Spring 1984, Volume 1
When I said "yes," I didn't know how important that simple ceremony would be to the rest of my life. I didn't even know what a sweat was. And it is only after many attempts to understand that it really comes together now.
We drove in the old, faded, blue pick-up down the dusty reservation road. Sweeney, a friend of mine, had found out from his friends that there was going to be a sweat that night. He said they had invited me to participate. Even though I didn't know what I had been invited to, I was honored. I tried to ask Sweeney how to act or what to do. He told me some basic things such as wear as little clothing as possible and don't wear any jewelry. He even asked me if I was having my period. I was surprised and offended, but finally indicated "no." We pulled up to a house with no front yard and got out. Sweeney seemed in a hurry and I followed closely, feeling awkward and not knowing what to do. He disappeared to change clothes, so I did the same. There was no announcement, but it was obvious that things had started,
As I entered the lodge, I was told to go in on the left side of the small mound just outside the opening. I crawled in on hands and knees past all the men, who preceded me, and sat with the women. Crawling was necessary because the lodge was only about four feet high at the tallest point. Several long, slender, pliable, stripped poles formed a coarse framework. The poles were lashed together to form a dome. Over the dome were tarps and canvas pieces to make a heavy, tight and secure hut. In each intersection of the framework hung clusters of sage.
I sat quietly with the others in the sweat lodge waiting to see what would happen. In the almost darkness I could tell that the inside of the lodge was about eight feet across. We sat on mats and coverings that were scattered around the inside edges of the lodge. In the very center, in the ground, was a small hole about two to two and-a-half feet across and about eight inches to a foot deep.
The last person in, the medicine man, didn't crawl past me. He sat at the first place by the door. He talked to someone; I couldn't understand what he was saying and I felt disoriented until I realized that he was speaking in an Indian language. I listened and waited for someone next to me to answer him. But he was not talking to us. He talked to someone outside the hut. Suddenly the door flap pushed aside and a shovel was barely discernible in the darkness. Then a thud and it became very warm in the little hut. About six or seven times more the flap was thrown back and the shovel appeared. Finally I remembered the huge bonfire close to the lodge and the men leaning on shovel handles as they watched the fire. The thuds were the rocks, that had been cooking all afternoon, being dropped into the small hole in the ground in the center.
The door flap closed securely and total darkness surrounded us. The medicine man began his chants and the rocks emitted star shower sparks. I had been told to expect the temperature to be very hot. But this felt good. It was warm, very warm and comfortable and relaxing. I liked it. I didn't think this was too hot. I knew that the medicine man made the rocks spark. He would pray and sprinkle something on the rocks.
I heard water splashing and thought that was very strange. The splashing was as if something was hitting and scooping water and letting it fall back into itself. My senses were right. The medicine man was ladling water. Finally he began. Ladies full of water over the intensely hot rocks shot the temperature up about 50 or 60 degrees in less than a minute. Now it was hot. Very hot. And the sweat began. The medicine man sang and everyone sang with him. I didn't know the songs but tried to follow along. In the middle of the singing I heard more water hit the rocks and steam away. More heat, intense, killing heat.
I tried to find a way, short of bolting from the hut, to escape some of the heat. I tried to breathe through my nose for one or two degrees of cooler air. But the heat burned each hair and membrane inside my nostrils. Breathing through my mouth was no good, because the hot air scorched the insides of my cheeks and roared over my tongue, down my throat and screeched like liquid lead in my lungs. I knew I was dying. And for some reason it seemed OK to die like that. I was surprised at how calm I was knowing that the next intake of fiery white air would be my last. But it didn't come. The coolness of death that would relieve me didn't come. I had to stay and keep breathing. Maybe I would get used to the heat in a minute; maybe it would ease up. It didn't. It got hotter. The medicine man added another ladle full of water to increase the temperature.
I don't know how long I waited and hoped to die, but I became aware that I was singing in perfect rhythm and words with the woman sitting next to me. And in my rebirth, I saw a white buffalo and a woman. I sang louder and with more meaning. At some point, I remembered the sage I was handed just as I entered the lodge, and put it to my nose and mouth. I inhaled deeply of the fresh coolness and felt the balm coat my lungs. The discovery was late in coming, because I didn't really need it now. I understood the heat and appreciated it and wanted it to be as hot as possible. I realized that I had been crying, because cold tears were going down my face and dropping in my lap. The tear tracks were cold against my skin; and I remembered again the heavy heat of the sweat. In my tears and knowing, I smiled.
We sang loud and long and the visions of heat were numerous and varied. Each had meaning. The chant of the singing had the beat of the drum without the benefit of the drum. I understood the drum. All the secrets of my culture were shown to me. I was glad to be in the middle of the earth. Then the singing stopped. All was quiet and I had eyes for the darkness and could feel the other people in the lodge. I could, in my heart, see the men across the circle from me. I could see the women by me. And I could feel their silent joy at my self discovery. The medicine man, in his now familiar speech pattern, called the helper to open the door flap. The helper responded and let the world in. The sacred heat leaped out and the cold jumped in to take over. We sat in quiet darkness, while the medicine man asked each one of us if we cared for water. Each answered Grandfather, the medicine man, and drank the water or passed it on.
In the semi-light of the world, I could see that the water was in a white porcelain bucket and Grandfather used an aluminum ladle. But I knew that traditionally the water was kept in an earthen handdesigned Jar and the water was scooped with a gourd. It hurt a little to know that my Indian people had updated for convenience. But I guess it shouldn't matter; the ceremony remains the same and the purpose is still the same as in the beginning: a purification and a communion.
When we had all drunk our fill of water, I waited and worried that the sweat was over and that we would all very unceremoniously exit from the lodge. I had accepted the intrusion of the outside world and the outside coolness began to feel good and seemed also to have a part in the sequence of things happening. Then the medicine man reached out and pulled the door flap in and closed it.
The rocks were still full of heat and the short break had not dulled their power at all. The heat gathered again just as rapidly as in the first round. And again, the singing was rhythmic and ancient. The Indian chant is difficult for unaccustomed ears. There are definite tunes or melodies, but not necessarily words. There are meanings. And in the sweat it is Grandfather, the Great Spirit, who understands most fully what our hearts are saying. The scale of notes is mostly high and hard to reach and sometimes sounds like a keening or mourning cry. Sometimes it sounds like the winds calling to earth. And often it sounds like our animal brothers telling us where they are. The actual imitation of the sound isn't difficult, but trying to understand why one is doing it is. For a long time it is strange and hard to listen to, but sometimes the beat slows or quickens and catches your own silent rhythm and then you are the center of the earth, the center of the drum, and each successive beat comes from you. You are the center of the circle. The singer and the drum. And all that matters eminates from the center.
Grandfather, hear my song.
I pray to the west,
I pray to the north,
I pray to the east,
I pray to the south,
I pray to Mother Earth,
I pray to you, Grandfather.
Give me strength,
Make me brave,
Give me honesty,
Make me true.
Look to my brothers and sisters
On the land, in the waters and
In the skies.
Grandfather, hear my song,
For all my relations.
Again the singing stopped and we repeated the procedure of opening the flap door and asking for water. I didn't know how many of these rounds we would perform. I didn't know how long we had been in the sweat. I thought that when we had first entered that the sky was dusk blue gray. And when I looked out it was deep, dark evening. The medicine man, Grandfather, called for more rounds. The door flap closed. The heat rose and Grandfather began the singing again. I was aware that the heat was still at its first intensity but now I could accept it. I began my own personal singing.
During my singing, the heat again brought the buffalo and the woman. I saw them in whiteness. I thought it was a whirlwind of snow. The beauty of the huge white shaggy animal was exquisite. The woman was all Indian women. She was unique and common. She looked at me and then led the buffalo away. With an easy turn she returned to her point of origin in my heat-induced vision. I didn't know her or anything about her. I didn't know why she came with the buffalo. I felt her communication but couldn't understand her meaning. It seemed important to remember everything I could about the woman and the buffalo. In following rounds I sang for them to come back. They returned and I just looked and tried to understand the universal communion of our hearts.
After several rounds of singing and sweating, the ritual had come to a conclusion. For the last time the water was handed to each one of us. Then the medicine man readied the pipe. He lit the sweet grass and waved the smoke over the stem and bowl of the pipe, then over the tobacco. He held the smouldering sweet grass braid to each of the four directions, to the sky and to the earth. The aroma of the burning sweet grass was penetrating and lingering.
After the customary silent prayer, Grandfather, the medicine man, filled the pipe with tobacco. He packed it loosely so it would draw easily. Then he lit the pipe. He inhaled deeply and created a lot of smoke. Then he held the pipe in one hand and with the other grabbed at the smoke and put it on both shoulders and on his head. He tried to get as much smoke as possible on his body. And then in his own language he said, "All my relations," and passed the pipe to the man on his left. That man repeated exactly the motions of the medicine man and said, "All my relations."
The pipe was passed palms down and received palms up by the next person. The Indians believe that the gesture of giving is with the palms down. And the gesture of receiving, without greed or haste, which is very important in the silent language of protocol, is with palms up.
Finally the pipe came to me. I received it properly and put the stem to my mouth. The tobacco was strong and very harsh. It must have been very dry and old. Nearly choking, I reached for the smoke to cover my head and shoulders. Holding the pipe seemed awkward because it was so large. It was difficult to hold the bowl and the stem with any kind of comfort. But the experience was so brief, it didn't matter. I handed the pipe on. When the pipe returned to the medicine man, he emptied the remaining tobacco and cleaned the bowl with a twig of sage. He carefully placed the pipe in sage and sweet grass and wrapped it up in a small bundle.
Before we left the lodge, I took a last look around. The sweat was indeed over. Rain or, rather, gathered moisture dripped from the inside of the hut. The rocks were spent and soaked. The ground reached up cold and unfriendly. And the wet canvas gave off a dark musty odor. We began our exit back around and out, the men going first and the women emerging last, Outside, the ever-present helper told us to be sure to walk in the proper direction around the small dirt mound at the opening of the lodge.
As I left the sweat lodge, I headed for the house where I changed back into Levis and T-shirt. In the sweat, I had worn shorts and a T-shirt, and, of course, they were completely wet. The other people were laughing and inviting me to eat with them. There was a lot of food in the house. I had a hard time thinking about food and ate very little.
Later, I learned how important the food is, In fact, the ceremony is not over until the food has been consumed and the sweet grass is burned over the remains of the food. But that night, that moment I could only silently stay inside myself and think and cry at what had happened. I didn't understand the levity of the men and women eating and enjoying themselves. I felt as though I had just been to heaven and talked with God. I had seen a vision of something important. I had almost died and had been completely ready to accept that. I had been given the eyes to understand the Indian heart. I had been given the ears to feel the beat of the drum. I knew that life had changed. I knew that I had changed. I had touched the center of the sacred circle. I wondered if anyone would notice.