First is the sacred fire. In the cleaned fire pit the Fire-keeper lays a bed of logs. The first layer of logs, about 3 inches apart is laid east to west, the next layer, north to south creating a bed about 8 inches high and 3 feet square. Next the stones or Grandfathers are selected and piled on the bed. Prayers and tobacco are added. Then a teepee of wood is built around the Grandfathers so that none may peek out. Finally newspaper, twigs and tinder are tucked into every nook and cranny. Then Fire-keeper lights the fire on four sides — the four directions.
I had never been to a Sweat Lodge or or any Native American ceremony. But when I met Grandmother June and she invited me “to come to a healing sweat” the next Saturday, I did not hesitate to accept.
We sat around for about an hour, watching the Fire-keeper and talking, getting to know each other when Grandmother said it was time to dress the inipi, the dome shaped wooden frame that would become the sweat lodge. It is traditionally made of 16 young saplings, cut and stripped of branches. The poles are set in holes around the circumference of a circle, each bent over and tied with red cloth to the pole on the opposite side. Sheets were used to cover the earth inside the frame leaving exposed only the stone pit in the center. Then small rugs and mats were laid over the sheets to make it a bit softer for sitting. We made the place to the right of the door extra soft for Grandmother.
A large black cloth was laid over the top of the domed frame followed by more black and dark colored cloths and then quilts and blankets over the cloth. I was sent inside to see if even the smallest bit of light could be seen from inside. Each place I pointed was quickly covered until I was in was complete blackness – a moonless, starless, night sky. I crawled to the door and out into bright sunlight. The fire was now roaring all around the Grandfathers.
Grandmother gathered us around her and for the benefit of the first-timers like me, explained the protocol and significance of each part of the Ceremony. We were taught to say Mi-ta-ku-ye O-ya-sin, or “all my relations,” before entering the lodge on hands and knees.
We were told to “Let go of all angers, fears and resentments, give up judgements of yourselves and others – this is not the place for them.”
We were warned that once the inipi was “dressed” and the altar laid, we should no longer walk between the inipi and the fire. An east-west line from the fire-pit, across the altar to the door of the inipi, was marked with cornmeal. The altar is a carefully crafted, raised mound of earth. This one held a buffalo skull and two elk antlers with a branch across providing a resting bar for the stem of the sacred Pipe. On it was also placed a sacred medicine bag, my cedar feather, an owl-feather fan, and Rachel’s medicine.
We were each purified, smudged with the smoke of burning sage, and then Grandmother gave us the order for entering the lodge. She would enter first, then me, Diana and then Rachel who would sit in the West, facing the door and in line with the fire. I did not know then that the West is the place for the person to be “prayed for” in a healing, doctoring or curing sweat. Nor did I know how important a part of my life Diana would become.
Grandmother entered the lodge and Fire-keeper brought in one stone on a pitchfork and the blanket door was dropped down. Then Fire-keeper unwrapped and loaded the pipe with tobacco. This was done in a traditional ritual honoring the six directions, including Father Sky and Mother Earth.
In a little while Grandmother called for the door to be opened. It was our time to enter the lodge. I entered the dark womb of Mother Earth, and crawled clockwise around the circle to my place.
Six more stones were passed in and placed in the fire pit. And then the door dropped into place. In the blackness, the stones glowed red with heat, hissed and sizzled when Grandmother poured a dipper of water over the rocks.
I am in the cloud of steam. The water is me, flowing from my hair, my face, my chest, my feet. We are all water bathed in the heat, wet, sacred water of life. As it flows in, it flows out. Drops fall from my face and as I reach to wipe my eyes, I realize, my hand is dripping too. I am in, of, around the sacred water. My water, pouring from my skin, my essence blends with the steam, that bursts from the Grandfathers each time Grandmother gives a dipperful to the glowing stone people.
The door was opened 3 more times. Each time, seven more glowing hot Grandfathers were brought in and the door closed again. What happens in the lodge, stays in the lodge, so I can not speak of the mystery when the door is down.
When the door was raised for the final time we emerged to the sunlight so bright it hurt our eyes. The cool breeze from the lake cooled the sweat flowing from our bodies. I felt altered in a way too big to understand at that moment — maybe cleansed, purified, grateful to have lasted through all four “doors” and not shown weakness, but mostly I felt as if I had received the most powerful blessing.
After cleaning up and changing into dry clothes, the family comes back together for a shared meal. At this lodge, no one eats until a “spirit plate” has been made and offered and until the Elders have been served. Then the women and children may fill their plates and only then can the men take what they want. There was much laughter and story telling during the meal.
As I sat at the table, eating and drinking, I knew I had been accepted. I was now “of the lodge,” part of Grandmother’s family. I was aware that I had participated in a sacred ceremony that could never be undone. The Red Road lay ahead.
Note: This was eight years ago and the first of many sweats and Indian (Native American) Ceremonies I have been blessed to share. Each Lodge is unique and things may be done in a different way, but the traditions are honored. I have been to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to support members of the Lodge at Sundance. In 2013 I took Diana as my sister in the ceremony for “Making a Relative” or Hunka, one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota. I continue to walk the Red Road, grateful for Grandmother June for changing the course of my life with her invitation to “come to the lodge” and all that she taught me.