayer for endurance. That I could hang in there until the end of the ceremony. For everything that I was going through as a newbie, and for all of the trouble I made, it really was a powerful and holy ceremony, and a joy and an honor to be a part of.
Water was passed again, and again the fellowship continued. I remember thinking that this was the most irreverently reverent ceremony I had ever been a part of. Everything was sacred, from the songs and prayers, to the joking and laughter. It all seemed appropriate and holy. I wondered if I were to do another, if I could relax enough to just be during the ceremony.
The door closed, and the fourth round began. More drumming and singing, and I felt so moved by the beat and the words. As if I have known them all along, even though they were foreign to me. They touched me at a very basic level, part of my DNA. It was very powerful.
And it was very hot. Larry didn't spare the water, and the steam heat was more intense than any other round had been. How could he keep singing through all of this? It was amazing. I was balled up on the ground, face close to the canvas wall behind me, seeking breathable air. The prayers I was sending with the spirits were of thanksgiving for taking part in this, asking forgiveness for anything I had done or not done out of ignorance, and a very simple prayer to help me keep breathing. At once I prayed for it to end, and for it to never stop. It really was a strange and wonderful feeling.
Too soon, but not soon enough it did end. Larry called for the door to be opened and everyone crawled out, sunwise of course, into the cool night air.
I tried to stand, but was very shaky and weak in the knees. My head was spinning, not uncomfortably, but in a strange indescribable manner. I had lost probably four or five pounds in sweat alone, and have seldom felt more hungry or thirsty! But I also felt like I had been washed clean.
I had a poster once with a bible verse on it about being washed clean and being a new creation. The picture was a man, the bottom half bronze, the top crystal, and the bronze was being peeled away from the crystal beneath as if shedding a skin. I always liked the image because I have always desired a relationship with my Creator where I am washed clean of the scrudge that builds up from living on this planet. Be it sin, or seeing death and suffering, or becoming attuned to the injustice in the world. I love the image of being cleansed of that stuff somehow.
And here I was, crawling from the lodge, standing on wobbly legs and feeling like the man in that sculpture. Purified. Or at least a great deal of crap washed off of me. It was invigorating and humbling all at once. I was smiling and had a happy heart. Still not quite fully understanding of the sweat lodge ceremony, and still desiring to do it a few hundred more times.
There was some conversation at the lodge, things that are private and that I will hold in my heart and mind. Larry and I had a good talk. That guy is amazing. I'd like to go out there and spend a few weeks just asking him questions.
After I was able to walk again, I changed back into dry clothes and joined the others around the kitchen table for a meal. This is traditional for a sweat lodge, too. There was abundant, very tasty soup and water and juices. We all ate and drank together, Yolanda had made some sort of flat bread that was awesome, and we broke bread together as well. There was more talking and joking and such. It was really, really neat.
But it was late, thanks to me and the broken people from the day, and soon we headed back to Re-Member. I spent the drive back trying to process what had just happened. There were too many emotions and thoughts to contend with in my exhausted mind. It had been one heck of a day.
After saying goodnight to everyone, I headed for bed. I don't even remember my head hitting the pillow.
In talking about it the next day with Allie, I expressed my concerns about leaving the ceremony and told her about the physical things that were going on.
"Ahhh, you should have just let it rip." She said. "It would have been funny. My dad calls them sacred toads."
I laughed at this, and reminded her that my upbringing and fear of embarrassment had led me to clamping my butt shut.
She laughed at me again, and said my Indian name should be "One Who Holds the Toad." And we both got a big laugh out of that!
Now, there is a passage that describes me well in the book "Neither Man, Nor Wolf" by Kent Nerburn. He talks about being a white guy who doesn't want to cross the line into becoming a 'Wanna Be', or those that adopt Native customs and items for the sole purpose of acting Indian. He admires the culture so much that he really wants to be a part of it, but - as he puts it - stands back from the table, nervous to join in for fear of getting the label of 'Wanna Be', but desiring nothing more than to jump in and be a part of it.
I am the same way. I can't ever be Lakota, but boy do I admire the traditional culture. It lines up so closely with the way I believe...
Anyway, after Allie called me "One Who Holds the Toad" I feared, somewhat seriously, but somewhat jokingly, that that would actually be my Lakota name. I'd be brought into the Wanabe tribe (it's pronounced Wah-NAH-bee) and given a name indicating that I hold my farts in.
Years of dreaming about having a Lakota name, and this is what I'll end up as.
Well, I've rambled enough about my first experience in a sweat lodge. It really was amazing, and I hope to go back and do others someday. Not just for the experience, but for how I felt for days after. New born. Re-born? Wonderful, whatever it is.
For now, though, this is long enough. It's late, and I won't remember my head hitting the pillow tonight. I may write more about this in the future. I may not. But I will hold it in my heart forever. It changed me for the better.