THE SWEAT LODGE
(AMACHEEKEE / INIPI) CEREMONY
Story written: by Doug Wesley, Florida Business Consultant and Writer
Call Me When the Smoke Clears, the summer of 1989
Connecting – One Two-legged’s Experience of a Native American Sweat Lodge
“Fire of Purification, Steam from Sacred Stones, Prayer Ties and Tobacco, Meld with spirit songs.” Jamie Sams
The medicine man called me into the sweat lodge for a private talk before the ceremony. He and I sat cross-legged in the sand across from each other. He said “Doug, what you are about to do is really hard for old guys like us. He is forty-nine and I am forty-six. He said, “The heat affects men more than it does women. If you get to a point that you feel you can’t take it, I want you to know that I’ll be there with you. Just call out, ‘Flaming Eagle, this is hard for me.” I thanked him for his concern, but silently thought that I would make it through okay on my own. I believed I wouldn’t need to use this code for a rescue.
My friend and writing partner had discovered her roots in the Native American culture. Her grandfather was Blackfoot Indian. For months, she had been talking to me long-distance about the healing powers of the ceremonies she was learning. She has even taken a Native American name: White Feather. Though I’m a management consultant, I have an educational foundation in cultural anthropology and have been trained as a therapist. Lately, I’ve read a lot about the cultures of the Native American tribes in the southwest. I have a strong interest in these issues, but have never had an inclination to become an Indian.
Then, in a year of major endings and beginnings in my life, it occurred to me that I might benefit from the sweat lodge she had been telling me about. I thought this purging experience might help me gain some new focus and direction. My twenty-three year-old daughter, Meredith, who was leaving her position in our business to pursue a new career in another state, independently came to the same decision. To help make the change in our relationship, we arranged a trip to visit White Feather in the desert to go through a sweat lodge together.
All our inquiries about details were met with cryptic answers like, “It lasts as long as it should last” and “it ends when it’s supposed to end.” I resigned myself to making this an act of faith and trust in those who would lead me.
The Ceremony was scheduled for six in the evening. As instructed, we had been fasting since six o’clock the night before. We spent a lazy, hot day looking for firewood. No small challenge in August. You have to bring your own wood to heat the stones for the sweat. We learned it was permissible to buy the wood instead of Cutting it ourselves and, driving around, finally spied a huge pile of logs behind a greasy diner. This part of southern Utah is called Dixie because its red sand reminded someone of the red clay of Georgia. They even fly rebel flags. The disagreeable owner of the diner had also adopted Georgia’s contempt for outlanders and carpetbaggers. I agreed to pay an inappropriately high price for enough wood to fill the trunks of the two cars available to us. The sun was high and we were sweltering. The wood was sticky with sap. On the edge of losing my spirit for the adventure, I tossed an armload of small logs in the trunk. White Feather, our leader, told me, “Throwing the wood means you’ll have a hard sweat.” That got my attention and, baseless superstition or not, I threw no more wood.
We drove through small towns up toward the mountains, and then turned off the hardtop, and up a winding white dusty road. “This is it,” our leader said. It was about three in the afternoon.
We parked on the side of the dirt road and followed White Feather to a Rocky trail that twisted nearly fifty feet straight down through the trees. We could hear a stream rushing below as we cautiously made our way down the steep path. At the bottom, we found a cool clearing that looked like a camp site, canopied by cottonwood trees and invisible from the road. This tiny ravine was perhaps, a hundred feet wide. It curved out of sight both upstream and downstream. Trees grew all along the stream and the walls of the ravine were held vertical by huge black boulders. The creek had been dammed to create a small, crystal clear pool and water gushed over the rocks in the center of the dam. A twelve-foot circle of red sand unlike anything else in the area broke the rich black silt. In the center of the red circle stood the skeleton of what would become our sweat lodge. Made of willow branches tied together with red, yellow, white, and black pieces of cloth, the structure was about five feet high and eight feet across. There was no other sign of civilization.
We made countless trips hauling our wood an armload at a time from the road down the treacherous path to the sweat lodge site. We threw none of it, stacking each log carefully. As we sat and caught our breath from the workout, White Feather told us it was time to gather our stones. She showed us that she would use the wood we brought to make a fire across the clearing from the sweat lodge. The stones would be heated in the fire then placed in the lodge to create the experience. She showed us how to select volcanic lava rocks and warned us that other types might explode in the fire or later in the lodge when water was poured on them. She told us to choose stones the size of cantaloupes or larger. We asked how many we should find and somehow weren’t surprised to hear her enigmatic answer: “The right number.” We learned that Indian custom required us to leave a pinch of tobacco as a gift for each rock we took.
Meredith and I set out on what she described as an “Easter egg hunt.” For an hour we ranged up and down the creek bed and brought back stones, one by one, careful to treat them with respect and certainly not throwing them. A single hummingbird appeared and hovered around us for a while, flitting from the trees to the clearing and back. We discovered an unusually friendly (or brave) lizard living in the rocks that surrounded the red sand under the sweat lodge skeleton. Each time we came by with a stone, he craned his head around to watch us as we passed. When we had a pile of about fifty or sixty stones, we decided that was “the right number.”
We waited. Feet cooling in the stream. Watching tadpoles. Listening to crickets. Thinking about – maybe not thinking about – what was to come. People dropped by and talked with White Feather. Friends of hers, I supposed. I was somewhat distracted and detached, not inclined to be sociable. I noticed that most of them laughed at the number of stones we had collected.
I was anxious to meet the medicine man. I wondered what sort of fellow would submit himself to the discomfort of a long, hot sweat for the benefit of strangers. Most curious and discomforting for me was that Native American custom forbids the exchange of money for medicine. I was going to accept this service, but would not be allowed to pay for it. I had learned I would be allowed to bring a gift; that tobacco was important medicine and, of course, it would not be purchased by those who used it for sacred purposes. I’d visited my regular pipe shop and brought four pounds in various flavors.
James does look like an Indian. But, he also looks like some kind of professional to me, maybe an engineer. His gray-streaked black hair is pulled back into a braid that hangs nearly halfway down his back. He’s wearing handmade leather moccasins, Ocean Pacific shorts, and a blue sport shirt. He greets Meredith and then comes over to shake hands with me. A joyous smile seems to be permanently carved into his face. He looks deeply into my eyes and says, I’m glad to be here with you, Doug.” Then he’s off to work mobilizing the troops to ready the site.
We made many trips up the hill to his Cadillac to bring down tools, supplies, and sundry sacred equipment. There was a shovel to seal the lodge around the bottom with sand. A pitchfork to lift the hot stones. Bolts and bolts of tenting canvas.
James directs us to place the canvas – layer on top of layer – over the willow skeleton. James says, “I hope you appreciate this red sand. We hauled in two truckloads of it for the sweat lodge.”
I was impressed at the effort, but didn’t appreciate the meaning. Soon, the lodge appeared as a brown igloo with a two-foot opening facing the clearing.
James, to Meredith and me. “I don’t know why. I usually don’t do this, but I feel we should get in the water and talk for a while.”
Meredith and I were to be the only occupants (besides James) in the sweat lodge for this ceremony. I ducked behind a tree and changed into the swimsuit I had been told to bring.
We hold hands, wade into the ice-cold water, and sit in a circle with the stream lapping at our chins. James. “The sweat lodge is one of four important ceremonies in our culture. First is the sacred pipe ceremony; we turn prayers into smoke so they are visible to the eye. The sweat lodge is the second ceremony. We use the peyote ceremony for healing; this is the third ceremony. Fourth is the ceremony of sacrifice; in my tribe, the Seminoles, we scratch ourselves with branches and you may have heard of the Sun Dance practiced by the Sioux.”
I understand that the Sioux impale themselves through the chest muscles with sharp sticks and then are pulled up to hang by these sticks in the sun for a long time. I get queasy just thinking about this and have taken care to learn no more about the Sun Dance.
James again. “The sweat lodge is a purging or purification ceremony. The lodge represents the mother’s womb. In the sand in the middle of the lodge we will dig a hole. Do you know what the stones heating in the fire represent?”
James. “Sure. Very good. White Feather will be our fire carrier. After the stones are red hot, she’ll lift them out of the fire one at a time and bring them into the lodge where they’ll be placed in the hole.
“There will be four rounds in the ceremony: first is the round for self, then the round for mother, then father, and the last round is for vision or wisdom. This stream represents the mother’s blood and we’ll come out of the lodge into the stream several times tonight between the rounds. When we walk out here, dip completely under the water three times and, as you come back up into the air, scream as loud as you can. This will represent the birth experience.
“Before we begin the Sweat Lodge Ceremony, we’ll build an altar between the fire and the lodge. The line that runs from the fire to the lodge must not be broken. You must not walk through it. Always walk clockwise around the lodge and the fire. I’m going to purify the lodge now and I want you to think about your intentions. Why are you here for this ceremony?”
We get out of the water. I am shivering. We watch as James builds a low altar with red sand just outside the opening to the lodge. On this raised hill of dirt, he places five or six beaded leather pouches. He drives what looked like a walking stick into the mound and hangs a pair of saddlebags over the stick. He places a fan made of a large bird’s wing on top of the stick, then unrolls a 4-by-6 foot hand-woven Indian rug and
drapes it over the top of the lodge. White Feather prompts me to offer my gift of tobacco and I do this. James thanks me sincerely.
James asks Meredith and one of the women to tie colored clothes in the trees north, south, east, and west of the lodge, explain that the boundaries they establish will be a warning to evil-intentioned spirits. He dispatches the other woman to collect a bag full of sage. Then he invites me into the lodge to warn me how hard this will be.
Meredith and I were sent up the dirt road to find a spring in the stream and fill a gallon jug with water. His instructions were vague, but we found the place easily. We waded into the creek and ran our hands along the sides of the steep hill underwater until we felt an icy jet. The air was still warm on our walk back, but the sun was dropping low in the west.
When we return, the fire is roaring. Our stones are separated into four piles that stand in a row beside the flames. Many of the rocks we collected have been rejected and are set around the site as a kind of boarder. James is in the lodge praying and smoking a long red stone pipe. We sit and watch as White Feather places all four piles of black stones in the fire. The boy has disappeared. The two women are smoothing the dirt around the lodge and making the site perfect. James calls White Feather into the lodge and fills his pipe again with some of the tobacco I had brought him. They talk for a while and then seem to be praying. The sun begins to sink behind the top of the ravine.
White Feather emerges from the lodge and tells me James is touched at my gift. He has never had so much tobacco at one time. I see James fill another bowl and begin smoking again. White Feather tells us that James is smoking to purify the lodge. Visitors continue to drop by, say hello, and disappear back up the trail.
As James comes out of the lodge, two visitors, a young man and woman, greet him and asked him to conduct their marriage. He gives them a phone number where they can leave a message about the date. The stones in the fire are no longer black: most were red and some were white.
James stands before us formally and invites us all into the lodge. He says” “Each time you pass through the opening of the lodge, say the word ‘Meh-tah-ki-ahssen’ or, in English, ‘All my relations.” This reminds us that we are connected to everything in nature. Not just to our families, but to the sky and the water, and the earth and all creatures.”
One by one – James, White Feather, Meredith, the two women, and I – crawl through the left side of the small opening, careful not to cross the centerline. We utter “Meh-tah-ki-ahssen” and crawl clockwise around the shallow hole in the center of the lodge. Our small council sits cross-legged in a circle against the dark walls of the lodge, which absorb flickering light from the fire outside. Sprigs of sage scattered in the sand around the center hole combine with woody aromatic pipe tobacco to completely eradicate the strong aroma of tent canvas.
James. “Welcome. This is the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. I’ve brought us together to honor each person who will be contributing tonight. We’ll talk a bit to explain each person’s role before we begin. I will be here in the lodge with Doug and Meredith. The Christian religion believes that God has three parts: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We Native Americans believe that the Great Spirit is both male and female. I represent the male part. White Feather will be outside as Fire Carrier and she represents the female part.”
Meredith (far more comfortable with the experience than I) asks, “So, can we call her J.C.?”
James. “Since she represents the Mother God, perhaps M.G. would be better.” Everyone laughs.
James. “I want to honor White Feather for the work she has done helping people track their family relationships to Native American roots. She is a ‘breed’ and this is difficult for her; she has worked hard and makes an important contribution. Jonna will be our drummer and will sit outside the lodge for the entire ceremony beating the drum in the rhythm of a mother’s heart. Since this is Doug’s and Meredith’s first experience with the lodge, I would like Jonna and Karen to each tell your experiences with this ceremony. As each person speaks, listen and honor them. Do not interrupt. When you finish, say ‘Oh-ho,” so that we will know you are ready for us to go on. This is our custom.”
Each woman explains the spiritual benefits they and their families have received as a result of participating in sweat lodges. They both say their marriages have been reborn and their understanding of their husbands has grown immensely through the experience.
James. “I have taken thousands of people through the sweat lodge. Many are not Native Americans. I believe it is important that we share this sacred ceremony with everyone.” He tells us about his work conducting sweat lodges at the state prison for native American inmates. He tells us that the stones will “know” how hot they must be, how much heat we can take. That, sometimes, even though they are glowing red, they are cool.
After the stories, we leave the lodge so James can make final preparations. Clockwise, we crawl around and through the opening, each muttering “Meh-tah-ki-ahssen” or in “All my relations” as we exit.
James fills the pipe bowl with tobacco again and calls White Feather to give him a gourd full of creek water. We watch from outside as he pours the water in the sand around the center hole then calls for more water and repeats the process. He does this again and again. He opens a large glass jug of water with some type of herb soaking in it and pours it into a bucket. Then he takes the jug of spring water Meredith and I had gotten and pours it into the bucket, too.
White Feather comes over to us and whispers, “If it gets too hot in there, just hold some of the sage to your nose and mouth. It will help you breathe.” I recall that a friend who has been through several sweat lodges gave me different advice: “Just remember. Suck mud.”
I notice that a couple of dozen flies hover around the opening to the lodge but don’t go in. We saw no flies here this afternoon. I had heard that sometimes people are given Native American names at the end of a sweat lodge. I wonder if this might be a sign that my name should be Swarming Fly.
James comes out to get us, clearly invoking, “Oh-ho, Meh-tah-ki-ahssen,” as he passes out of the lodge. It is about to begin.
White Feather retrieves an eight-inch woven bundle of dried sage from the altar and lights it at the fire.
James explains that we must be purified with this “smudge” before we enter for the ceremony. He stands with his arms outstretched and White Feather moves the smoking bundle up and down near his skin from head to toe, front and back, then across from one hand to the other. The smoke hovers around James like an aura. The same for Meredith. Then for me.
James, then Meredith, then I crawl into the lodge. “Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.” “Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.” “All my relations.” We sit in anticipation.
James. “White Feather. Fire, please.” She hands him the smoking sage bundle and he uses it to light the pipe. Through puffs to keep the pipe lit, he tells us that we will introduce ourselves to the lodge – our names, our tribes, and our intentions – before the door is closed. He tells us he is Flaming Eagle of the Seminole tribe in Florida, a people with seven thousand years of history. He tells us his intention is to lead us through this experience and offers us a warning: “I am a two-legged. I know nothing. And I lie a lot. Oh-ho.”
I introduce myself next. I say that I am from a small tribe of Wesley’s in Florida. My reason for being here is to bring some completion to the endings I’ve recently experienced, to shed my skin and move on to a new life. “Oh-ho.” Flaming Eagle challenges that there are beginnings and endings in life. He suggests that life is a continuous strand that may only change and not end. “Oh-ho.” I thank him for his insight. “Oh-ho.”
Then Meredith. “I am from a larger tribe of courageous people who do difficult things…” She discusses her intentions. Flaming Eagle challenges and offers suggestions. They talk for a while. “Oh-ho.” Meredith is finished.
Flaming Eagle tells us the four rounds of the ceremony will begin with a prayer. Then each of us will talk about our intentions for that session. After that, one of us will choose a song and we’ll all sing along. The round will close with a chant that he will lead. We are to chant with him. He tells us that he will pray, chant, and sing for the first round.
Flaming Eagle calls to White Feather for sweet grass. A ten-inch arc of woven, dried grass is handed in to me and, as instructed, I pass it around to Meredith. Flaming Eagle tells Meredith to touch the grass to each stone as it is placed in the hole while saying, “Thank you for being here.” He calls to White Feather again. “Twelve stones.”
A white-hot stone is placed at the opening with a pitchfork. Flaming Eagle uses two sticks as tongs and places it in the hole, giving it a name. “This is for Doug who is here to shed his skin and continue on with his life.”
As Meredith touches the grass to the stone, a small puff of sweet smoke explodes into the air. “Thank you for being here.” Another stone is presented, named, placed in the hole, and thanked for being here. Another. Another. And another. The lodge is hot. The sand is cool, smelling of sage. More stones. The temperature rises. Finally, the twelfth. Flaming Eagle tells White Feather to close the door. She lowers a thick, quilted flap. The heartbeat of the drum begins outside.
The lodge is completely dark. And hot. I feel I am melting in sweat. Flaming Eagle begins to pray rapidly in a language I’ve never before heard. The word, “Doug,” pops through in the middle of the unfamiliar sounds then, “Meredith.” More praying. It’s really hot in here. Getting hotter. The prayer ends.
Flaming Eagle asks each of us to tell what we intend to get from this “Self” round. I talk first as though I am in therapy. I hear SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS and feel a burst of steam blasting at my head. Realizing Flaming Eagle has poured water on the stones, I keep talking and sweating. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. The steam is searing. I’m using a bandanna to wipe the sweat from my face and head as I talk.
In a flash of insight, I realize what my friend meant by “Suck mud,” and lie flat on the cool, wet sand. I deep talking into the small hole I have dug. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. I say a silent prayer of thanks to the people who brought the sand down here: without this gift, I would have my face in sticky, black silt. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. Even the sand is hot now. I finish talking and say, “Oh-ho.”
Meredith begins. I try to listen to her, but my skin is burning. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. I find my attention more on breathing than on her words. The sand is sticky against my face and chest and stomach and legs. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. My bandanna is soaked and sandy. I put it in my pocket. Meredith is talking and I’m not listening. The heat is unbelievable. I lie still and try to listen, to honor her. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. The steam races into my lungs. I grab some sage and hold it to my mouth to help me breathe. It smells wonderful, but doesn’t seem to help in breathing. All I can see is the glow of the rocks. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. The drummer is near me just outside the layers of canvas. Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. Meredith talks. I concentrate my attention on my own survival.
I begin making bargains with myself. If I can make it through this round… No, I will make it through this round. Then we’ll go out and bathe in the cool stream. Heaven! Then I won’t have to come back in for the next round. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. It’s too hot here. I’ll just say I’ve had enough. Meredith will come back in, though. She’s incredible tough. She’ll make it all the way through. I know she will. It’s okay for me to choose to leave. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. No more steam, please! I can make it through this round. I can. I will. Boom-BOOM… Boom-Boom… Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM… Boom-BOOM. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. Meredith is talking. Then I hear her say, “Oh-ho”. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. I don’t know if I can make it. The heat is unendurable.
Flaming Eagle begins a song. I try to sing along. I’m not going to make it. It’s too hot. The song ends. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS.
I concede. I have to use the code. I call out, “Flaming Eagle, this is hard for me.” I hear, “I know it is, Brother…” SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. And he begins chanting. Oh, no! It wasn’t a code for a rescue. He’s still chanting. I can’t make it. How do I get out of here? Can I just crawl over and push the door open? No, because I have to circle clockwise across Meredith and Flaming Eagle. I can’t see where to crawl. I have to get out of here. The chanting stops.
Flaming Eagle. “Congratulations. You have just completed the first round of the Sweat Lodge Ceremony.” Loudly. “OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAHKI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OPEN THE DOOR.”
The cool night air rushes in over my skin. I look up from my prone position and see that Meredith has been sitting cross-legged through the entire round.
Flaming Eagle. “lie down and be-still for a while. Just breathe.” Flaming Eagle is sitting, but he has sand on his side and shoulder. He’s been sucking mud, too.
Flaming Eagle calls to White Feather and hands her the gourd. “Fill this with water from the creek. She returns and hands it to him. He asks, “May I wet you, Brother?”
I say, “yes,” and icy water flows over my back and legs. I scream.
“May I wet you, Sister?” Meredith says, “yes,” and shudders audibly as the water is poured. Flaming Eagle says, “Let it out. Scream.” He pours again. And Meredith shudders louder.
We lie there feeling the heat from the stones and the cold from outside. We can hear the crickets and I realize that we couldn’t hear them when the door was closed. I feel a glow of success and am wondering when we will go out to the stream as I hear Flaming Eagle say, “White Feather, the sweet grass.” I sit up. She hands me the arc of woven grass and I pass it to Meredith, somewhat confused about the timing. Flaming Eagle says, “White Feather. Eight Stones.” The first white-hot stone appears on the pitchfork. Flaming Eagle, lifting the sizzling rock with his long sticks. “This stone is for Meredith’s mother, Doug’s wife. Honor her, Meredith.” The puff of sweet smoke appears as Meredith touches the grass to the stone and says, “Thank you for being here.”
It’s finally clear to me we are beginning the Mother round without going to the stream. My escape is foiled. Resigned, I tell myself I can survive one more round.
“This stone is for Doug’s mother, Meredith’s grandmother.”
“Thank you for being here.”
“This stone is for Meredith’s maternal grandmother.”
“Thank you for being here.”
Five more stones. One for each of my grandmothers. One for Flaming Eagle’s mother. One for White Feather. One for Jonna.
“White Feather. Close the door.” Flaming Eagle asks me to begin the round by praying. I do and pray for each of the mothers he has mentioned; especially re-membering that he said his mother was sick. I’m trying to do everything right so Flaming Eagle will end this round quickly.
I’m first in the talking phase. I babble my intentions about my mother and my wife into the sand. I’m sucking mud again. I hear Flaming Eagle in the dark quietly grunt his approval and I believe I’ve taken the right path. I go straight to the deepest issues and finish quickly. “Oh-ho.” Meredith begins. This round seems to be speeding by. I count only a few gourds of water sizzling in the rocks. Meredith finishes. “Oh-ho”
Flaming Eagle asks her to sing this time. As she begins and I laugh to myself. “You are my sunshine. My only sunshine. You make me happy. When skies are gray…” I sing harmony as I did on the mornings I drove her to kindergarten nearly twenty years ago.
The absurdity of this is hilarious to me. The hiss of water on the stones. The mother’s heartbeat drum just outside. The terrible heat and steam burning my skin. And I am singing harmony to “You Are My Sunshine.” This is funny to me until Meredith launches into the second verse. Second verse? Doesn’t she understand that when she finishes singing and the chant ends, the door will be opened? How many verses does she know? Oh, no. Another chorus. But then she’s finished and Flaming Eagle begins the chant. I know now that he begins the last chorus of his Indian language chant a little louder then diminish the volume to nearly a whisper at the end. Finally. The louder beginning. Soon the door will open. We’ve made it through another round. And so fast! We must have discovered the right way to do this.
“You have just completed the second round of the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OPEN THE DOOR.”
The cold air rushes in. In the eerie bright flicker of the firelight, I look over to see that Meredith has learned to suck mud, too.
“White Feather, a gourd of creek water… May I we you, Brother?” “Yes, please.” I scream. Another gourd of water. “May I we you, Sister?” She tentatively answers, “Yes.” She shudders loudly as the water pours over her. We lie and breathe for a while.
Flaming Eagle calls for another gourd of water and offers it to me for a drink. I drink deeply and he suggests I pour the rest on my legs and belly. I’m sitting. He orders the gourd filled again for Meredith. And then for himself.
We’re glowing and in the lodge, fragrant with sage, there’s an air of excitement. Meredith and I smile at one another and reach over to quickly squeeze each other’s hand. We see the cool clearing outside, brightly lit by the fire. The second round must have been only a fourth as long as the first (though at least as hot).
Soon, Flaming Eagle calls White Feather for the sweet grass and eight more stones. The Father round begins. One stone for each father and grandfather. Flaming Eagle, White Feather’s man, and I are included. “Thank you for being here.” I’m touched as I hear my daughter say this. The door is closed again.
Meredith is asked to say the prayer first. There are now twenty-eight cantaloupe-sized stones glowing red and white-hot in the center of the lodge, which is darker than any midnight. I’m much hotter than I have been before. All the red sand has turned to mud. SSSSSS-SSSSSSS-SSSSS. Steam fills the space. Breathing is difficult. The heartbeat drum pounds at my ear.
As usual, I’m asked to begin with the intentions for this round. Perhaps this is the round I came here to experience. My father died this year. I was out of town on business for his death and for his funeral.. My grief flows forth. I talk about the dreams my father had for me that I never achieved for him. I forgive him. And myself.
Meredith later told me she felt she should reach out to comfort me, but that she was just too hot. She was struggling to survive the heat and steam.
As I talk, I discover the gifts of grandfathers I really never know living through me today. As though their spirits are in the lodge. One gives me his life of pain that creates my sensitivity to others’ feelings. The other gives me his expressive words that become the ability and the drive for me to write. I feel these men are present in the heat and the steam. I feel both purged and reconnected to the men of my past. These thoughts consume me as I lay flat in the sand and struggle in the heat while Meredith speaks. Time flies. Or stands still. Or disappears. The pain and the steam and the heat pour on. Meredith says, “Oh-ho.”
Flaming Eagle asks me to sing the song. I hear Meredith laugh as I break wordlessly into the chorus of a hard rock song, Iron Man, by Black Sabbath. It is the right song for me now. For my father. Without regard to the heat, I repeat the chorus eight times, twelve times, twenty times. More. Flaming Eagle and Meredith sing the guitar rhythm along with me. “Dahh, Dahh Da-Da-Da Dahhhh.” Finally, I am finished. “Oh-ho.”
As we chant following Flaming Eagle’s lead, I realize this has been a long, hard round. I am hotter than ever. And in as much pain. I’m not listening for the early signs of his last chorus, though. And I’m not thinking about escape. Or even the fourth round. I’m feeling whole. A part of the sand and the earth I’m pressing into.
“You have just completed the third round of the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OPEN THE DOOR.”
We sit and stare at one another by the light of the fire outside. We’re filthy. Flaming Eagle says, “let’s go out to the stream.”
We crawl out of the lodge single file, clockwise behind Flaming Eagle. Holding hands, we step gingerly through the darkness to the water. It is frigid and I am unable to catch my breath. Flaming Eagle commands me to lower myself into the pool. I resist, and then comply. I come up screaming. “Two more times,” he orders. I do so only through his will, not mine. I am shaking uncontrollably. Flaming Eagle tells us to sit with the water to our chins. I feel I am struggling for my life. I can’t breathe. All the muscles of my body are in spasm. Flaming Eagle and Meredith together demand that I take a deep breath. And I finally do. But the shaking continues. I beg Flaming Eagle to let us go back to the heat of the lodge. Finally, he agrees and I begin to bolt for land, but Flaming Eagle orders me to take my daughter’s hand and help her out. With only a little embarrassment for my selfishness, I obey.
We must walk the long way around the clearing, clockwise around the fire to avoid breaking the line to the lodge. White Feather, Karen, and Jonna smile at us as we pass. We crawl through the opening.
First Flaming Eagle, “oh-ho. Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.” Then Meredith, “Oh-ho. Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.” Then me, “oh-ho. Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.”
We sit facing each other in the glorious heat from the stones. My shivering begins to subside. I’m so happy to be back in here. The irony strikes me, but I quickly toss it off. I am happy to be in here in the heat with the wonderful perfume of the sage.
Flaming Eagle calls White Feather for the sweet grass and eight more stones. She tells him there are only four left, but, before she’s finished, she passes eight white-hot stones into the lodge. The others must have been buried in the hours-old fire. Thank you for being here.
Flaming Eagle prays, and then tells us that the last round – the Vision Round – will be conducted in silence. And it is.
Though there is no way to gauge our progress, I am at peace with the heat and the steam. It will as long as it lasts.
I strain for a vision and find none. I decide to relax and wait for a vision. Breathing into the mud. Smelling the sweet, pungent sage. Listening to the heartbeat of the lodge. Feeling the heat of the wood we brought and the stones we collected. Breathing the steam of the water we carried. I am aware of the solitude of each of us in the lodge. And, perhaps, of our oneness without words.
As Flaming Eagle begins to sing, I realize that we’ve done it. We’ve endured all four rounds. I sing along with him having no understanding of the words. Then the chant. In time to the heartbeat drum.
“Congratulations. You’ve completed the fourth round of the Sweat lodge Ceremony. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OH-HO. MEH-TAH-KI-AHSSEN. OPEN THE DOOR.”
I see White Feather’s smiling face back lighted through the opening of the lodge. In the lodge, we sit up and look at each other. Smiling. The cool night air swirls the clean aroma of the sage clockwise around us.
Flaming Eagle. “Let’s go to the water.” Crawling out of the lodge around the large mound of stones, we each say, “oh-ho Meh-tah-ki-ahssen,” as we pass into the world.
In the icy water, again I have difficulty breathing. I’m shivering and shuddering. I dunk under and scream as my head comes out of the water. Two times. Three times. Flaming Eagle asks that we hold hands and sit in the water. I comply, but soon beg him to let us get out of the pool. He agrees and I bolt for the side, only to be reminded once again to hold my daughter’s hand as she walks over the rocky bottom.
Our outside partners are waiting for us with warm towels. We all stand holding hands around the fire. Each of us says a few words about the evening’s experience. But I find it difficult to listen. Or even make contact with them. I’m still inside myself.
After a quick change into dry clothes, I rushed back to help the others bread down the Sweat Lodge. It was a beehive of activity. White Feather and James were carefully storing the leather pouches and other objects from the altar. Several of us lifted the layers of tenting canvas off the lodge and folded them as neatly as we could into the bolts we had carried down the ravine that afternoon. Soon the clearing looked much as we had found it. A canopy of trees. A circle of red sand covered by the skeleton of a dome. Hot rocks still glowed in the center of what was the lodge. The flames of the fire reached chest-high into the night, brightly lightening the area. We began making trips to James’ car with his tools and equipment. When all was loaded, the six of us said our goodbyes. Meredith and I hugged James and thanked him. He, Karen, and Jonna got into their cars and drove away.
For the first time, I noticed the sky. It was brilliant with white stars against velvety black. Ten times more than I had ever seen. The Milky Way seemed to extend from horizon to horizon. White Feather, Meredith, and I stood and wondered at it. Then, we got into separate cars for the long drive back to White Feather’s house where she and Meredith had a midnight feast to break our fast.
Meredith flew back home the next day and I stayed to finish a writing project with White Feather. About mid-day, I realized that I had left my sunglasses at the site of the sweat lodge and asked Feather to drive me back to look for them. We had a peaceful drive on a warm, summer afternoon. It didn’t seem as far this time.
Feelings of excitement stirred as we turned onto the dusty white road up the hill. I looked around for the glasses where we had parked, then rushed toward the sound of the creek and the path down the ravine. The clearing was magical for me. Crystal clear pool with water gushing over the center of the dam. The circle of dry red sand covered by the lodge skeleton. It was just as we had first seen it.
There was no evidence of the fire we had left burning or of the left over wood. The volcanic stones wee not in the center of the lodge. Nor around the border of the site. In the rocs at the edge of the sand (where the lizard lives) I found the sage from the lodge floor in a large bundle tucked out of sight. I took two small bunches as souvenirs for Meredith and me. I left a pinch of tobacco. I walked over and sat in “my place” on the lodge floor, carefully crawling through what was the opening and saying, “Meh-tah-ki-ahssen.” The spirit of last night filled me. I wondered if I were hallucinating, but no, the smell of the sage permeated the willow branches and the sand. I sat silently for a long time.
On the way back, Feather told me that James had come back that morning to clean up the site and had hidden the stones again. He does this after every sweat. It was an Easter egg hunt! She also suggested that Meredith’s name, if she wants one should be Hummingbird. Mine should have to do with the lizard.
I thanked her for arranging all of this for us. But her response was predictable. “You did it.”
Yes. We did. “Thank you for being here.”