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“When people make the choice to attend an Inipi Ceremony, they must be willing to suffer and be prepared to give all of their strength, prayers, and songs to the Creator. It is the only way they can expect to receive a blessing and benefit from the experience. It is said by the Old Ones that the purer a man becomes, the closer to the Creator he is. This is one of the first rules taught to those who choose to walk the Red Road, and it is also the first basic tenet of the Inipi Ceremony. It is the starting point on the spiritual trail, a way of life for those who choose it… or if the spirit chooses you.”

– Erwin Bartlett, “Sweating in Perspective”

~

We’ve printed articles before on the sweat lodge ceremony, as practiced once a year by the Four Winds Native-American Spirituality Circle. I haven’t read any of them, myself. Of course, I’ve seen the picture taken by Sergeant Farin of the red-tail hawk which perched on the sweat lodge last year, and I’ve talked to practitioners who’ve participated in previous sweats; this years Inipi (the Lakota word for the ritual) was my first. As my release date is set to spring time next year, unless fortune dictates otherwise, this was also my last sweat here at M.C.C. Windham.

I know that many misconceptions surround the practice of the Inipi, or sweat lodge, as practiced here an elsewhere, some of which I, admittedly, carried with me previous to the October sweat. Hopefully, in this brief article, I can share some of my own education – a mental, physical and spiritual education – with you.

Traditionally, four members of Four Winds are chosen to assist in preparing the lodge structure, in the yard adjoining A-Pod’s rec. yard for the sweat ceremony. For this years sweat, the four were chosen on the basis of time remaining. Others would have the opportunity at future sweats, or had already had the honor in previous years. Falling into the former category, I had the honor of participating in this year’s preparation. We gathered together on the day prior to the sweat, passing through M.P.U to access the yard where the lodge skeleton rests.

“First, you identify the principle, and then you practice it. Gradually, you understand the principle, that is, you become one with it. When you become one with it, it responds to your will. If anything matters, everything matters.” – Rolling Thunder

Sweats are not unique to Native-American Spirituality. Sauna and sweat lodges are, and historically have been, practiced all over the world – Scandinavia, Russia, Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Ireland, as well as in the Americas. On a physical, more obvious level, sweating rids the body of wastes, but at a more powerful, rapid pace. In a culture of pollution and toxic consumption with not much exercise and far too much time indoors, a sweat bath unplugs deeply clogged pours and re-establishes the natural detoxifying flow of perspiration. The kidneys benefit enormously, with heavy metal excretion (removing from the body such toxic metals as copper, lead, zinc and mercury) happening in fifteen minutes as opposed to what would take a full twenty-four hours under normal conditions. Saunas are actually recommended now as a supplement to kidney dialysis. Also removed are excessive salts (a cause of mild hypotension) and urea (a metabolic bi-product which can cause a hung-over feeling) and lactic acid (causes stiff muscles and general fatigue). The sweat increases blood flow to the skin, opens clogged respiratory passages and promotes a general detox of our cells and vital organs; we are 75% water, right?

“Stone is to earth, as flesh is to bone.”

– Cree Adage

In previous sweats at M.C.C. Windham, the primary Lodge-Keeper has been “Buck”, a friend of Four Winds for many years. However, due to a recent death in his family, tradition dictated the Buck (also a pipe-carrier) put away his pipe for a year and remove himself from officiating at sweats for that period. In his place, acting as the primary Lodge-Keeper he brought a volunteer from the Maliseet Nation of New Brunswick, “Diamond” Nichols. Buck, a Passamaquoddy was still there to assist with the preparation of the lodge and with him came his apprentice, Newell, also Passamaquoddy. In addition we had the assistance of a fourth Native-American Spirituality volunteer, Michael Fralich, who practices in the Lakota tradition and runs his own lodge in New Glouster; Michael volunteers as a teacher at Four Winds once a month.

The naked lodge structure itself (built originally under Buck’s direction) is constructed of 16 wooden branches.

“What sort of branches are these,” I asked Buck. “Or, does it matter?”

“Everything matters.” Buck countered. “There are 16 poles. That’s eight species of wood, joined in pairs of eight, and joined at the peak as one.”

“In the sacred hoop we will multiply. You will notice that everything the Indian does is in a circle. Everything that they do is the power from the sacred hoop, but you see today that this house is not in a circle. It is a square. It is not the way we should live. The Great Spirit assigned us a certain religion and the power won’t work in anything but circles. Everything now is too square.”

– Black Elk

We covered the structure with blankets, then blue tarps. We left an opening in the tarp, facing to the east. Six or seven feet from the door way, at Diamond’s direction, we began building the fire pit, which he referred to as “the alter”. He explained that he’d brought the rocks we would use from a gravel pit – lava rock, as he preferred. (An untested rock, a river rock for example, could actually crack or explode in the intense heat). He called the stones “Grandfathers” and “Grandmothers”

“They have been in the Earth for so long.” He explained.

Diamond laid down the foundation for the alter with four stones, one for each direction but also for each of Maine’s four tribal nations: the Passamaquoddy, the Maliseet, the Penobscot, and the Micmac. Before laying the stones in place, he held each one up to the sky and prayed with each while facing a different direction, beginning in the East. After laying down the stones, we placed two logs of firewood, end to end, on the south and north side of the alter. In the space between we placed a generous amount of birch bark. Atop this we placed the rest of the lava stones, surrounding and covering those with, surrounding and covering these with more wood and kindling. A final prayer was said and preparation was complete.

Diamond described the lodge as a womb, the path between the alter and the lodge as the umbilical cord. Of course, the lodge is circular and its low door, while preventing heat from escaping, also necessitates crawling to get inside, a position of supplicant humility.

“Much like a fetus in the womb, participants can be equally vulnerable to negative influences during sweat.”

– Grizzly Bear Lake

Like the womb, the lodge is dark, warm, wet, secure and nurturing. Much like maintaining a healthy womb is necessary for a healthy fetus, such consideration is similar regarding what enters the lodge. Participants are encouraged to fast before participating, a pre-cleansing or detoxification if you will. Participants are likewise instructed to refrain from intoxicants, any form of sexual activity, to practice positive mindfulness, and to set aside negativity as a whole. Good intent is of extreme importance. Participants are encouraged to practice an honest self-examination and to voluntarily refrain from entering the lodge if they don’t feel ready – emotionally, spiritually, or physically. If all were 100% pure, we wouldn’t need purification, but an attempt is made to keep out the major, more obvious negativities, which can and will infect the very mood of the ritual. The lodge keeper has the traditional right to deny anyone entrance to the sweat, without explanation.

“The place where crying begins…”

– From an Arapaho Ghost-Dance song about the Inipi

On the morning of the sweat, we all passed through M.P.U. and back into the yard where the lodge stood. Quite a crowd had already assembled there on this overcast, cool morning, and it took me a moment to recognize Diamond as he spoke with petitioners, one at a time. Many of the participants had brought medicine tools with them (prayer feathers, medicine bags, blankets) for Diamond to bless. Extra wood had been brought earlier by Michael Fralich; a fire was blazing.

After stripping down to our shorts we spoke with someone on-site from medical upon our arrival and signed consent forms. Some of us were dissuaded from actually entering the lodge itself due to medical conditions, usually involving the heart. However, as it was explained to us, entering the actual lodge was not necessary to consider oneself a participant; the ritual was the event itself. Long before entering the lodge, I could feel it – the good energy abounding. Standing near the fire were close friends who I hadn’t even known a year ago. Now they were brothers, and you could feel the brotherhood.

It’s little wonder that many arms of the men’s movement have turned to Native-American practices as an example. As men, there comes a point in our lives where we are expected to become emotionally isolated. We become wage-earners and soldiers and leaders or followers and our isolation on any other than a cursory level deepens and deepens. Men don’t share. Men are drones, worker bees, and if we fail at this culturally ingrained mission we drink or drug or self-annihilate. There’s a healing energy in the spiritual practices here at M.C.C. where men come together in fellowship. What a shame that when we leave here, so many of us have to leave the fellowship behind as well. Perhaps it’s sadder that we had to come here to find it in the first place. So many of us leave here and return to manly isolation, and it’s no wonder that so many of us return. When you aren’t a part of a fellowship, I suppose it’s safer to laugh at it.

“The internalization of a different cognitive system always began by drawing the initiate’s total attention to the realization that we are all beings on our way to dying.”

– Carlos Casteneda

Diamond explained what would happen in the actual sweat. He told us that there would be four rounds, each lasting fifteen minutes and each with a separate purpose. He urged us to listen to our bodies and to leave if we needed to. For each round five rocks would be used: one for each direction and a fifth for ourselves. The rocks and the steam, he said, would carry our prayers. Turning, pausing to face each direction, he entered the lodge. We all followed, until the lodge was packed to capacity. Behind us came the first five rocks, carried through the entrance from the outside via pitchfork.

During the first round, we were told to offer prayers for anyone, anything. We went around the circle, as Diamond splashed water on the sweat-hot rocks, each splash eliciting another wild hiss, and increasing the cloud of steam in the lodge. One after another, from left to right (east to west) we voiced our prayers. We prayed for each other, for families, for guards and for the dead. It was beautiful and powerful and book-ended by Diamond chanting in the native tongue, to connect, he explained, with his ancestors.

The lodge was uncomfortably cramped, but after the first round, no one left for a break. More rocks came in and deer antlers were used to arrange them. During this round, we prayed for womankind. Women gave birth to us, were our nurturers, our daughters, our sister, our girlfriends or wives, often times our victims. Unlike the first round, we prayed silently this time. Like the first round it was powerful, but hotter and deeper. I heard more than one man weeping softly, missing someone, mourning something. This round was personally touching to me because of the powerful women in my own life: my oldest daughter who has always guarded my coffin, my adopted mother who always loved me as her own, my biological mother, who died before I could reach her.

Following that round, a few of the participants exited, some returned, some decided to practice outside. During this round, we were told to pray for victims of abuse and for victims; we’ve all played both roles at times in our lives, haven’t we? At this point Newell produced a drum and a flute was brought in for one of us. This round, with five new stones, with more hissing, splashing steam was the hottest yet. At times I wondered how I could breathe such a thick, wet air, but I stayed and prayed. Again, I could hear tears and pain leaving bodies as easily as the perspiration. It was a purge, cleansing and purifying.

The final round left us with fewer participants within, some choosing to finish the ritual outside. This time we prayed for our own forgiveness, for self-forgiveness, and celebrated ourselves with chanting and song. We sang through the intense heat and the darkness, enveloped by a hot cloud we were unable to see.

It was beautiful. Cherry plush.

“An unborn baby doesn’t leave the womb when it gets too hot. Neither do I.”

– Diamond Nichols

When Diamond ended the sweat, he remained inside to pray, to finish the ritual. A handful of us remained with him. “When you leave here,” he said, “Hug your brothers.” Having remained in the lodge for the duration of the sweat, final exiting did indeed feel like rebirth. We’d sweated or cried or sang or prayed out of ourselves what felt like a heavy amount of excess baggage. The cool of the outdoors no longer felt biting, but refreshing. I was greeted with hugs around the fire and circulated to shake hands, trade words or blessings with everyone there, for this truly had been an experience on two levels – individual and group. Not only did I feel cleansed as an individual, but I sensed that the group itself, which (like all groups) had had some recent internal problems, had likewise been cleansed.

“We either enter heaven arm in arm, or not at all.”

– Mother Theresa

Some of us dressed immediately, others waited, enjoying the air, the natural euphoria, while food was served. We each received pieces of cedar from the floor of the lodge, to add to medicine bags or to press between pages of a book.

When I asked one of my fellow participants what he thought, he aptly replied, “Now isn’t the time for thinking.” Similarly, it’s difficult to find words to adequately describe the beauty of this experience. A prison experience, no less. Who’d a thunk it? Quite a few interesting moments happened for individuals during the sweat. Even if I chose to relate them (which I wouldn’t) the words would doubtlessly fail there, as well.

In closing, I would encourage you, dear reader, to find a spiritual path of your own, if not the one I’ve tried to describe, one of your own choosing. Mother Theresa once said that the greatest plague facing the world today was loneliness. Spiritual fellowship, especially in a ritual as intense as the sweat, is most definitely a cure.

“The day will come when the children of the white man will begin to dress like Indians, when they will begin to wear long hair, beads and headbands. That will be the generation from which would come the first true non-Indian friends.”

– Hopi prophecy

Aho.

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