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Sweating it Out in Mariposa: Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony

 

My partner, “Bear” aka “Yosemitebear“, has been involved in Yosemite’s Native American community for 28 years.  His former wife is from the band of Yosemite Ahwahneechee Indians who have inhabited Yosemite Valley for hundreds of years.  His two children were raised in the Native American tradition, both still involved as adults and contributing to the community through song, dance, and education.

 

I was honored when Bear asked me to join him for a “sweat” — a ceremony for cleansing and spiritual connection.  While open to all and free of charge, I wouldn’t have gone without him and was thankful for the invitation.

 

Sweat Lodge
 

 

The Sweat

A small group gathers in the backyard of the Indian Healing Center.  A bowl of pure tobacco sits beside the roaring firepit.  I am instructed to take a pinch and walk around the fire clockwise, offering the tobacco to the fire with my prayers.

 

Metal folding chairs, arranged outside, remain mostly empty with just ten people attending. With the fire ten feet away, I find myself already sweating on this hot summer night.  I gaze at the fabric-covered circular hut and consider my fate.

 

The wife of the sweat leader gives me some tips.   Remove my jewelry because metal gets too hot and also because I should enter and emerge as if from a womb – unadorned.  If the heat gets too intense, I should move closer to the fire — it’s cooler there than at the perimeter where steam cascades down the curve of the walls.  I am welcome to lie down if needed (sounds good to me).  If I feel panicked, I need to cover my face with a towel and breathe.  I need to maintain control mentally if I am overwhelmed physically.  These tips prove invaluable.

 

I’m worried because my sympathetic nervous system and saunas don’t mix well.  I’m the type that faints in hot tubs; a delicate flower when it comes to heat.  We’ll see how this goes.

 

The Ceremony Begins

The sweat leader, a man of about sixty years, with blue eyes and brown hair pulled into a loose and low ponytail, removes his shirt and announces that it’s time to start.  He circles the hut with a pair of eagle feathers, an act to protect the ceremony and space.

 

Lining up single file and without shoes, we each approach Bear’s son who uses burning sage to move bad spirits away from our bodies.  At the entrance of the hut I ask the leader: “Permission to enter?” and am told to sit on the female side of the circular hut.

 

I lay my towel on the soft moist dirt and wait.  The men file in next, with a boy of about ten years old beside me.

 

In the center of the hut is an empty firepit.  With two doors still open, the leader begins speaking and provides a sermon of sorts while Bear’s son delivers melon-sized glowing rocks to the door via pitchfork.  The leader then scoops them up with a pair of deer antlers; very effective tongs, and delivers them to the pit.

 

Comic Relief that’s Also Smelly

With each stone, the heat rises along with my anxiety.  The boy beside me provides distraction with a continuous stream of noxious gaseous emissions from the buttocks region followed by the tiniest voice: “Excuse me”.  Over and over.  Now, it’s well known that I’m a fart magnet, never able to travel anywhere without a chronic farter appearing in my immediate vicinity to foul my air.  But here!?  Why God?  Have you no mercy?

 

Adding to the awkwardness, I am seated two people away from Bear’s ex-wife.  Now, I’m into being cordial and adult about these things but I can assure you this would have been easier with a cocktail in my hand.  Unfortunately, cocktails aren’t an option at sweats.  Crap.

 

Intensity

As the firepit fills with glowing hot stones, beads of sweat form on my brow.  The sermon concludes and now the doors are closed.  The leader sprinkles pine resin (copal), cedar, and acorn on the fire.  Each handful creates a sparkling display of tiny sparkles on the rocks.  And smells…um…ceremonial.

 

The leader asks us to go around the circle and sing a song, or say a prayer or say something that we’re thankful for.  Each person’s contribution is touching.  Song fills the pitch-black hut, sweat is now pouring off of me, and breathing is hard.  I cup my towel to my face which provides relief from the heavy, wet air.

 

After about fifteen minutes, a break.  The doors are lifted and sweet, light, cool air;  the sweetest, the lightest, the coolest air, sweeps through.  Feels like heaven!

 

Minutes later the doors close again and the songs, prayers and gratitude continue.  Water is poured on the stones and the air is thick with the earthy aroma of wet rocks; a scent so primitive.  This time it’s hotter.  I wonder if I can do this.

 

My Inner Critic Followed Me Here

As we go around the circle a third time, I become self-conscious in this new community and am stumped about what to say.  “My God”, I think, “I am grateful for so many things!  Why can’t I think of one now?”  Stage-fright of sorts.  So I say: “I am thankful for being invited here and I am thankful for my ears, so I can hear these songs.”   I don’t know how to indicate that I am finished, so my words linger in the hot air far too long for my comfort.  Amen?  I’m done?  That’s my final answer?  What to say?  Fortunately, after a minute of silence, the next person takes the cue that I am completo.  All the while the inner critic torments me: “You’re thankful for your ears?!  What a moron!”

 

My inner critic is such a sweetheart.  Sort of like a chronic farter, always fouling things up.

 

Conclusion

One more round of songs and prayers and I am exhausted and drenched.  I do feel purified.  While I did not feel the presence of spirits or receive any revelations, I’m so grateful that I was allowed to participate and learn.

 

The ceremony concludes and we exit the hut clockwise.  A potluck dinner is shared by the group.

 

This was an amazing experience that hurt so good.  I look forward to the next.  But, I’m never sitting next to that kid again.

 

4 Comments

  1. Absolutely love your blog! I would have been scared that the chronic farter would have caused an explosion, what with being that close to the fire!

    • Haha! You make a good point. Thanks Gillian for reading.

  2. I really enjoy reading your blog entries!

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