Does the Lakota sweat ceremony provide a sense of place?

For Victor Turner and others, rituals provide a sense of place. It does not attempt to elucidate why the world is the way it is, nor invoke some sort of power over the world. Rather rituals provide a framework for living within the cosmos and also within society.  And while I think Turner’s theory is valid, I can’t help but wonder how? And why? How does the expression of a religious belief give you the ability to live within a modern, socially constructed system? How does this play out at Pine Ridge?

Turner believes that rituals fuse society with the cosmos. This could be akin to saying that the ritual provides a threshold between the profane and the sacred. He says, “ritual…may be regarded as a magnificent instrument for expressing, maintaining, and periodically cleansing a secular order of society…” This seems somewhat counterintuitive at first. But Turner describes ritual as a dramatic representation of conflict, which heightens the power of the conflict to be a symbol of solidarity. He wants us to see that ritual expresses feelings and beliefs but also has a function: to unify. He believes that this feeling of “spiritual unity in all things” stems from our “deep intuition.” We have come to understand that the material world we live in positions us against nature, but through the participation in rituals, one is able to break down that wall.

When analyzing the Lakota sweat ceremony and testing Turner’s theory, we must first recognize that there is more than one “correct” way to do so. I will look at participation in this ceremony within the setting of the Pine Ridge Reservation, taking a modern and contextual approach.

Beginning with Turner’s description of ritual, I find it easy to determine the conflict that takes place in the sweat lodge. Everyone fights the heat or maybe fights their inner voice that says, “You won’t make it. You need to get out.” In response to this suffering, Mike Jr. and other sweat vets say that when it gets tough, just pray harder. Here we begin to see the redirecting of focus and energy that Turner describes.

Suffering in the extremely hot condition of the sweat lodge exaggerates the daily suffering of the Lakota people at Pine Ridge. Bruce has said that about ninety percent of people are unemployed. Most have seen suicide, substance abuse, or domestic violence within their extended family. In the sweat lodge, everyone participates in this ‘exaggerated conflict’ of suffering, which indeed provides a sense of solidarity. This physical experience, generated by a small, dark, and hot space, allows the body and mind to be present. Thus, time becomes obsolete, as one is expected to solely focus on prayer. In the complete darkness, you feel your skin burn as the water hits the hot rocks and turns to steam, and you know that your neighbor feels that same burn. As we discussed in class, this suffering bridged a cultural gap between our IRT class and the Lakota people participating in the ceremony.

In a critical analysis of how the sweat lodge ceremony fits within the Turner model, I find myself wanting to cut us out of the experience and to focus on the ceremony when we, the outsiders, are not present. This way we can attempt to understand the ceremony’s power of social ordering within the Lakota community. Even then, I find it difficult to fully comprehend how this works.

I see the effects of the sweat ceremony within the context of secular life when considering the entirety of the ritual. It begins as one prepares for the ceremony, whether it entails the drive to lodge or even smoking a couple cigs. While these activities may seem insignificant, the personal preparation is important in one’s subjective experience of the ritual.  When you arrive at the destination, you greet your family and catch up with them. After sunset, you ‘enter the womb’ and, during the ceremony, you pray. The sweat allows for the expression of beliefs, purification, and healing. Someone in sweat has both a personal focus and a concentration on family and the broader community in their prayers and thoughts. After the ceremony, you cool off and try to stay warm around the leftover fire, either talking or not. This whole process provides one the opportunity to be their authentic self, to express their religious beliefs, to express love and gratitude for others, and to connect with their community: a combination of religious and secular activities.

One could argue that every aspect of Lakota life is imbued with their religion, such that the notion of “cleansing a secular order of society” through a particular ritual doesn’t seem to make sense. Recognizing and listening to the spirits that exist all around provide a sense of order or wholeness of the world. In other words, the religion itself orders society and the ritual provides a tangible activity within this process.  Ritual presents itself to the academic as a distinct point in space and time, as empirical evidence to study. In Turner’s case, he says that ritual provides the maintenance of society, but Segal criticizes his lack of detail on exactly how ritual provides this meaning. In my analysis of the Lakota sweat ceremony, I embedded my own ideas on the how. Turner needs more clarity and detail in his explanation of ritual’s multifaceted religious importance.  I believe that he too heavily focuses on ritual’s secular purpose, to give a human a place in the world, without developing that place within a religious context.

On the other hand, if we focus solely on our personal experience to interpret a ritual, it is difficult to analyze the experience as a whole. One can easily focus on their personal feelings throughout the ritual instead of the intricate interplay between various individuals, the community, and the broader purpose of the ritual.

In my own experience, I found the sweat ceremony to give me a heightened awareness of self. My whole body burned and gave me a greater sense of here and now than I have ever felt. As Justin and others sang out the Lakota prayers I yearned to join in. I hummed along but I wanted to understand. Feeling the voices of the Little Boy family fill the lodge made me also yearn for my family to be in that lodge with me. An important aspect of the ceremony is praying alongside members of your family. Instead of being with my family, my time in the sweats gave me the opportunity to pray for and think about them and others in my life that I love. I also agree with Turner’s theory in the sense that the ritual gave me a connection with everyone else in the lodge. The experience provided an inexplicable oneness between everyone and provided me with a feeling of wholeness from the love I gave and the support I felt from others. For the Lakota people, I believe the sweats, as a ritual, create a space in which individuals construct a sense of place and communal identity within modern reservation life.


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