The phone rings, and I answer it, “Hello?”
“Hi Eric. It’s Hawk.”
“Howdy!” and small talk ensues. Hawk was a friend of my family and had been in several local plays, and played music with my father, yet this time she was calling to talk to me.
“Saturday, Buzzard is coming over, and we are going to be building a sweat lodge. Would you like to help?”
“What is a sweat lodge?” I knew Hawk was of Native American decent, but I knew nothing of Native Americans but the lies taught in grade school. Once told that it is a Native American purification ritual, I was curious and eagerly volunteered. I just hoped we would be done before I had to go to work at seven Saturday night.
Saturday came around, and the first job on the to do list was cut the willow saplings. There was a small swamp behind Hawk’s house where the willows were growing, and several of us went wading in to select them. We were looking for trees that were about two thumbs-width in diameter at the base. “Thank you brother tree for growing so strong, and so tall. I am sorry that I have to cut you, but I need you for the sweat lodge.” We select nine poles, and dragged them to the front yard to strip them of their bark. Buzzard told me to cut the bark in to long strips, as they would be used later.
Cutting and stripping was taking a long time, and it didn’t help that we had gotten a late start. Seven o’clock pounced upon us quickly, and I had to go to work. I was working the light crew for a local theater, and I had to run spotlight that night. Yet again responsibility interferes with what I want to do. The play ran fast, and let out about 10:30, and I returned knowing that I was too late. The lodge would have been built, and the sweat would be over. That would be o.k. I was alright with watching it happen, but I was a little hesitant when it came to participation in the ceremony. My elders did this naked, and nudity is something I think nearly every 16-year-old fears; especially late bloomers like myself.
I returned to find no one at the house, so I went to the back yard where I knew the lodge was to be built. It was a small dome covered in tarps with the sound of water boiling and dancing on a very hot surface escaping from within. I sat silently by the raging fire as to not disturb them. Just as my patience was starting to wear, and thoughts of returning to the house, or going home started to enter my mind, one of the tarps was thrown back an steam-clad people emerged from within. Hawk was among the first out, and she welcomed me, as she was excited I could make it back. They had only finished the first of four rounds, and there was more to come.
As Hawk squeezed cold water over her head with a sponge, a steam-clad man I had never met started digging in the fire with a pitchfork. From within, he pulled round rocks that were glowing as orange as molten steel, and carried them to the lodge. The call, “Hot rocks!” warned everyone to be cautious, and prepared Buzzard to remove the rocks from the fork, and place them in a pit in the center of the lodge. The rocks from the first door were still hot, but no longer glowing, so only a few new rocks were needed. Once the rocks were in, everyone who had gotten out for a breath of fresh air re-entered, and the moment of truth was upon me. They were ready to close the door, but were waiting to see if I wanted to join them. Hawk said, “Hey Eric, why don’t you take your clothes off, and join us.” After a moment’s pause, I mumbled under my breath, “Ahh, what the fuck!”, stripped, and crawled in.
It was cramped inside, with eight or nine people sitting shoulder to shoulder around the rock pit. The willow saplings we had cut earlier that day formed the framework. They had been planted in a circle and bent over and twisted with the adjacent pole, with two poles in the east twisted with only one pole in the west forming a doorway on the eastern side of the circle. Once twisted the poles were lashed to one another using the strips of bark we had been so careful to cut as long as possible. A rope had been tied around the lodge about 18 inches high on each pole to shore everything up, and another rope was tied even higher for even more support. The tarps were laid over top such that there were no holes to allow air to flow in. Buzzard explained that the saplings were to represent the bones of our ancestors, and that if I needed any support, I should hold on to them. The lodge itself is the womb of Mother Earth that we can return to, be purified, and reborn.
As I had missed the first round, a cup of water was passed around to me, and I was given an opportunity to say prayers and pour water on the rocks. As I had nothing to say, I was instructed to say, “Ho”. In that door and the third door, we sang and talked, herbs were burned on the rocks, water was poured, and we all sweated. The fourth door was the suffering round. The remainder of the rocks were brought in, and the temperature was brought up as quickly as possible. We all survived and no one had to escape the heat. We sat in there singing and sharing wisdom as the lodge cooled into a thick cloud of steam and sweat. The rock carrier pointed out that most people think of us in the sweat lodge as physical beings having a spiritual experience, but he, and now I, like to think of us as spiritual beings having a physical experience.