**I recently had the chance to spend a week at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was a beautiful experience filled with challenge, learning, and expansion. This is one Thing that Happened.**
I start to freak out the moment that the door of the sweat lodge closes.
The lodge itself is a small, wooden structure covered in blankets. There’s a depression in the center to hold heated rocks. At the moment, it’s filled with fifteen or so stones of various sizes that have been sitting next to a large fire for a couple of hours. Even with the door open, it has gotten hot.
Door, by the way, is overstating the case a bit. It’s actually a flap of blankets and a weighted tarp.
With the door open, the lodge is dim and warm. Comfortable even.
When the flaps come down, darkness descends. The space becomes stuffy and oppressive.
I’ve never thought of myself as claustrophobic. I’ve explored caves, crawled through underground tunnels, and snorkeled through tight caverns filled with rushing water with only slight anxiety. But there’s something about this that feels different.
The sweat lodge, or inipi, is an ancient Lakota tradition and cleansing ritual. The lodge itself is designed to look and feel like a womb. The ritual occurs in four rounds. The door opens after each round to allow air to circulate before moving on to the next round.
Ivan Looking Horse, the Lakota elder who is holding the sweat for this group, had given us an overview of the ritual. During the first round, he will sing prayers to honor and call in the four directions. Each direction corresponds with a season, color, animal, value, and time of life. The prayer also honors the earth, Sun, and stars.
After this first round, the door will open and we will go around the circle and each offer a prayer. The prayer, Ivan told us, can be anything. Then he smiled slightly. Maybe don’t pray for a new car or anything like that. Pray for someone else. Those are good prayers.
The second and third rounds will resound with more prayers. The fourth and final round will conclude with a pipe ceremony.
The whole ritual will take about an hour.
One of the other people participating in the inipi, another first timer, had asked what to do if it got too hot. Ivan smiled ‘that’s a good time to pray.’
I had smiled, too. As someone who has participated in his share of rituals ranging from a fire walk to a vision quest to work with various plant medicines, I was reasonably confident that I could weather an hour in a hot blanket fort.
That confidence began to erode as the stones entered the lodge. The first four were placed gently in each of the four directions, anchoring the ritual. Then they came in one at time, creating a mound of heat at the center of our circle. Once the stone were in place, Ivan’s wife had sprinked herbs on them–cedar, bear root, and sage–to help with the cleansing. She also gave us each a branch of sage leaves, telling us to rub them on our skin to help cleanse the spirit.
By the time Ivan called for the door to close, I had already broken out in a light sweat.
The flaps closed blocking any outside light.
And that’s when I start to freak out.
Under cover of darkness, I fiercely rub my head and gasp for air. The sweat hasn’t even started yet and I’m panicking. Ivan had said that we could ask for the door to open so we could leave by calling out mitakuye oyasin, or all my relations. I consider calling out and heading for the door.
But I stay.
I hear Ivan dip a cup into a bucket of water he’s brought into the lodge with him and my chest constricts.
The water hits the rocks with a fierce sizzle. Something about the sound enhances my fear and I whimper. My jaw stretches out. I whimper again.
Ivan starts to beat a small drum and sing. The rapid rhythm and his voice fill the space. The air itself seems to vibrate with the ancient prayers.
Steam has now filled the lodge. I try to take deep breaths, but the raw heat that fills my lungs dissuades me. I feel trapped and small, like the steam, powered by Ivan’s song, is crushing me.
I remember what Ivan had said: when it gets hot, it’s a good time to pray.
So I pray.
I’m surprised by how easily prayers tumble out.
Please, God, help me. Help us. We need support.
Help us to see each other.
To come together and support the Earth.
We can’t do it alone. We need help.
Help us to heal ourselves and each other.
Help us to heal the stars.
Please, I, we, need you.
It’s weird. I’m not a big pray-er, but these words stream out with ease. I’m mouthing them, my arms stretched above, seeking support. I’m dimly aware of the people on either side of me and conscious of not wanting to disturb them. I rub sage leaves over my skin, wiping sweat away, and pray.
As the prayers come, my panic dissipates. I’m still uncomfortable, but it’s a manageable discomfort. The prayer helped usher in a sense of connection with something greater and with all those for whom I prayed, including myself. That connection supports me in the darkness; suddenly it’s not so terrifying.
Finally, Ivan’s song ends. He calls out mitakuye oyasin and the door opens. Light streams in and I breathe deeply. My body is covered in sweat.
I look around the circle at the others who have endured the sweat with me. Five of us are white, first timers to the inipi tradition. The others are experienced, a mixture of whites, Lakota and other members of other tribes who have participated in countless sweats. We’re all covered in a light sheen of perspiration.
At Ivan’s invitation, we begin to go around the circle, offering prayers one at a time. The man to my right, a Shoshone man named Leo, prays in his language. Closing my eyes and allowing words to form themselves, I offer up a prayer for healing and coming together so that we can see each other and know each other’s stories in this divided times. Others offer prayers of healing for loved ones, gratitude for Ivan’s offering of the inipi, for peace both external and internal.
Before we begin the second round, Ivan announces that the stones are cooling quickly. Instead of four rounds, this will be our final round of the sweat.
Again, the door closes and the darkness closes in. Ivan’s cup dips into the water and the sizzle of water on hot rock fills the lodge.
This time I don’t wait for the panic to set in. I go straight to prayer, trying to muster up the same fervor and ease that I had found during the first round.
Instead, as Ivan’s voice rings out in sacred song, a gentle peacefulness descends over me. The energy of the drum and the heat, while still powerful also contain a message of comfort. I rub sage leaves over my skin and pray gently, offering thanks.
As the second round comes to an end, I begin to understand the allure of the sweat lodge and its power.
In Lakota tradition, the inipi isn’t a big deal. It’s a sacred, yet common ceremony. Whenever someone has a bad day, or a cold, or feels slightly off center, they can seek out or request a sweat. The ritual offers the opportunity for connection to community and nature, for cleansing, and for an intense, yet gentle, reset.
We exit the inipi and stand in a circle. Ivan packs tobacco into his pipe and puffs it a couple of times. He turns it clockwise before passing it to his left. In this way, we each take a couple of puffs of the pipe and pass it on.
As I hold the pipe, I’m deeply conscious of the power of this tradition. I imagine Ivan’s great, great, great grandfather standing in a similar circle offering a pipe to white people who had come to negotiate a treaty. And I imagine the confusion and heartbreak that the ancestors of Ivan and the other Indians in the circle with us must have felt as the government broke one treaty after another, killing more and more members of the tribes.
I imagine what it must have been like to maintain these traditions, the inipi, pipe ceremonies, Sun Dance, in the face of Executive Orders that outlawed them. To keep the practices alive under threat of imprisonment or worse.
The pipe continues around the circle and I feel a revitalisation in my body. A gentle energy pulsing through my cells. What if, I wonder, this were part of my daily or weekly life? How much more readily would I take risks and engage in challenging work or interactions knowing that I could sweat it out with my tribe, my community, at the end of the day?
For a moment, I imagine an alternate reality. One in which instead of trying to extinguish Native practices, the Europeans had sought to understand them. What would have happened if the United States had grown out of that type of understanding and respect? What if the way of being encapsulated by the inipi–connection, respect for the Earth, and an embrace of the need for support and renewal–had found its way into the white world? What kind of a nation would that be?
Ivan closes the circle by leading us in shaking each other’s hands, giving thanks and acknowledging our join humanity. As we shake, the group of Indians and white folks standing barefoot on the earth and cooling in the night air, I wonder if maybe it’s not too late.