Before I experienced a sweat lodge purification ceremony for the first time, I had read many accounts of people’s experiences with them. I read academic writing to learn the religious reasons for the ceremony and also I had learned about the physical effects of the sweat lodge. I spoke to many people who had taken part in this kind of ceremony before, both Indian people and non-Indian people so that I could start to predict how I may feel emotionally and physically during the ritual.
On the morning of the day when I was to experience my first sweat lodge, I was really excited. I felt I knew what I was getting myself into and I felt comfortable about what I was going to experience. To be fair, I was also just excited to be warm for the first time since arriving in South Dakota where the temperature was -30F. As the day continued, I was still confident that I knew what I was ahead, but I became increasingly anxious, wondering what this lodge would be like and if I actually would react and feel similar to the accounts that I had heard. On the whole I was feeling good and was looking forward to the experience.
The day flew by and when evening came, we went over to Mike Littleboy Senior’s house. (Mike Littleboy Senior is one of the chiefs of the Lakota tribe and also a medicine man. He is a very senior spiritual leader among his community and he hosts sweat lodges and ceremonies at his home most days). Directly in front of Mikes Senior’s house, surrounded by a wall made of very old recycled corrugated iron, is the sweat lodge. The lodge looks a bit like a tortoise shell made out of canvas, one of my first thoughts was, how are we going to fit 30 people into that building to take part in the ceremony? I was assured by Mike Junior, Mike Senior ‘s son also a medicine man and a very influential spiritual leader in the community, that fitting everyone in the lodge would not be a problem He went on to tell me they once squeezed the whole of their sun dance in at one time.
Opposite the door to the lodge, lay a huge pile of rocks surrounded by burning wood. This is the process that heats the rocks up before you put them in the middle lodge to create a sauna affect and heat the lodge. At this point, we just had to feed wood into the fire continuously for 2 hours in order to keep heating up the rocks. We were standing around the fire trying to keep warm and became really anxious and nervous; the lodge was already affecting my emotions. As I was nervous, I got some last minute reassurance from a couple of the members of the tribe. They told me to focus on making things good and to pray for those who were having troubles in their lives. I was somewhat confused about this advice and felt really worried about coping with the extreme heat I was about to spend two hours enduring. Even though I had lots questions to ask, I knew all the answers to them. I was as prepared through conversation and reading as I could be for what I was about to experience.
About an hour before the ceremony began, when we were standing around the fire waiting for the rocks to get even hotter, I had what I felt to be an extremely unique and powerful moment. All the nervousness and anxiety that I had been feeling disappeared, my mind went completely blank, and my body began to feel amazing, I felt as if I were high. Interestingly the feeling within my body replaced the thoughts that I was having, so I didn’t realize that my mind was blank until much later. The next hour went past ridiculously quickly because of this unique feeling. Before I knew it, the time had come to experience this ancient ritual that I had spent so much time trying to mentally prepare myself trying to understand.
The girls got in the lodge first walking in and around the rock pit clockwise. They sat down forming a circle around the outside of the lodge with the hot stones in the middle. Before getting in I had to strip down to just the shorts that I was wearing under my clothes, and remove my shirt and shoes, I was standing barefoot on ice in -30F but, surprisingly, it didn’t seem that cold at that moment. I was the last one in and Mike Jr immediately closed the door behind me to keep the heat in. I sat on the floor next to him and he poured some water on the stones making the lodge heat up in an instant. The drums, chanting and prayers echoed through the lodge, the sheer volume of the experience was something I was not expecting. Sitting in there in total darkness unable to tell if my eyes were open or closed, feeling nothing but the heat on my skin and in my lungs, when I inhaled, and the vibrations from the sounds made from the drums and the singers.
I did everything that I had been told to do: I focused on peace, those who are sick, those who have pain and need healing and I kept trying to ask the spirit to help those people, but my mind continuously wandered. For the majority of my first sweat, I was unable to focus my mind on anything but the heat.
Controlling my thoughts in this way felt extremely artificial for me. Every time I would force myself to focus and pray I would hear another voice in my head, which would say, “Fuck, Thomas I am seriously fucking hot”. I sat there trying to control my thoughts not knowing how long it would be until Mike would open the first door to cool us down, finally he did and it was a relief, but I felt as if I had failed in my attempt to experience a sweat. A few minutes later, Mike reclosed the door and the ceremony commenced once again.
This time, it was much easier to control my thoughts, focus them and wish for things. I soon realized that this was because it was much much cooler then before. Mike put more water on the rocks which did not immediately evaporate becoming steam and heating the lodge, the rocks clearly were not hot enough. At this point I became I disappointed even with my basic physics knowledge, I knew the lodge was not going to heat up again in this ceremony, we had not cooked them for long enough to counteract the cold. I felt I had failed and really wanted a second chance to prove I could get through this rite in an ancient way. I wanted to feel something more. As the ceremony continued, it was very moving because people shared their experiences and said prayers for their loved ones who may have died or were in need of help. This was amazing! I felt a sense that we were all meant to be there together and that everything had happened for a reason, even our class consisted of each student for a reason. At this point, I felt the boundaries had broken between all who were in the lodge, the ceremony made us much more than just classmates, I felt that everyone really began to care about one and other after this first sweat. We were all going to help each other with anything anyone needed from that point on. In this first sweat, I felt that I had failed in channeling my thoughts and was disappointed how unspiritual I felt after this amazing ancient ritual. Although in this lodge I felt a bond form between my classmates, I did not feel that it was because of the happenings in the ceremony but because of the emotional stories we shared with one and other.
Finally the day was over, I was knackered, ready for bed but couldn’t stop thinking about how I wanted another chance to experience in the sweat. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. I had put so much time and effort in to understanding it prior to actually doing it, after traveling 500 miles to be there, I desperately needed to successfully experience this ancient rite in the way which it is meant to happen.
Our day to day plans were by no means set in stone. When we arrived on the reservation two days earlier, we had to adjust ourselves to “Indian time”. Indian time is a fairly loose interpretation of the concept of man-made time. No matter what time one may wish to start something, on Indian time you should always be prepared to wait a couple hours to begin that activity!
After a long hard night and an extremely eventful couple days, Bruce gave us a lie-in to catch up on a bit of sleep before leaving our comfort zone in the day’s activities. When all finally woke up, Mike announced that his father “Big Mike” was out of the hospital and wanted to do a sweat that night. The plans changed many times throughout the day one minute we were going to sweat and the next we weren’t and this went back and forth until 10pm when Mike Senior announced we were doing a sweat. As the Chief, he would lead it. After a rollercoaster of emotions throughout the day, with plans constantly changing, I was relieved when I heard I would get a second chance in the sweat.
Just like the day before, I was in the coldest place I have ever been in my life and just like the day before, we lit a fire around the rocks to heat them up in the same way. I knew my experience in the sweat from the day before wasn’t real; I knew something had gone wrong as it was nowhere near hot enough. I knew that this sweat was going to be extremely hot. Mike Sr.was back from the hospital and he was notorious for his red, hot sweats, Mike Jr. and his brothers were clearly disappointed with the temperature from the previous night. For a few seconds I was seriously excited about getting my second chance. I then pieced together the facts that really I had no idea what I was getting into, this lodge was going to be hot, much hotter than yesterday, and fundamentally, it was going to be my first real sweat.
At this point I had all the same feelings and emotions as the previous day, mainly feeling nervous and anxious again. I didn’t have the questions I had the day before. I had been through all the steps and I knew exactly how it was going to work. I was just so nervous about how the heat would affect me through the course of four rounds.
Again, just like yesterday the time came when the burning wood was removed away from the rocks which were glowing red, and using pitch forks people began to move the rocks through the door of the lodge putting them in the pit in the middle. Quickly after that, the girls filed in clockwise and then we were quick to follow, in attempt to escape the cold. Once again, I was the last student to get in and sat in the same place as the day before just to the left of Mike Senior with my back to the door. The second I got in Mike closed the door behind me just like yesterday. He immediately started pouring water on the rocks, the temperature in the lodge changed instantly. Right off the bat the lodge became hotter than it was at any point the day before. I knew I had to focus and if I couldn’t get my mind off the heat, it was going to take control of me and I would have to get out. As the ceremony commenced, the singing, banging on drums and chanting were louder and more intimidating than the previous day, everything seemed more powerful and purposeful. Mike was adding more water to the rocks every time he had a chance and the lodge got hotter and hotter until the lodge was as hot as it was going to get and Mike kept the temperature there. I had a constant flow of sweat coming out of my pores, 10 times the amount I have ever had lost in a sauna.
It was so damn hot, it had only begun two or three minutes before but it seemed like forever. I felt needed to calm down and stop freaking out about the heat. There had been a lot of talk abut peace in class on so far on the trip, so I decided that would be a good thing for me to focus on and I figured there was a lot to think about. At first laughed at myself because I trying hard so hard to think about peace and love and I felt like a real hippy. The heat stole away my laughter and I was left with peace and love in my mind, at this point I was still fighting away the voice telling me I was hot, I knew that but had to forget it. So I continued to focus on peace love and happiness and I remembered Mike telling me a few days before that when his Grandmother used to sweat, they would be in there all night as she said a prayer for every little animal from ants to buffalo. So I decided that’s what I needed to do. With an emphasis on peace and love, I went through every animal I could think of from every country in the world from snails to giraffes to deer. I went through very slowly looking and imagining each animal in my head but the darkness made my imagination seem like my vision because the darkness blended my vision and imagination together. So from my perspective, I was seeing every single creature I could think of individually watching them running, playing caring for their family protecting their family and it seemed that every creature wanted to survive in peace. Some had to hunt for survival, but then fed the food to their children so they could grow larger and stay healthy. None of the animals I visualized were looking to fight or kill for any reason. They all wanted to live side by side one another in peace with just the things they and their families needed to survive. I was going through the creatures in my head when the first door of the lodge opened, it had been 20 minutes, the heat had not bothered me at all; I was fine, ready to start the second round and continue my thoughts. Mike closed the door behind me and poured more water on the stones heating the lodge up again.
I immediately drifted back into my thoughts, I had moved away from animals completely naturally and on to the death of a good friend. I was praying for his family, for him that he has found peace in the afterlife. The most unusual thing was that I saw my friend in my imagination for most of the second round. I suppose I spent most of the round just looking at him, thinking about him and the thought of him made me really happy for the first time since he died because I really felt that he had found peace somewhere. I don’t know where, why or when but I felt a clear message telling me he was doing really well and there was nothing to worry about.
The second door opened and freezing air blew straight on to my back giving me the chills, and in a way, brought me back to reality. I touched myself and I was sweatier than I have ever been, but my body had been regulating my temperature, I felt fine, and I hadn’t freaked out. After a very short break for the 2nd door the 3rd round commenced, this started out well, I was thinking about prairie dogs and other creatures running across the plains in the summertime. I thought about the relief and excitement that comes with the spring, bringing warmth, food and life back to the plains. Then, I suddenly started to panic, I was so hot, uncomfortably hot, my heart rate was extremely fast, I was losing water at a ridiculous rate through sweat, feeling delirious, dry heaving and about to get out. I really really didn’t want to quit I tried refocusing on all the amazing things I had seen, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t. I was freaking out. I was having a panic attack, and there was nothing more I felt I could do keep calm and ignore the heat burning my body. I had made my mind up that I needed to get out, but I thought I would try one more thing. I sought reassurance from another human experiencing the same thing. After thinking about it for a long time wondering if I would be crossing the confines of professor – student relationship I reached for my Professor Bruce’s hand timidly and he surrounded mine with both of his shaking and squeezing my hand, reassuring me I can do it. When this was happening, it took my mind off the intense heat and gave me a second for my mind to re-engage in deep thought, by the time he let go of me I was re-engaged and dealing with the intense heat and my panic attack was gone.
At that moment, I realized the power that humans can have to give each other is something that one person cannot conjure by themselves, but something that can be given from one person to another person, to help rescue or save them. I then circled back around through my thoughts and went back to love. I applied this principle to animals because animals can save one and other, cheer each other up, have relationships too. There are many things that are not possible for one animal to experience on their own. And I realized through connections with other beings, we can gain the strength we lack on our own. The understanding of this huge and powerful force was a revelation.