On the first night on our journey to Pine Ridge, our group waited outside the sweat lodge, the air felt alive with tension, personal worry, speculation, and whispering affirmation in decisions that attempted respect and observation of cultural norms. At some point, Mike Jr. explained that the lodge represents the womb of Mother Earth, and with his explanation, I felt a weight of anxiety lifted from me. Because the concept of sweat was something outside of my personal horizon of possibility, the image of existing within the womb of the Mother was something, that at least in the far reaches of my mind, I could comprehend. Using the feminine imagery of the Mother’s womb as a lens lends itself to possible interpretations of the physical construction of the lodge, the organization of ceremony and ritual, the embodied experience, and the pattern of prayer.
As all the women entered the lodge, it became clear that we were entering a space separate from the rest of the world, a space where spirits are invited and prayers for healing are heard; a space of possibility. “When one enters a temple, one enters a marked-off space, at least in principle, nothing is accidental; everything at least potentially, is of significance” (Smith 54). I want to explore the significance constructed through the physical form of the lodge. The lodge is traditionally constructed with the willow branches and saplings lashed together, to form a dome. Willow is a significant wood to use because a commonly held belief is that the willow is effective in carrying messages and prayers to the Creator, the Great Spirit. The willow bark is also used in pipes to carry prayers with the tobacco smoke. After my limited experience in the lodge, the use of willow appears to be explicitly significant. On a few occasions, the participants of the sweat were reminded to pray, reminded where to direct our prayers defined by the doors, encouraged to pray with intention, and we were encouraged to pray harder. Because the sweats are an embodied experience, there may be comfort for some individuals in knowing that the lodge was constructed in such a way that there was a higher likelihood of prayers arriving to the spirit, or Spirit, of intention.
The domed, circular construction is also clearly significant in light of Lakota culture and religious traditions. After speaking with Mike Jr. and Jamie throughout the process of making medicine pouches with the Medicine Wheel beaded onto them, I began noting the presence of circular imagery in many aspects of ceremony and prayer. The pouches that women make are circular, a symbolic representation of the ability to create life, continuing the life cycle. The act of entering the lodge is a symbolic re-entering into the womb with the intention of being reborn and purified. After further reading, I realized that the ceremonial name for sweat lodge is inipi, meaning “to live again”. This, in addition to the womb imagery, ceremony and sacred space is constructed to encourage purification and the possibility of being born again from the womb of the Mother with intentionality and thoughts turned toward prayer, if only for a while.
In conjunction with the womb imagery and the language of “living again” being used to create meaning for the ceremonial sweat lodge is the concept of an axis mundi, as described by Mircea Eliade. “…image of a universal pillar, axis mundi, which at once connects and supports heaven and earth and whose base is fixed in the world below” (Eliade 36) and “…hence the axis is located ‘in the middle,’ at the ‘naval of the earth’; it is the Center of the World” (Eliade 37). There is a very real possibility that I am bringing in personal bias regarding what the Center of the World means in relation to feminine, womb imagery, but there is a primordial sensation in the lodge performing as a womb, located at the center of the world, connecting the fiery, internal womb, the earth, and the spirit or star realms within one circular, domed structure.
Everything associated with the lodge and the inipi ceremony, seemed to be constructed with a circle in mind. “…ritual represents the construction of a controlled environment” (Smith 63). The control exercised in the construction of a place of ritual and ceremony both informs the pattern of song and prayer as well as the sense of security felt by participants. My own experience was strongly influenced by the circular and womb imagery. The image of sitting in a hot, darkened space created with the energy of the Earth Mother’s womb gave me great comfort and room for prayer. The space also allowed my to breathe into any fear of harm and place faith that if we were within the womb, we were safe from harm. After conversing with classmates, I had a hard time relating to an overwhelming sense of fear and dying. I experienced fleeting feelings of fear, but quieted them with imagery of the womb and divine feminine. This, of course, is simply my interpretation of text in relation to my own personal experience.
Academic texts and their interpretations most definitely have the ability to fall short of accurately communicating ceremony and the meaning created from ritual and prayer. One of the stark downfalls of academic texts is that they often attempt to explain or define the meaning of ceremony in different language than the language that is available or used by participants. Human beings use language to construct reality. If we believe this to be true, the language used by scholars to study ceremony and ritual will not likely transfer accurately or with the nuance of the language used in the creation of the prayer, ritual, and ceremony.
My own religious background places a fair amount of emphasis on the power of feminine imagery, focused on the power of Mother Earth. The emphasis placed on the divine feminine heavily impacted my personal experience in the sweat ceremonies. After Mike Jr. explained that the lodge is the womb of Mother Earth, I understood that at the end of the ceremony, all the participants would be “born again” from her womb, cleansed and purified with renewed intention. When I closed my eyes in the lodge, I could see images in circular motion: loved ones becoming well again, loved ones finding strength, Mother Earth, and all mothers, straining under the pain and struggle of labor, bones shifting, skin stretching. While I was praying, my body moved in circular motion, attempting to ease the intensely embodied experience. With the womb imagery vividly in my mind, the exiting of the lodge was powerful: crawling from the lodge, wet, hot, red, and brought to our most earthly form, was as close as I can imagine to being born. Coincidently, the moon was waxing to a full moon. I was also raised understanding the moon as Sister Moon who embodied feminine energy, specifically with moon blood. As I crawled from the lodge, the womb, I gazed up at the night sky to see what appeared to be the moon racing through the clouds, higher into the heavens; from one feminine being to another feminine being.
Relying on my own personal is clearly problematized by my perspective as an outsider. I recognize that my experience was very personal, also allowing for misinterpretation of intention and significance. It has also provided me a lens through which I am able to make sense of ceremony and tradition that is not my own within a context I can understand. Understanding and education with each prayer.