Sweat Lodge Ritual
The gathering place, an hour and a half trip to northern New
Jersey, is a jerry-built little house which sits way up a hill and has no
parking accommodations for crowds. Upon entry, we are greeted by a sign
that asks that we remove our shoes before entering the living spaces. We are
shocked to find an old woman in the livingroom sporting a
Vandyke beard. Another young woman sits with her. We nod and ask
about the ritual. It seems the first ritual is being performed as we
speak. Our group's ritual will occur in about a half hour. Apparently,
the Medicine person who performs the ceremony has been scheduled
to perform four such rituals this weekend, two yesterday and two
We decide to go for a walk. There is a sanctuary nearby to
check out. Coming back we decide to go take a look at the sweat lodge. The
first group has emerged. The only person left in the lodge is a big fat
Indian woman who comes rambling out barefooted with only a towel
wrapped around her in icy winter weather. We are wearing thermal
underwear, sweaters, pullovers, ankle length skirts with tights underneath,
sweatpants. Topping it all are heavy wool coats and long scarfs
wrapped around head and neck.
The woman, a Lakota Indian, has a little rose tattoo above her
left breast. The fleshy body, the tattoo, her mud caked bare feet and
her sang-froid somehow add up to sensuality. A young blond
woman, who's been smooching with her girlfriend, goes off and gets
the Indian woman whose name is Beverly, some blood oranges and
strawberries. We watch her eat the fruit with gusto, its red juices
running down her chin, all the while maintaining a running patter
with some of the women who have gathered.
The first group of celebrants have gone back to the house and
are feasting. The blond, it turns out is the Fire Keeper. Since early
morning, she has been burning wood on top of the rocks that are used
in the ritual. More women start to gather around the fire. Beverly
gives instructions on how we are to proceed; and each of us has her
body anointed with smoke from burning sage. Since we have never
taken part in a Sweat Lodge Ritual we the first ones to
"You must now take your clothes off," says priestess Beverly.
Some women lean against a pole to remove their pants.
The fire keeper approaches and tells them, "I use that pole to lean
my shovel and pick on, and I need it. You should not stand in my way."
The women look steadily at her, as they stand half naked, and vulnerable
amidst strangers on a cold winter morning, "It will take a
second for me to remove my tights and I intend to lean on that pole to
do so." one woman responds
"I can't be responsible for what happens if you are in my way,"
says Fire Keeper.
The tights, the sweatpants, the skirts, the sweaters, the underwear
are quickly removed and hung of the disputed pole.
The ground, although still very frozen, has a thin layer, maybe
a quarter of an inch, of thawed mud from the people walking on it.
With Beverly leading us and chanting, we circle the lodge, a group of
thirteen naked women, wrapped in towels, some barefooted waiting to
be invited in. We have kept our clogs on and will not remove them till we
enter the lodge. It looks like a geodesic dome piled with tons of
blankets, quilts and tarps. We are shivering and a bit humiliated by our
nakedness and the mud. Finally, after some chanting we are invited
into the lodge one at a time. Rather than dreading the heat which we
had obsessed about all weekend, we now look forward to it.
Thankfully, we had the foresight to bring several towels each, one to
place on the frozen muddy ground, the other to wrap ourselves
as the lodge is still cold. We are told it is not a shame to
leave the lodge if a person becomes ill from the heat.
There will be four rounds to the ceremony. At the end of each
round the lodge entry flap is opened to allow light and air to enter.
More hot rocks are added to the pit and the next round begins. One becomes
aware of the peculiarities of one's naked body. The old woman with the
Vandyke beard sits to our left. Skinny body, healthy looking and spry.
The beard throws us off and we cannot see beyond it. She, or it,
repulses us and we have no desire to communicate with someone
whose sex is so indeterminate. We are all packed in quite close and
there is really no comfortable way to sit what with the shape of the
dome preventing one from leaning back against it.
Thankfully, the Fire Keeper starts handing in hot rocks on a pitch
fork. Beverly places them in certain positions, maneuvering them
with a deer antler, and the woman to her left drops sage on each one.
A bucket of water is brought in and the flap is closed. Beverly drops
water on the rocks and Grandfather's Breath is gladly received. She
prays for all of creation, and she chants.
At the second round, we each offer a prayer. Beverly speaks of a
woman who once asked for a million dollars. "At the time, I wondered
how a million dollars could possibly come to the woman. Through the
lottery or somebody's death? I did not think this was a good request.
The woman got her wish; she was in a car accident in which her
whole family died, she came out of it unscathed and a million dollars
"You will get what you ask for in a Sweat Lodge," she tells us, "so
choose wisely." We decide to ask the elders for wisdom in guiding the
people who come to us for assistance to help them on their path. It
occurs to us that no one has asked for personal gain, for advancement.
With wisdom we shall have it all.
We smoke the peace pipe and drink water. Our bodies are dirty with
mud. One can feel the grit between inner thighs and several women have
makeup running down their cheeks. Some perversity made one paint
her fingernails and toenails blood red for this event. A middle aged
woman across from us pours water over her head, her red blotchy
face and body. It looks coarse, but understood, we are down to the
basics of life, heat, water, shelter, and when the ladle comes our way it
seen as a golden liquid able to save our lives. Later, we are given sage
tea to cleanse the impurities from our bodies. The heat at no time
overwhelms. What was hardest is the discomfort of the seating
arrangement. By the third and fourth round some lie on the ground to
relieve their cramped bodies.
Beverly asks us to hold hands and sing along with her the holy
songs of her people. Who wants to hold the bearded old woman's hand?
Body to body, we are able to communicate in spite of the squeamishness
and her hand is grasped along with the others. Once out of the lodge,
everyone quickly grab their clothes and head for the house to dress.
Fuck this outdoor business. Inside, a table laden with food, which
the participants have brought, awaits us. We all form another circle,
the old Vandyke woman prays for us, then we dive into the food.
We find this part of the ritual anticlimactic. Are we still in the
ritual? People line up and load their plates, two and three
times. And they eat, and they eat, and they eat. The talk is chit chat.
Some people have come in small groups and they form cliques. We are
bored with it all and would like to sleep. One wall is covered with tee
shirts for sale and there is some Indian jewelry. As soon as it is polite
to get away we say good bye to Beverly, giving her a good hug, thank the
hostess who owns the house and are back on the road.
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