Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sweat Lodges

During the 1980s especially I studied with several Native American Medicine men and met many Medicine women while sweating at their sweat lodges. Usually, it was along a river or stream with permission from the forest service because the medicine people were native to the area and were given these priveleges. Also, whenever there was a Sweat Lodge built whenever it was done usually days or weeks depending upon the ceremonies and how many different people wanted to sweat in the lodge(anywhere from 20 to hundreds) things might be done differently. However, the structure of the lodge was always basically the same. It is made from willow branches woven into a dome shape of and usually looks like a hemisphere when done. Then people bring tarps and blankets to cover the sweat lodge. If it is raining or snowing during this time then plastic or plastic tarps are used to keep the inside of the lodge dry. It is usually under 4 feet tall to capture as much heat as possible and up near the roof it sometimes gets between 130 degrees to 150 degrees Fahrenheit and the most macho of the men who want their prayers really answered often brave the heat for a while during the prayers and prayer songs. It is usually completely dark inside and I have been in sweats that mostly have both men and women. Each medicine man or woman is different the way the do things but usually people were bathing suits or just shorts for the men inside. It's been a few years since I made it a point to go to where I could join others for a sweat lodge ceremony. But between 1980 and 2000 I usually joined a sweat lodge 1 to 12 or more times a year.

One experience with Charlie Thom, a local Karoc Medicine man who live near Yreka it was snowing really hard at Stewart Mineral Springs near Gazelle and I wondered about getting out of the sweat lodge in the 20s Fahrenheit and breaking the ice and jumping into a nearby stream. But, after a very hot sweat lodge it was easy to break through the ice and cool down, especially because we could then go in for another round. And even when we got out the last time we somehow stayed warm because the lodge had heated us to the core. I never cease to be amazed at how strong these lodge sessions made me feel both physically and spiritually and as a man in all ways. Especially between the ages of 32 and 50 I was amazed each time I joined a sweat lodge at how deep an experience this usually is.

If you are afraid of being with men and women in the dark this could be a problem for you. But since almost all people who take the time to do this are sincere, usually you have nothing at all to worry about. Ones biggest concern is getting ones eyes burnt from the steam or getting to close to the mostly 8 inch in diameter river rocks that have been put in a bonfire to heat until they are red outside the lodge. Then a shovel is used to carry the rocks into the fire pit in the middle of the ground inside the sweat lodge. Then lastly a bucket of fresh river water is brought in. For safety, the rocks are not brought into the lodge until everyone is already in place and the very last thing that comes into the lodge before the door closes(a flap usually of blankets and tarps) and in often comes the fire and rock tender. Though sometimes the tender stays outside depending upon the circumstances present.

So after each round(about 10 to 15 minutes in the steam heat caused by splashing water on red hot rocks) everyone gets out and rinses off in the river next to the sweat lodge. It is common to get the spins from the heat at this time(one sometimes feels dizzy from the drastic temperature changes). Also, ones body is going through extreme temperature changes and this also strengthens ones heart, especially if one is under about 50. But if you have been used to all this physically and psychologically, usually you are okay after 50 as well. I have seen a lady as old as 73 sweat for the first time. But some allowances were made for her. So, as you can see it is a very special experience. Often the medicine man has an Eagle Wing or Feather that he splashes the water out with and many songs he sings and often he invites all to sing his songs(some songs date back hundreds or thousands of years) and are passed Father to son or daughter, or grandfather or grandmother to grandson or granddaughter.

All this is a very visceral and primal spiritual experience in that I always found myself amazed to be doing this because for a person of the western world it is very unique for someone who grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles County for the most part.

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