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      Discovering Native Culture in a Sweat Lodge

      June 21, 2013

      By Nigel Irwin

      I have a funny relationship with my own culture in that I feel like a tourist in it. I was raised in complete seclusion from my Aboriginal background. There was no parental influence that rooted me in any cultural experiences. I grew up knowing the textbook definition of Indians. The hunter-gatherers, the feather in the hair, something about a peace pipe... It became clear these were just stereotypes. The truth is 'Indians' are my family, and I should probably know about my own culture. So, now that I’m in my early 20s, it’s become a goal of mine to immerse myself in the culture that I missed out on as a child. First stop, sweat lodge.

      Certain people might find a sweat lodge to be a hellish experience. When I first got inside one I realized it was definitely not for everybody. A small, tent-like structure is built from maple branches and a tarp cover. Inside, 15 scalding hot rocks are placed in a dirt pit and, on several occasions, healthy amounts of boiled water are poured onto them. You’re left to sit inside for close to three hours and take in the dense steam and allow your body to drain out those years of binge-drinking and fast food. To me, it sounded exotic and dangerous. I’ve heard stories of people claiming to have visions and hallucinations while inside. They claim to have reached states of nirvana where the Creator speaks directly to them. For years, Aboriginal men and women have been using sweats as a means to seek peace of mind and spiritual direction. What a thrill ride! However, after going in, I wasn’t prepared to take it that seriously. I have become disillusioned with this idea of talking to God for a long time now. Still, I felt like my years of sitting through dense and abstract church sermons should be balanced by something. Making contact with a God other then that of the church seemed like a welcomed change. That gave me all the more incentive to try it.   

      I found myself in the woods of Vasey, a small village in the Tay Township of Ontario, at the Enaahtiq Healing Lodge. A burly Ojibwe man named John, who was to be the elder for our ceremony, greeted me. The ceremony starts with the entry of the Grandfathers. The Grandfathers aren’t actually old men—they’re the preheated rocks in the sacred fire pit. The Fire Keeper shovels them in. Most crumble and hiss as they’re thrown into place. Then the artifacts are placed inside. A tin of boiled cedar water, a marble cup of tobacco, a whistle carved from animal bone, and musical shakers. I sat there while this was happening, in nothing but boxer shorts, eyeing the other seven participants that were huddled in this lodge with me. The ceremony consists of prayers, songs, and the passing of the feather. When the feather gets passed into your hand, it’s your turn to speak to the Creator. This part put me off a bit. Have you ever had dinner at someone else’s house and had to sit through grace? Doesn’t it seem awkward and unnecessary? Now imagine having to actually say grace for the table. I guess I was prepared to have a back seat experience, but now I was suddenly expected to drive.

      All this was shooting around my mind as the doorway, traditionally facing the East, was shut and we were submerged into absolute darkness. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. That’s when things got intense and I began to question what I was doing there. From the first onslaught of steam, my face was in the soil seeking the coolness of the Earth. I don’t think I was prepared for the intensity of the heat. It was disorienting and unsettling. I tried to think of the origin story we were told, and I tried to remember the physical benefits of the sweat itself, but when you’re actually in there all the niceties of that one Wikipedia article I read seem like bullshit. This was an endurance race. It didn’t take long before I was fully experiencing the sweat. I was drenched. Dirt was mixing into my pores and every movement was itchy and sensitive. The feather was being passed around and I was listening to these strangers open up about their personal trials and tribulations. Perhaps the honesty that was shared that day would have been vehemently moving in any other environment, but here I was finding my cynicism coming to the forefront of my thoughts. I guess I felt like I didn’t need the supposed Creator’s help.

      I listened to what the other participants shared. “I’m confused with what to do with my life,” “I’m mixed in with a bad crowd,” “My vices are consuming my life.” I didn’t think I shared any of these problems and began to wonder why I thought I needed this experience in the first place. I wasn’t depressed, a drop out, a felon, or on parole. I wasn’t even a serious spiritual seeker. I felt this was no more then a cultural experience. It was clear that believing in the Creator or a God or some spiritual lifestyle is what brought these people here in the first place. So where was I coming from? Then, the feather was passed to me and, to my surprise, I found myself talking. Talking about what I’m talking about now. How I didn’t know how to take this sort of thing seriously. How I was more than happy to treat this like a cultural experience. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. All I did was state my belief that when I exited I would feel like the same human being as when I came in. My honesty was all I could share in that moment. In response, the other participants gave out some affirming whoops and hollers. They seemed to understand where I was coming from.

      The feather had gone around. We had sang the songs of old. The air was dense with steam and our bodies were jellylike. We were back in the womb. I was settling into something I might call being comfortable. At any rate, I could see the ceremony was coming to a close. I began to look forward to the cool night air soothing my skin as we emerged from a complete sweat session.

      “Thank you, my brothers, for coming along on this journey. It may take some time to process the meaning of what you found today. At least it will hopefully have alleviated some heavy thoughts so that you may focus on purer things. Trust me when I say that you will sleep well tonight.”

      John closed with a prayer and when the Fire Keeper lifted the veil, we exited through the rising steam and felt the wide-open air once more. I had made it through in one piece, but did I find God? Was I supposed to? For me, taking part in such an old tradition was enough. I feel that a native sweat isn’t so much spiritual as it is natural. A hot yoga class or a sauna might have similar effects, but it’s inside a native sweat that you really get challenged. I felt connected to myself and the Earth when I was in there, embracing the elements, then fighting them. Like anything, if you search long enough you will find some sort of answer, clue, or direction. Even though I am inclined to think that these answers ultimately come from ourselves—things like isolation tanks, prayer, meditation, and sweats are effective ways to shut out the world around us and get back to that part of ourselves we know so well. That, to me, is the point.

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      Topics: native, culture, regalia, sweatlodge, nigel irwin, bildungsroman

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