The Sacred in Sweat

Religion has never played an important role in my life.  My lack of spirituality is somewhat of a mystery to me, but likely stems from my secular upbringing and scientific frame of mind, as well as my lack of exposure to faith-based beliefs and activities. While I cannot pinpoint the source of the religious gap in my life, I feel that it has resulted in additional conceptual gaps. Specifically, I struggle to grasp the notion of sacredness. This concept is so foreign to me because I have never held anything in my life to be sacred. As a result, I have trouble identifying what makes an object, activity, place or person sacred. During my visit to Pine Ridge Reservation, I found myself spending a lot of time participating in a sacred Lakota ritual: sweat. Engaging in sweats with the Lakota people allowed me to observe a spiritual activity that is permeated with sacred significance. As a result of these experiences, I believe that I have gained a greater understanding of some of the aspects that add sacrality and power to a ritual: leadership, space, time and language.

In his work “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Victor Turner suggests that “part of the power of the pre-Concilar Mass, as far as the laity [are] concerned, reside[s] in the skill with which dedicated priests [make] available to the congregation, and each individual in it, the creative tradition of many Christian ages”. Turner’s idea that the power of a ritual stems partly from the presence of a skilled and dedicated leader strongly corresponds with the Lakota attitudes I experienced at Pine Ridge. During my time there, it became obvious to me that Turner’s powerful ritual leader in the Lakota community was Big Mike. At sweat, although Little Mike’s leadership was deeply respected and appreciated, it was Big Mike’s presence that seemed to gather favor within the Lakota people. This sense of priority was made clear to me before our first sweat at Pine Ridge with Little Mike when multiple members of the Lakota community offered there spots in the sweat to students, justifying their generosity with statements such as “I will wait for Big Mike”. For me, these small gestures spoke volumes to the spiritual influence of Big Mike in the sweat ritual. It seemed as though his wisdom and experience brought some element to the sweat for some locals that could not be matched by Little Mike’s leadership. In Turner’s words, it seemed as though the Lakota people feared that the sweat ritual would “be impoverished by the absence… of an elder ‘who really knows the custom’”. Simply by being present, Big Mike brought an element of power to the ritual, making it more sacred and efficacious.

In addition to leadership, I think that space plays a pivotal role in adding sacredness to a ritual. A Lakota sweat can only take place inside of a sweat lodge. In my mind, the fact that this ritual demands a specific space is enough to imbue it with power. However, there are still other factors about the space itself that attach sacredness to the sweat. Firstly, agreeing with what Turner states in his work “Frame, Flow and Refection: Ritual and Drama as Public Liminality”, I think that the sweat lodge represents a boundary for the Lakota people and acts as a separation between the sacred and the profane world. However, the sacred nature of the sweat lodge is not limited to the space itself. Instead, I observed that anything within that space is also pervaded with a sense of sacredness and power. As Jonathan Z. Smith wrote in his work Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, “the ordinary… becomes significant, becomes scared, simply by being there”. I think that I saw this concept actualized during our last sweat at Pine Ridge, when Adam could not open his hands. My first reaction to Adam’s affliction was that he was overstressed, overheated, dehydrated, and scared. However, Big Mike saw the situation as a manifestation of Adam’s purification process: something polluted was trying to exit Adam’s body. In that instance, I realized that, for Big Mike, whatever occurred during ritual in the sweat lodge was never an accident, but something saturated with significance and meaning.

Another element of the Lakota sweat that sacred space seemed to influence was time. In sweat, whenever the sacred space was continuous, i.e. the door was closed, I felt as if I was experiencing sacred time. I felt that my time in sweat was not meant to be spent on secular thoughts about the world outside, but rather on the more important things going on within: reflection, prayer, and blessing. Whenever the sacred space was broken, i.e. the doors were open, the outside world was allowed to filter into the lodge and thus it seemed like sacred time was broken. This sacred time, which Turner briefly reflects on in “Frame, Flow and Ritual”, “is dramatically separated from secular time”. I felt as if sacred time in sweat demanded my focus and respect, while secular time felt spontaneous and weak. This notion of separated time, which coincides with separation of space, adds another element of sacrality to the sweat ritual; not only does the ritual demand its own space, but also it’s own time.

The last topic that I would like to discuss in regard to sacrality in ritual is language. In “Ritual, Tribal and Catholic”, Turner states that “systems [stand] out from the mundane culture by virtue of [their] “high language”: passages might be read in an archaic language, while even the vernacular abound[s] in lexical and grammatical forms no longer used in every day speech”. I think that this notion of language separating the sacred from the mundane is a central aspect of Lakota rituals. On the reservation, every day conversations are held in English. However, throughout sweat and other rituals, the Lakota people sing and pray in their native Lakota language. This language is very sacred to the people because it is uniquely theirs, it connects them to their ancestors, and, unlike any material object such as land or money, it cannot be taken away from them. When the Lakota people speak their language during sweat, I cannot help but think that some of these ideas are manifested in their souls and emotions. As a result, I think that the significance of their language is infused into the ritual, making the ritual itself more sacred.

As I look back on my time at Pine Ridge, I realize that one of the most important things that I discovered was the notion of experience itself. Experiencing the Lakota sweats was more powerful and mind opening than reading any number of scholarly articles or analyses of the ritual. Through experience I was able to grasp the concept of feeling instead of thinking: I cannot think about rituals, I need to feel them. For this reason, I think that academic analyses of rituals are ill equipped to portray any significant meaning or substance to the reader. When I read an article, I can see and think about the words and ideas that the author is providing me, but I cannot feel them. Anyone wishing to truly understand a religion or an associated ritual needs to experience it.

Of course I acknowledge that there are some obvious pitfalls that accompany letting your opinion rely solely on personal experience. For example, some of my experiences throughout the three sweat ceremonies at Pine Ridge were unclear and inexpressible. I think that trying to analyze these types of feelings on an academic level is incredibly hard and confusing. For that reason, I think that a scholarly approach to ritual can sometimes be easier to use than one relying solely on personal experience. However, I still do not think that the picture is ever complete without some level of participation.  I believe that it is only because I have experienced the ritual of sweat, that I am able to write anything truly meaningful about it.

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