For several years a colleague and I have supported our prison’s Native American circle through sewing and textile work. I personally have fabricated the covering for their sweat lodge, or inipi. While we have done this, we never had the opportunity to attend one of their sweat lodge ceremonies. To me, its like barging in on someone’s church I’m not a member of. And in today’s prisons, the Natives are protective of their culture as they have been for ages during oppressive situations like internment. Being invited to attend was a huge honor for us and their kindness, graciousness and hospitality were humbling.
It was a new experience for me. I was shown some of the basic fundamentals of their faith by qualified elders. The meanings of the cardinal directions and the relationship to the seasons and phases of life, the purpose of smug, the alignment of fire, alter and the inipi, the ritual of the sweat itself, all so fascinating. And then the practises started. Everybody knew their place and they worked together to set up the day’s event. It took me a while to understand how one thing interconnected with the next, but these people showed me along the way and I saw the teamwork they put into something they believe in. They were preparing to endure something together.
Once we started the first round of the sweat, they drummed and sang their prayers to the Creator. The stones were glowing and each blessed as it was loaded into the inipi. Then the entrance was closed and the water poured. The steam was incredible and I felt focused with the drumming. Then the second round of stones and more pouring. I couldn’t tell if I fell asleep or if I was that focused, perhaps tantric. The heat was powerful and I heard the sounds of distress in the songs. Connecting to their prayers became a necessary way to endure. It was getting hard to breath.
Every round has a purpose. The third round was devoted to suffering. Suffering for the prayers of the previous rounds. To them, if you want it, it mustn’t come easy. The sound of distress grew with the songs and the heat grew beyond belief. I had to put my face close to the ground to even breathe. Then one more round, the last round. Then it was done and everyone exited the inipi. That’s when I saw the same thing I saw in my time in the army. These people, who loved each other, worked together to prepare to endure. Then they endured something difficult together. And then, after it was over, they celebrated together and it looked like platoon behavior. Everyone broke bread, ate, and we were welcomed into their brotherhood. I gained a new perspective and experience and I’m thankful they shared their faith and culture with us.
by Rory Andes
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