Big Chief

As I told you last time, I was invited by the Big Chief to attend the Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony, and I did. I will now try as best I’m able to describe this experience.
In most cases the Federal Prison System has designated an area on the yard for the Nature based religions, Wiccan’s, Odenists, and American Indians. This area usually consists of a small fenced in space, maybe 800 sq ft. or so. This area is divided up with the Indians getting half the space and the other religions sharing the other half – they do not worship at the same time. Here at 3RVS the Natives have their time slot on Saturday mornings till noon.

On Saturday morning at 6:30 or so I went out to the Sweat Lodge area, I was the first one to arrive. Instinctively understanding that my Indian brothers more likely than most considered this space as sacred, I waited outside the fence until my friend the Chief arrived and invited me in. Sure enough he explained that when entering their space one had to enter and proceed in a clock-wise direction around the perimeter before entering into the middle space where the fire pit and Sweat Lodge itself is.

The Fire Pit

When I was growing up I remember my dad and my uncle Jack standing around a big drum with a fire in it; man I love the smell of a wood fire. Yeah, it’s true, my family are some hillbillies. But, in those days when you went to someone’s house you didn’t sit around the house and play video games. Hell, nobody in my family had air conditioning so being outside in the shade was where you went and when it was cold outside, we stood around a fire. I don’t know. It was just a custom among my people. Hell, the last time I went to Florida we all loaded up in a couple cars and went to my uncle Pete’s house and straight up, my sons, me, and my uncle Mike went outside to Pete’s workshop where we sat around and drank a couple beers together before going back inside with the families – it’s something they do. Truth be known that’s what makes us Crawford’s. Even today with this quarantine, my kids have all congregated at my daughter’s house, yeah, we’re loyal to each other like that. I raised my kids that way. Make no mistake here, we stick together. I think that this depth of loyalty goes back to folks standing around a fire, remembering their roots. That’s what came to mind this past Saturday morning as I stood around the Sweat Lodge Fire Pit. Yeah, I suppose it’s a primitive, even anthromoporphic part of our origins as humans. Maybe you ought to try it sometime. No, really. When was the last time you stood around a fire? Man, it’s hypnotizing; the smell of the wood, the sound of the flames, the snapping of the wood, yeah, standing around that fire with those guys that Saturday morning – couldn’t help but feel the origins of human bonding.

As we stood around the fire pit it became apparent that the ceremonial fire pit was purposeful, in fact beneath the wood was a pile of river stones ranging in size from cantaloupe size to soft-ball size–at least 60 stones in all.

The Sweat Lodge

The Sweat Lodge here at 3RVS is circular in shape, about 8′ (2 1/2 meters or so) across and 4 1/2′ tall (1 meter and a half), at this time only the frame of the actual lodge was standing. The frame of the actual Sweat Lodge is made out of tree branches bent and tied together by leather strips, it looks like a bowl turned upside down. While the line at the pit were heating the rocks the rest of us gathered some wool blankets and used them to cover the frame. After the blankets were in place we covered the whole frame and blankets with some very heavy military green canvas creating an upside down bowl shaped tent.

After the fire had begun to die down, eight of the twelve men in attendance stripped down to their boxers and began to line up to go inside the Lodge itself; I didn’t know about this before-hand, and since I didn’t know where my underwear was, I was the only one who was Commando – for my European readers, going commando means, nude. So there we were, seven guys in their boxers and me naked.

Now there’s an order to how the men are placed inside the Sweat Lodge, a pecking order. Because of my friendship with the Chief I was given the honor of sitting to the right of the him… it was dark with the only light coming through a gap left open for us to enter… You didn’t really think I was naked did you? Man! Y’all are gullible! Of course I had on shorts! Well, I guess if y’all were any smarter you wouldn’t be readin’ my stuff 🙂 Hell, if I’d tried to go into the Sweat Lodge naked them Indians would’ve sacrificed me. Anyway, after we were seated the Chief explained the ritual itself. He told me about how the smoke-pipe was to be handled, about how it was rotated as it is passed from one man to the next. He explained that certain herbs were going to be thrown onto the hot stones by the elders. He explained that once the ceremony started that a small animal-skin drum resembling a tambourine would be passed to each man who would in turn use a wood and skin striker to tap out three beats before he would then say his prayer, each of us were invited to pray. My friend the Chief explained to me that the purpose of the Sweat Lodge Ritual was about suffering and praying … by this time I had been sitting cross-legged, on the ground for a half hour or so … my butt hurt, my legs were cramped … I was starting to understand the suffering part!

After explaining all of these things he turned to me and said, “It’s gonna get hot in here. If you have trouble breathing, or start to feel dizzy, turn around and put your face on the ground at the edge of the canvas – there you’ll find a little fresh air. But, we were shoulder to shoulder in there and I couldn’t imagine being able to turn around without bumping into my neighbor – I resolved not to faint.

When the explanations were complete he called out “Aho Rocks!” and within minutes a shovel was stuck through the flap with three or four cherry-red stones on it. The brother sitting to the Chiefs left took a pair of deer antlers and one by one removed the stones from the shovel and dropped them into a small pit in the center of the circle of men I was sitting in. “Aho Rocks” – in came more stones, then more, 30 in all. Then the flap closed and the only thing you could see was the red glow of the stones in the pit.

The Chief began to pray to the Grandfather in the sky, God. Then chanting, drumming, praying and I was beginning to feel the brotherhood of the people. Yes, it was hot, I was sweating, but I realized that I could take it – I wasn’t going to shame myself by fainting.

Then as if there were some hidden plan to kill the white-guy, SOMEONE, started throwing water on the stones, one cow horn full at a time! Holy Shit! The steam rolled through the inside of that small enclosure like smoke from the mouth of a dragon. More prayers, more water! When I told you that I was sweating earlier, well, that was bullspit compared to the sweating I was doing now. Sweat rolled down my face and body, I could barely breath.

The small drum was passed from man to man, each saying aloud his prayers … when my turn came I banged the drum three times and humbly prayed for my family, for you, the world and for no more water on the rocks !! Oh stop it … I didn’t pray for that, but I wanted too! But I didn’t. And sure enough I prayed for it too, because right after that more water was put on the stones!

Drumming, chanting by the Elders, more water! More water, more praying more drumming, more prayers – then to my horror the flap popped open and I heard “Aho Rocks” yep, you guessed it, 30 or so more stones were passed in, same as the first time.

interesting point: as these rocks were being passed in I noticed that the first round of rocks were, due to the depth of the pit, pretty much below ground level and therefore the heat coming off them was somewhat blunted by the ground. The second round of rocks however were stacked on top, all of them above ground. I could feel the intense heat on my face, my chest, and most importantly, my eyes!

Another thing I noticed was that the pit inside the Sweat Lodge was not exactly in the center, it was actually closer to my side of the circle than it was to the guys on the opposite side … as I was mentally measuring this out I looked at the guy on the other side of the circle, he smiled … yeah, he smiled … you already know what I was thinking. Darn Indians!

After the second round of stones was put into place I can assure you that I soon forgot about how uncomfortable my seating arrangement was. Eventually I fell into the beauty and purpose (prayer) of the Sweat Lodge Ritual. I will admit, I was beginning to really appreciate sharing this experience with my friends – then somebody started back with the water again! Out of a natural survival instinct I began to pray. Then the songs began and I prayed more and more. I will tell you that it was a really beautiful experience and I was very honored to be allowed to experience it.

Well. that’s it for this time around. Let me add once again that this experience took place in February, before the Corona hysteria, so forgive me for just now getting it out to you. Be safe and as always, Peace be with you

Three Rivers, 4-30-20