In light of the news about the “sweat lodge” debacle and unfortunate deaths, I felt guided to write about my sweat lodge experiences.
When I worked as a family advocate for an American Indian Agency in the inner city, we used the sweat lodge with our families and homeless teens. It was buried deep in the woods in Minnesota and only American Indian Elders lead the very spiritual experience. Several weeks before our scheduled sweat lodge ceremony social work co-workers which included an Elder and I took some women clients to the fabric store and we bought beautifully flowered cotton fabric and colorful ribbon. We set up several sewing machines in our staff meeting room and families and staff sewed our dresses we would wear in the sweat lodge. Male staff members, Elders, and teens from the Agency shelter would hop in a van early in the day before our scheduled ceremony and prepare the fire in the woods where our agency sweat lodge was. Big and little beautifully rounded rocks were buried beneath the ashes of the hot fire in the woods. If you have experienced the middle of winter in Minnesota you know that it can be extremely cold and snowy. I will never forget sitting around the campfire in the serene snow frosted moonlit birch forest before the ceremony in my cotton dress with nothing under it, scrunched up in my coat waiting during preparation of the rocks. These rocks were called Grandfathers and Grandmothers. They were the rocks that were placed one at a time, by the Elder in charge, in a little pit in the sweat lodge. Between prayers to the Elders that went before us and to the Spirit, the woman Elder would sprinkle water on the Grandmothers and steam would envelop us. We never forced anyone to participate and if anyone felt ill, the door flap to the small tarped lodge was opened for that person to exit. I feel I should add that I was the only non American Indian and have worked as a community social worker with many cultures of families. Respect is the most important aspect of my work and during the sweat lodge experience I showed my utmost respect following the lead of my Elders. In between prayers and the passing of the pipe, I whispered to my Elder co-worker that I was hearing tapping sounds on the tarp. She said that was the Spirits. When the ceremony was over I circled the lodge looking for a tree branch that might have been tapping or scratching the tarp in the winter wind but there was nothing. There was a couple feet of snow too and I couldn’t picture squirrels scampering around in the frigid moonlight. All in all it was a good experience and done in a respectful, safe way when lead by the Elders who knew what they were doing and most importantly, why.