Last night I had the opportunity to participate in a sweat. During this Lakota ceremony, people sit in an enclosed structure, usually made of wooden poles covered with heavy cloth, around a pit dug into the earth into which rocks are placed. These rocks have been sitting in a fire for hours and glow red from the heat. When water is poured over them, they produce steam, heating the lodge and causing those within it to sweat. And sweat and sweat and sweat. Those who know how sing songs of worship to the Creator and others pray silently (I apologize, but I don’t know how to spell the Lakota words for most of this and I don’t want to butcher the language in an attempt to spell them).
So that is an explanation of a sweat. Here is my experience:
I caught a ride with Sherry, whom I know from the Judo classes I attend every Sunday. The leader of the sweat was Dave Halmi, who is also the Judo instructor. He has a small sweat lodge that seats about 6 people, but more like 5 comfortably (it came up to my waist on the outside. Yes, even I couldn’t sit up straight in the structure. It was small). The other participants included a middle aged man named Mark and a man in his twenties named Joe. It was the first time I had met either gentleman. After chatting with Halmi and Sherry about the troubles and the pains of the reservation, a common theme, I watched as Halmi started the preparations. He assembled the pipe, which he surmises is over 100 years old, and filled it with 4 pinches of tobacco, one for each of the four directions and the four parts of the Lakota way of life. The also put four rocks into the hole in the middle of the lodge and we climbed in and around the sides of the structure, taking our seats, huddled around the rocks. Wearing an old pair or rugby shorts (same ones I wear for a week straight each year at Trinity) and an old t-shirt, I didn’t think the heat was so intense. I wasn’t even sweating. Mmhmm, because they hadn’t finished putting in the rocks. Using a deer antler to position the incoming stones which glowed and cracked from the heat, the men brought in more and more rocks from the fire and the heat climbed.* Halmi began pouring water on the rocks, causing steam to rise and sweat to drop from my shoulders and inside my elbows. Eventually, after it fell from my forehead, legs and back, I felt as if my body was weeping, slowly releasing and draining energy like a silent cry when you don’t want to surrender control to sobs.
The prayers started, with the men singing in Lakota to the Creator, asking for peace for those in pain and who needed our blessings and the blessings of the Creator. I wanted, in my sincere participation of this ceremony, to offer my prayers as well and as they sang Lakota, I recited the Rosary, not realizing at times that in my state of mediation I had begun to rock slightly back and forth and shake in rhythm with my own pulsating heart beat. I breathed in dirt, felt ash on my teeth and smelled the cedar and sage fill my nose and my mouth. I was soon dripping beads of sweat like soft rain all around me, my clothes soaked. We prayed aloud for others and passed the sacred pipe. In the final stage of the sweat, Halmi poured more water on the rocks, and the room became more intense with heat and smoke and steam. The heat rose and the sweat rolled over me in sheets, too much for individual drops. The air breathed hot and smoky, warming my mouth and throat and back to the top of my lungs.
When the flap opened for the last time, the small dome was thick with fog and steam, and I was unable to discern those crouched not a foot away from me. We crawled out and resumed the friendly chatter we had carried on before we had started.
As Sherry drove me home and we chatted about cars we’ve owned, I felt clean, fresh, washed from the inside out. I shared my experience with Neil, who told me I seemed more positive. I may not be currently advancing my career or traveling Europe, but this experience is worth the entire two months I’ve been here so far.
* I don’t think it matters what gender puts in the rocks, it just so happened that Sherry and I, the only women, were also taking guest roles at this particular sweat. Actually, technically, men and women are supposed to have separate sweats, but Halmi called this more of a family sweat, so mixing of the genders is allowed.