Cross-legged inside a “lodge”, in this case it is a twelve foot circular dome five feet high. Tree saplings lashed together make a strong framework. This framework has many colorful cloth strips tied to it. Keith says “to honor someone no longer with us.” I tie a purple strip over the door to remember my brother Martin.
Keith’s youngest son, Liam, is on center stage for the “lodge” ritual, short for sweat lodge. Liam is 18 years old. The lodge is to mark the entrance into “manhood.” Ted and Keith invited 11 males to help celebrate the passage. The age span is 10 for Sebastion to me – 77. Ted has offered his location, planned, and acquired the necessary materials. We are in Northampton in the Pine Barrens Woods just north of Wildwood Lake. We are isolated. Most of the neighbors have summer cottages and are still away.
We have gathered to witness and support the beginning of a new chapter of the life of a teenage boy. I wondered if this even would stir up any of my emotions. I never really knew when I entered Manhood or exited boyhood. Perhaps I’m still in that process. I have managed to maintain a childlike nature while being a so-called “elder.”
In Indian tradition, a young male goes on a vision quest for several days when elders suggest it is time to grow up”. With only a container of water, the boy leaves the community, and goes into isolation for several days awaiting a vision that will help to show him his path into the future. Liam said his goal is to become a “biomedical engineer.” His is a handsome young man, centered, and full of expectations.
The ledge structure is covered with blankets to block light and contain heat. The door, a 3 x 3 foot opening faces west. West is the place of the setting sun, dusk, the end of the day. This is the place where we will leave our old selves and become renewed. The lodge is a metaphor for the uterus, the birthing place.
A pit is dug in the center of the lodge to hold the stones that heated by a lengthy fire. The dirt from the pit is placed in a pile in front of the door and about five feet west of it. This represents the head of the turtle which serves as an altar. We have been instructed not to walk over the neck. “Walk clockwise around the altar.” instructs Ted. These protocols are meant to remind us to focus on the meaning, symbolism,
and intention of the ceremony. In native spirituality, the turtle is sacred. It can have a long life span as much as 100 years. The dome of the lodge looks like the back of a turtle. Many native communities have a clan with the Turtle name. Some participants place tokens on the dirt mound. Ted places a wooden model of a duck, Les sets a special rock he’s found, and I lay a small wood whistle.
The process starts with the circle of men around a large fire pit. Each of us selects a stone, speaks a word into the stone that is an encouraging word for the boy, hands the stone to Craig, who places the stone on top of the wood. All told, over twenty eight stones end up stacked on the wood. Now it is time for the sacred fire.
Ted kneels on a small blanket nearby. He moves a bow quickly to turn a spindle to create friction, which produces smoke and a red hot “coal” which he empties into filaments of jute, which ignite. He gently blows on it, hands it to Les, who carefully shoves the flaming ball into a handful of straw at the base of the woodpile. In seconds smoke and flames billow from atop the pile. The heating of the stones will take about three hours. In the meantime, various tasks need to be done…blankets on lodge, cooking chili, assembling more firewood, getting personal things ready, and laid back conversations.
Sebastian, the 10 year old holds a white basket. He has been wandering about in the woods collecting wintergreen berries. They are shockingly red in his white basket. He goes around offering us to taste these small fruits which have a mint odor and taste.
As we get closer to lodge entry. Lesl accepts the role of fire keeper and “bringer of the stones” to the lodge door. Ted knows there are some newcomers and in his wisdom and experience of hosting dozens of sweat lodges, tells us how to enter, “crawl clockwise around the fire pit, with the humility of a wild animal, bring water and a towel with you, stay clear of the fire pit, find the place you’d like to sit, focus on the stonoes with a sense of reverent gratitude.
Ted has assembled the items he needs to act as “lodge keeper.” His place is just to the right of the door. He has two stag antlers to handle hot stones, a large ceramic bowl of water, a ladle, and a container of herbs. We line up outside the lodge until Ted calls to come in. “As you enter, we say ALL OUR RELATIONS.” This is the native way of reminding ourselves that we are all interconnected, no better or worse than any other living being on the planet. We are part of the Universe community.
Once assembled, Ted announces, “stone.” Les pitch forks a glowing rock and using a brush, dusts ash that might interfere with breathing in the lodge. “Greetings grandfather stone.” we say in unison. One by one, 7 stones are forked in as Ted arranges then in the pit. Then Ted calls “Door.” With the door flap down, we sit in complete darkness and see the glow from the rocks and begin to feel the heat. We sit in silence adjusting to what is to come. Ted sprinkles a mixture of herds on a stone and as each stone is placed in the pit, each of us takes a turn sprinkling herbs on a rock. The herbs instantly glow like stars and give off a scent. Except for sight, all our senses are extremely alive, especially touch. Our skin has come alive.
When Ted picks up the ladle to scoop water, we can hear the tingle of ladle touching ceramic bowl. He pours water on the stones and we hear the scizzle and in a few seconds, intense, hot air flows down our backs. We begin to sweat instantly. It feels like we are sitting at the edge of a volcanic explosion and hot gas has descended upon us. Ted keeps pouring, stones keep buzzing. It is getting unbearable. During his introduction he said. “You may leave at any time if you are uncomfortable. Call “door” and we will throw back the flap and I will tell you when to crawl counter clockwise out. Stay as far away from the pit as possible.”
None of us call. Ted stops pouring. We sit and sweat. Our towels are soaked by the end of the first round. Three rounds to go, one for each of the four directions. Ted calls “door.” With the flap open, cool air flows in. Making through the first round is an accomplishment!
During round one, we discuss how to structure and plan for Liams entrance into Manhood. He has not entered the lodge. Ted suggests that we offer our ideas. Liam will enter the second door and we will bless him with our male wisdom. Liam’s father spoke first. He is proud of his youngest son and since he has participated in many previous lodges, suggested this ceremony. Some spoke of their lives and made suggestions. Door two was as intense as one. During this, I thought of my father, boyhood, and passage into manhood. I had no specific mark. Off to college may have been so or my senior year in high school. I remembered my grandfather who treated me as his son although he had three sons of his own. Since I have two daughters, I found myself in the role of adoptive father for two boys whom I nurtured and looked after from time to time.
The final door Liam was invited to speak. Our role was to listen and piggy back. More steam, final stones, Ted chants, silence. And finally, after about 90 minutes, Ted calls the final “door.” We have been drinking water all along. As we crawl out one by one into the cool late afternoon air, Ted advises “Don’t stand up right away.”
I feel exhausted, sweaty, with sand stuck to skin, and a little out of balance. I spray myself with water and congratulate Liam welcoming him into manhood. Anyone who can tolerate the intensity of a sweat lodge has earned manhood.
We dressed, and joined together for chili with bread and butter, Keith led us in a blessing and we broke our fast with gusto. I bid the men good evening and headed home. Sometimes a boy becomes a man almost instantly having had an experience that seems life-changing. Other times, it’s a slow process of learning. It takes time to become a man. A ceremony like a sweat lodge reminds me of the responsibility. Some boys are thrust into horrendous situations and as a result reach manhood at very early ages. War, family issues, and many other circumstances are factors. I came away thinking…”yes, I am a man.”
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF A SWEAT LODGE PARTICIPANT
It starts with psychology. I was excited, scared, worried, and expectant all at the same time. Although I’ve participated in many lodges, the experience is always different. I am competing with myself and the others in the lodge. Can I take the heat? Can I overcome the shame of leaving before the end? I do care about what others think. I have to show them how tough I am.
Everyone’s body undergoes changes. The skin reddens because capillaries enlarge just under the skin to release heat, water, and toxins that have built up in the liver. Heat penetrates muscles, tendons, ligaments, and organs.
Without the sense of sight, hearing intensifies. Even the slightest sound is magnified. We eleven sit clost to one another. Drinking water through the entire experience is necessary to maintain balance. Breathing is shallower because the heat can damage deep breathing tissues. Every square inch is sweating. This releases toxic materials.