Approximately 2 years ago, I found myself working as a tarot card reader at a local metaphysical shop. The shop sold all manner of spiritual tools including crystals, sage, smudges, ritual supplies, and jewelry. I worked directly under 2 shamans who offered a variety of spiritual healings and divination readings through the shop. While reading tarot at the shop one day, one of the shamans, a man named Russ, asked me if I would like to join the rest of the team at a sweat lodge that evening. Because I am about 25% Oglala Sioux, the shamans at work thought that attending the sweat lodge would be a good way for me to get in touch with my native American roots. I excitedly agreed.
After work, my coworker Ren and I loaded into Russ’s white Honda Accord. Russ drove us out of the city, down winding country roads, towards the sweat lodge. Along the way, we listened to Russ’s “Driving Music Playlist,” which was a hodgepodge of dance pop and R&B tunes. “What can I expect this thing to be like?” I asked as we traveled closer to our destination. The sun was starting to go down and the stillness of the country side was filled with the sound of crickets that could be heard over the car stereo. My travel companions told me not to be afraid. “It’s cooler closer to the ground,” Renn said, “so stay close to the ground to avoid the heat.” Russ glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “If you are on your period, you will have to sit outside of the lodge.” Reading the confusion on my face, Russ continued, “It is believed that if a woman goes into the sweat loge with men while she is menstruating, her heightened female energy will cause the men in the lodge to become ill.” I was still confused but I didn’t press on.
Finally, Russ drove his Honda up a long gravel driveway. The driveway rounded the side of an old white farm house with blue shutters and a rickety front porch. As we all exited the car, we were greeted by Mia, a fellow tarot reader from the shop, and Annie, the second shaman. In typical hippie fashion, Mia danced up to us, her bare feet tiptoeing through the gravel and dirt. She embraced us each in a big bear hug before giving us a quick rundown of the night’s precedings. Russ began to gather the ritual supplies that he had brought along from his trunk. Annie hobbled up to us. In her outstretched arms, she carried a gigantic bull skull with the horns still attached. The skull had been painted with bright intricate patterns and symbols. It looked more like a work of art than an animal skull. “Follow me,” she called as she rounded to the back of the house and headed towards the lush forest beyond it.
We all followed behind her until the field around us turned into trees and foliage. We approached a clearing in the forest. The air was beginning to chill, but a fire generously burned in the center of the clearing, putting off enough heat to warm us. Worn patio chairs lined the edge of the clearing. To my left, I saw the little domed hut where the sweat lodge would be conducted. It seemed as if the dome had been crafted by draping fabric over a hastily designed frame but I couldn’t be sure. Feeling a bit awkward and out of place, I planted myself in a lawn chair beside Annie and her new boyfriend, Josh. Annie introduced me to a tall, lanky, middle-aged man who sported an untamed ponytail. His name was Gray Hawk, and he would be the one conducting the sweat lodge. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and his hand felt course and moist as I shook it.
We all made our introductions and chatted with one another before starting the ceremony. Annie gave each of her employees a small gray clay charm with a blue and white evil eye bead embedded in the center. “This is a medicine piece,” she told me, “it will keep you safe.” I thanked her and slid the charm into the back pocket of my jeans. Annie asked us all to come together around the bull skull that she had placed on the ground just beyond the warmth of the fire. We all circled around the skull, waiting for instruction. Into our hands, Annie placed some herbs and a piece of chocolate. One by one, we were asked to present the items to the bull skull as an offering and while thanking the bull spirit for it’s guidance and protection. As we each made our offerings, Annie sang Native American songs while banging on a round shamanic drum.
After our offerings had been made, we were asked to form a single file line. Russ pulled out a bic lighter from his pocket and lit the end of a sage bundle. One by one, he waved the sage around our bodies, allowing the smoke to waft through the air. As he did this, he prayed a prayer of protection and cleansing, and asked the spirits for a successful lodge. After Russ had completed my smudging, I was asked to step up to the alter just outside of the lodge to say a prayer and to leave a personal offering. Each offering had to be approved by Gray Hawk before it could be placed. I watched Gray Hawk as Renn handed him her items. The items were too small for me to tell what they were. Gray Hawk rolled the items around in his hands. He seemed to be evaluating their essence through touch. “No to this one,” he told her. Renn grabbed the rejected item and placed in on one of the lawn chairs. Renn placed the approved item onto the alter, which was made of a simple slab of stone, and mumbled a prayer to herself. Gray Hawk approved my item, a small agate buffalo figurine that I gingerly placed onto the alter.
Next, we each filed into the lodge. In the center of the lodge was a pit filled with large chunks of burning coal. I was dazzled by them as they twinkled red, orange, and yellow in the darkness. We were told that we had to enter the lodge to the left, circling around to our seats in a clockwise direction. There was no room to stand, so we had to crawl around on all fours. The order in which we set was also important. Gay Hawk sat in the seat to the far right, closest to the door. Annie and Russ were seated in the far left, while the rest of us filled in the back.
I was anxious and jittery and nervous. When we all took our seats, Gray Hawk closed the door flap, filling the lodge with darkness. The only light came from the burning coals in front of us. Though heat began to fill the space, it was bearable. Gray Hawk told us that he would begin the ceremony by calling in the spirits through song. He told us if we needed to leave the lodge at any point, to let him know and he would let us out. We were informed that the lodge would take place in several “rounds” with an intermission in the middle.
Gray Hawk began chanting in a language that I didn’t understand. As he chanted, Annie hammered on her shamanic drum. After several songs, Gray Hawk began poring water onto the coals. I was not prepared for what happened next. Smoke and steam filled the tent. Though the water weakened the burning coals, the temperature in the lodge rose significantly. The coals hissed and cracked like angry rattle snakes as the water splashed against them. In the remaining light, I watched the others curl up into the fetal position on the floor. Soon, the lodge was filled with darkness and a thick dense steam.
The lodge had only just begun, but I found myself experiencing a full on anxiety attack. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself so, I tried to talk myself through it. Sweat rolled down my face and drenched my shirt. The darkness really began to get to me. I couldn’t see even an inch in front of my face. Gray Hawk’s chanting droned on as I struggled to draw back my panic. “I need to get out,” I shouted. Through the blackness, Gray Hawk asked if I was okay. “No, I’m so sorry,” I replied, “I can’t see anything and its causing me to panic. I need to get out.” Gray Hawk pulled back the flap, revealing the warm orange light of the fire burning outside. I began to crawl around the lodge towards the opening. I fumbled through the dim light, terrified of falling into the coal pit. I was all elbows and knees, knocking and banging against everyone I passed.
Finally in the safety of the forest, I planted myself on the ground beside the makeshift alter. “If you stay close to the lodge, you can still receive some of the healing.” Gray Hawk said as he closed the flap and resumed chanting. I sat there alone, feeling like an idiot for being the only person to back out. I wanted to be inside with everyone else, but the darkness was too much for me to deal with. I told myself that would try again if they offered. I sat Indian style in the dirt, listening to the drums and the crickets, twirling a blade of grass in my fingers.
A few hours later, everyone filed out of the lodge for the intermission. They were all drenched in sweat and made a bee line for the water cooler. Each of them guzzled an entire bottle of water. Some of them even had 2! “Do you want to give it another shot?” Gray Hawk asked me, as beads of water rolled from his mouth to his belly. I agreed and when the intermission was over, I filed back into the lodge with everyone else. The ceremony began the same way that it had begun before…and I freaked out just as I did the first time. I was starting to regret coming along as I exited the lodge in shame for a second time.
My fellow lodge goers were persistent and wanted me to be able to share in the healing and fun, so they offered to leave the door flap open if I would join them in the lodge for the final round. I hesitantly agreed. Once inside the lodge, I was relieved that I was able to see a sliver of light through the cracked door flap. Once again, Gray Hawk began to chant and the lodge filled with steamy wet heat. Calmer this time, I copied the others as they crouched low to the floor. It was true, the heat WAS much more bearable closer to the ground. All is silent aside from Gray Hawk’s voice. Suddenly, I hear Renn call out, “Annie, did you hear what I communicated with you?” Annie looked confused and replied, “No, what did you say?” “I didn’t say anything,” Renn answered. “I was trying to communicate with you telepathically.”
After insisting that she did not hear what Renn was trying to tell her, Annie asked her to communicate out loud. “My cat is coming out.” Renn mumbled. “OMG!!” I thought, “Is this woman getting naked in here? What does she mean her cat is coming out?” I had the urge to dart out of the lodge for a third time but I decided to wait and see what happened next. As I listened to Renn and Annie go back and forth for a bit, I inferred that Renn believed that she was part cat, and that sometimes her cat nature would come out. I tried not to giggle at this, who am I to judge.
I made it through the final round of the sweat lodge without freaking out. When it was over, we all exited the lodge and formed a circle near the fire. Gray Hawk said one final prayer and passed around the peace pipe. The pipe was a long object that smoked more like a bong than a pipe. We each took one hit of the pipe before passing it on to the next person. Without much chit chat, we all headed back to the gravel drive and headed off towards home.
Have you ever been to a sweat lodge? What was your first experience like? I would love to hear from you in the comment section below. If you enjoyed this post, please shoot me a like, comment, or follow.
Love Always, AnxiouslyM