Being of Native American ancestry, I find it fascinating to see how my ancestors methodically and meticulously performed ceremonies for spiritual cleansing. Of course there are going to be skeptics, as it hardly seems practical to sit on the dirt ground, inside a tent for hours nearly suffocating oneself and sweating until only God knows when you're going to pass out. But there is a practical purpose in the cleansing process.
First of all, I have been so fortunate to be part of a pure ceremony nearly a year ago, hosted by a dear family friend, Jan. She is a brilliant teacher, kind in nature, and a wonderful guide. If it were the 1700s, she would be the grandmother and the spiritual medicinal woman of our people, comparable to Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas, only not in such a physical way. This spiritual take on healing has such a great depth and meaning. It purifies the body, and if you allow yourself, it can take you to a different plane in your mind.
We welcome the grandfathers and the grandmothers and they must always be lead in and lead out. There is a particular order this must go, and the door of a true lodge must always face in the proper direction, as to allow the spirits of our ancestors to come and help us along our spiritual journey. The lodge that I am accustomed to is built of natural materials just as it would have been 200 years ago--pine beams and smoked leather covers. It smells so very rustic.
Inside, everyone sits around a large pit where stones about the size of one's hand line the outer edges. It is dark and the only light comes from the door, which is easily covered with leather and cloth later as to allow for a fuller spiritual experience...and to barricade heat from escaping and cool air from coming in. Stones from the river are gathered at the early dawn and set in a fire for several hours. We know if they are ready if they glow brightly of an orangy-red color. The spirit leader will begin prayers and a ceremonial dance and song before we are ready to enter the lodge. We must not carry any malicious or bad spirits in with us as this will contaminate the atmosphere and the grandfathers will not stay. The songs we sing are full of honor and pride, yearn, and sacredness, and we all know we are about to begin. As our spiritual leader steps forward, she has in hand a bundle of sage set inside a seashell, burning. She begins at the front of our line. We ease the smoke towards us, breathing in its rich infusing of spiritual cleansers, and smudge all over our bodies, careful to not miss a spot. Once everyone is cleansed, we sing, entering the lodge. We find our place and wait for the elder to call for the stones and one person stands watch outside.
We begin with one blazed stone, thrown into the pit. These stones are larger than the ones lining the pit--nearly the size of a small watermelon. We wear light fabrics to allow for our bodies to be covered, but also for temperature regulation. We make sure everyone is ready. Depending on who leads the prayers, there may be a drummer and several singers. Boom. Boom. Boom...The drumming begins. Our elder begins singing in an ancient tongue once known by hundreds, now only known by few. Sage is thrown onto the stone--it sizzles and the air fills of sage. Pine needles are thrown onto the stone, and it smells of pine. A few moments later, water is poured onto the stone, causing an immense vapor, staying stagnant in our lodge.
We relax and close our eyes, praying for cleansing, healing, miracles. We pray for relief and peace within our bodies, families, and neighbors, for purification. We rid our bodies of all the evils we accumulate and find rest in the heat. This round may last 15 minutes to half an hour. The end of the first round comes--the door is opened and we have a chance to pass a communal water dish around for thirst quenching. There is an opportunity to leave if one is unable to tolerate the immensely humid heat. The elder calls for another stone, and it is placed into the pit. More pine and more sage fill the air as they are placed onto the stone to smolder. Water is poured and the heat intensifies. Boom. Boom. Boom. The drums begin again. Someone sings, then another joins, and soon all who know the words sing and we pray for healing, purification, and guidance. Sweat drops form on our foreheads and in our hair. Breathing is a little harder and we slow our thoughts. Another round slips by and we are welcomed with cool air of the opening door, the passing of the water, and a pipe of tobacco. This is meant to calm your soul and is shared amongst the members. Some members exit as the heat is too powerful. Most stay.
The ceremony progresses and more stones are cast into the pit, and the heat is very intense. Sometimes, ceremonies will be complete at a full 12-stone set, sometimes only at four. The number of stones depict the need for a stronger purity ceremony, the call for guidance from the grandfathers, and the healing of our bodies. As a fever does to a human body, the intensity of the heat draws out impurities, toxins, and sanitizes our temples. When we sweat, we are releasing all the build-up of these impurities and allowing the good spirits to take over. We are cleansed.
Depending on who the last members are in the lodge, the end of the ceremony ends with song and prayers. Those of us who left early go into the house and may shower, removing the sweat, and eat. The meals for this ceremony are always hearty and filling as the journey is exhausting and we must all have energy to travel home. The time that I participated, there was a delicious beef vegetable stew, salad, and dessert. Nobody left hungry. Sharing is the nature of a good spirit, so we must show that example at our fellowship. We visit and share stories, and for some, this may mean gossip about our family issues and problems.
When I had showered and cooled my body temperature down, my skin felt absolutely soft and amazing. My hair felt as though I had purchased an expensive deep conditioning treatment, and my face felt as though I had just had a facial. What a wonderful way to naturally cleanse and moisturize your skin!
As for my spirituality, it felt incredible to be connected to the earth and to partake in a cultural event exclusive to my heritage and I felt completely refreshed. If only I didn't live 150 miles away, I would partake in these sweats more often! It would do wonders for my allergies and cold.
The reason I choose to write on a sweat lodge today is because I got to visit with Jan today before I came home. She talked about the changing tides in our Native community, being excluded from our ceremonies, and passing along the dear culture to our children. I am amazed at her courage and wisdom, astounded by her teachings and her skill. I am blessed by the number one spirit (God) to know her. May He bring eternal blessings upon her and the whole family. Amen.