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, Luhrenloup is greeted by a sign that asks that she remove her shoes before entering the living spaces. She is shocked to find an old woman in the livingroom sporting a Vandyke beard. Another young woman sits with her. Luhren nods and asks about the ritual. It seems the first rite is being performed as they speak. Her 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 today.
She goes for a walk to check it out the nearby sanctuary. Coming back, she walks over to take a look at the sweat lodge. The first group has emerged. The only person left in the lodge is a big Indian woman who comes rambling out barefooted with only a towel wrapped around her in icy Maine weather. Luhrenloup is wearing thermal underwear, sweater, pullover, ankle length skirt with tights underneath, and sweat-pants. Topping it all is a heavy wool coat and long scarf 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. Luhren watches 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 has gone back to the house and is 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 they are to proceed; and each has her body anointed with smoke from burning sage. Since she has never taken part in a Sweat Lodge Ritual, Luhren will be the first to enter.
She leans against a pole to remove her pants after Priestess Beverly tells them, "You must now take your clothes off."
The fire keeper approaches and says, "I use that pole to lean my shovel and pick on, and I need it. You should not stand in my way."
Luhrenloup looks steadily at her, as she stands 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."
"I can't be responsible for what happens if you are in my way," says Fire Keeper.
The tights, the sweatpants, the skirt, the sweater, the underwear are quickly removed and hung on the disputed pole. Although still frozen,the ground has a thin layer, perhaps a quarter inch, of thawed mud from people walking on it. With Beverly leading them and chanting, they circle the lodge, a group of thirteen naked women, wrapped in towels, some barefooted waiting to be invited in. Luhren has kept her clogs on and will not remove them till she enters the lodge. It looks like a geodesic dome piled with many blankets, quilts and tarps on top. She is shivering and a bit humiliated by her nakedness and the mud. Finally, after some chanting they are invited into the lodge one at a time. Rather than dreading the heat which she had obsessed about all weekend, Luhren now looks forward to it. Thankfully, she had the foresight to bring several towels, one to place on the frozen muddy ground, the other to wrap herself with as the lodge is still cold. They 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. She becomes aware of the peculiarities of her naked body. The old woman with the Vandyke beard sits to her left, skinny body, healthy looking and spry. The beard throws her off and she cannot see beyond it. The old woman, or it, repulses her and she has no desire to communicate with someone whose sex is so indeterminate. The group is packed in 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, they 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 family died, she came out of it unscathed and a million dollars richer.
"You will get what you ask for in a Sweat Lodge," Beverly tells them, "so choose wisely." Luhrenloup decides to ask the elders for wisdom in guiding the people who come to her for assistance to help them on their path. It occurs to her that no one has asked for personal gain, for advancement. With wisdom one may have it all.
They smoke the peace pipe and drink water, their bodies dirty with mud. Luhren can feel the grit between her inner thighs, and several women have makeup running down their cheeks. Some perversity made her paint her fingernails and toenails blood red for the event. A middle aged woman across from her pours water over her head, her red blotchy face, and body. It looks repugnant, but accepted, they are down to the basics of life, heat, water, shelter, and when the ladle comes her way it is seen as a golden liquid able to save her life. Later, they are given sage tea to cleanse the impurities from their bodies. The heat at no time overwhelms. What is hardest to endure 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 the group to hold hands and sing along with her the holy songs of her people. Does Luhrenloup want to hold the bearded woman's hand? Body to body, she is able to communicate in spite of the squeamishness, the old woman's hand is grasped along with the others. Once out of the lodge, all quickly grab their clothes and head for the house to dress. To hell with this outdoor business! Inside, a table laden with food, which the participants have brought, awaits. The Fire Keeper approaches Luhren and apologizes for the incident by the Sweat Lodge. They form another circle, the old Vandyke woman prays for them and then they dive into the food.
Luhren finds this part of the ritual anticlimactic. Are they still in the ritual? People line up and load their plates, two and three times. And they eat, they eat, and they eat. The talk is chit chat. Some have come in small groups and they form cliques. She is bored 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 she says good bye to Beverly, giving her a good hug, thanks the hostess who owns the house and she is back on the road.