Outsider Inside Sweat

The ceremonies at Pine Ridge and their potency differed amongst the students throughout the years, yet I think it’s fair to say that the sweat lodge, in both frequency and experience, has been the stage for the more powerful connections with Indigenous culture. At our first sweat, we nervously filed into the lodge, unaware of the emotional and physical challenge this earthly womb was about to present. We followed the women, strangers to us yet family to each other, into the sweat while they urged us to come closer and fill in the circle. The girls in our group had made a conscious effort to wear the appropriate dress, as directed by Celinda and later by Mike Junior, and were surprised to see the other women in casual jeans and sweatshirts. In many ways this describes my interaction, and possibly others in ceremony, feeling like I was missing something important and possibly overdressed, in clothing and in mind, for the event.

Noticeable differences in our experience and their experience undeniably exist, as do all interactions with outsiders attempting to engage in an insider culture. These ceremonies were engrained in their lives as a community and as a family, and yet entirely new and unfamiliar to us. It made me wonder what value our experiences in these private moments had, if any, as I frequently fell into an individual familiarity with my own body, my own mind, when in sweat, which relies on group concentration. Was our presence compromising the authenticity of the ceremony? Could we complete their circle?

Since we left Pine Ridge, I have struggled to make meaning out of my time there, in part because we were flooded with new experiences, totally unaware of how to process them in a respectful and useful manner. Now, as make sense of these events back in my comfy McGregor room, I can’t help but feel disconnected by the dramatic divides that exist between our culture and socioeconomic location and that of the Pine Ridge residents. Relying entirely on personal experience left me confused of my place and experience in their culture.

Scholarly categories can help with this qualm by helping process personal experiences by creating categories and seeing where they fit into what has already been found and agreed upon in this area of study. It allows us to enter a larger space with our thoughts and experiences and regenerate interest through understanding and education. In this process, I find Geertz’ words helpful as he attempts to justify the use of scholarly categories for religious and cultural experiences.

“Let us, therefore, reduce our paradigm to a definition, for, although it is notorious that definitions establish nothing, in themselves they do, if they are carefully enough constructed, provide a useful orientation, or reorientation, of thought, such that an extended unpacking of them can be an effective way of developing and controlling a novel line of inquiry” (Geertz 90).

Feeling unsure of my place in the ritual as I recall my own memories of the sweat, I take comfort in the Innes article, which outlines the benefit of being an outsider when researching an insider culture, and Geertz, who encourages using definitions to establish systems and, therefore, to have useful thoughts about culture and religion. Although I did not necessarily feel like I was gaining some substantial or original knowledge with my objective experience of the people and the traditions, I did however feel that my connection with Mike Senior’s little sister Rose, who joined us in sweat a few of the nights, enabled me to access an overlooked perspective in Pine Ridge. Rose seemed to need an outlet to express her powerful thoughts and feelings that were very possibly being ignored by others in the community because of their familiarity to her and her family. Although the conversations technically were not apart of the ceremony, I felt the interactions I had with Rose and the other Pine Ridge residents allowed for personal connections that were important in accessing comfort while taking part of a ceremony of which I had no cultural connection.

I am not an Indigenous person, nor did I have, at the start of the trip, any real connection to any Indigenous people. I have no experience in sweat lodges, nor any other Native American ceremonies. I would define an insider of this practice as one who both has the education and knowledge of the traditional ceremonies, and the community with which the practice takes place, as well as extensive repetition in the ritual. I struggle with drawing the line in this space, the sweat, of who remains inside and who remains outside the circle, but I have come to understand that with my limited experience and time in this ceremony, I was not unable to fully connect to the practice. I felt a lack of personal commitment, which limited my ability to experience what Csikszentmihalyi describes as, and which Turner applies to ritual, flow.

“a state in which action follows action according to an internal logic which seems to need no conscious intervention on our part; we experience it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which we feel in control of our actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present and future” (Turner 520).

I would have never thought of flow so explicitly linked to ritual, yet the connection seems a natural fit to my lack of constant connection in sweat. Although there are numerous ways in which I, and others, experienced periods of flow within ceremony based on a variety of factors, even with our inexperienced outsider status, I find the more interesting analysis in why I wasn’t able to remain in a flow state. Turner explains, “If a person in flow becomes aware of what he is doing, self-consciousness makes him stumble, and flow-pleasure gives way to anxiety” (520). I experienced this break in flow during our first sweat, in which I was entirely aware I was pushing my body and breath to the absolute limit. I worried about my health, as my heart seemed to beat faster than ever before and was in and out of states of anxiety, desperate to access a state of flow. However, when I was not in the fully physically and mentally frightening moments, I was able to enter a state in which I felt another attribute of flow, “loss of ego”(Turner 521). Through this loss of ego, I was occasionally able to commit to the group, and intermittently felt as if I belonged in the circle.

The first and second sweats seemed to embody two different states of being because of their difference in heat. Turner’s explanation of skill within ritual allowed me to continue my understanding of what separated us from them, “If skills outmatch demands, boredom results; if skills are inadequate, there is anxiety” (521).  In the first sweat, I felt anxiety. The second, I am ashamed to say I felt bored at times and my mind wandered outside of the experience. I felt I could handle the heat and, therefore, had trouble focusing on the sweat as the same ritual I had experienced the night before. At the time, I attributed this to the lack of challenge this particular sweat had on my body, but now I realize that this sweat was much more challenging to my mental focus. I come to wonder how flow works with the Native Americans when experiencing sweat as a daily part of their lives. Does the heat become boring? How do they deal with their skills being overly adequate?

In our sweat with Big Mike, I felt the urge to breathe cool air from the bottom of the lodge, to basically cheat myself through the experience. In these thoughts I realized how much my outsider status was affecting my ability to take part in these ceremonies. As Turner explains, “cheating breaks flow — you have to be a believer, even if this implies temporary ‘willing suspension of disbelief,’ that is, choosing to believe that the rules are valid” (522). Can I truly believe that these rules and ceremonies are “valid”, or will it always come down to the amount of time I can suspend my disbelief?  I struggle in this thought, not knowing whether a willful suspension of disbelief can ever match the deep commitment to belief experienced by the indigenous people at Pine Ridge.

Although I wouldn’t be able to evaluate my time in a meaningful way without the help of academic analysis, I think the sole use of said analysis provides a limited view of ceremony, especially in sweat. The physical action of taking your body and putting in in an uncomfortable space for the sake of a religious experience cannot be read in an article or merely understood and evaluated in academic conversation. There must be an actual experience in order to capture its complexity, the nuances within personal experience and how those interact within a religious community with a foreign culture. I have yet to emerge clearly from this experience, but am ever so grateful to have had it.

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