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 today.
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 enter.
"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 richer.
"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.