W A K A N - T A N K A
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
Dusk at the Sweat Lodge, Black Hills, South Dakota, USA by Christian Heeb
To my left the medicine woman breathes heavily as she crumbles dried sweetgrass onto the glowing hot rocks while chanting in her native Lakota tongue. The sweet scent of the herb mingles with an aroma of sweat and mud. It’s so dark I can’t see my hand as I raise it to my forehead to wipe away the moisture pouring from my body. I can only see the redness of the rocks which lay in a dirt pit dug in the moist soil just inches from my feet. I attempt to move away from the steam rising from the rocks, but am blocked by sticks of willow directly behind me. I lower my chin to my chest in an attempt to stop the searing heat from burning my lungs and begin to breath shallow as protection from the heat. My body aches from sitting cross-legged too long. “Mitakuye oyasin”, says the Medicine Woman in an almost guttural voice, “Mitakuye oyasin” I repeat as the flap finally opens, letting in fresh cool air.
photo source: unknown
There are many opinions as to the temperature inside a Sweat Lodge during an Inipi (purification) ceremony, one of the oldest rites known to our early tribal cultures. The lodge is constructed of saplings bent and tied to create a circular igloo-shaped frame, covered with blankets and sometimes animal skins. It’s as high as a person’s chest and wide enough to fit eight to ten adults sitting in a cramped circle.
"Grandfather” rocks as they are called by the indigenous tribes due to their age and wisdom accumulated over the eons of forming, have been ceremoniously chosen for the occasion. In preparation of the ritual as one walks the earth near the Inipi in meditative contemplation with our earth Mother, one can hear the grandfather rocks calling out to participate in this most sacred of ceremonies. Each rock is believed to bare a message and are chosen due to their communicating to the seeker their desire to be heard. Once they are dislodged from their earthly home where they have been silently waiting for many generations, they are offered thanks and praise for sacrificing themselves for the ceremony. Then delivered to the Fire Keeper who places them outside the Lodge in a pit of fire until they turn red hot and crackle from the heat which takes many hours. All the while being prayed over by the Keeper of the Flame.
Covered only in a wrap or towel we each enter this sacred space on our hands and knees as children, crawling clockwise around the lodge until we can go no further and settling into our spot. The flap of the lodge is then closed with the Medicine person sitting next to it who controls the opening after each round, traditionally 4 rounds reflecting the 4 directions, though sometimes more on certain ceremonies.
During the ceremony the Gate Keeper outside the Lodge hands the heated rocks through the flap door into the lodge. Often elk antlers are used to pass them along to the Medicine person who carefully places them in a pit dug out at the center of the lodge's dirt floor. Once several heated rocks are in position the Medicine person pours water onto the rocks slowly while praying to the grandfathers, grandmothers and Ancestors who have been called in to join the sacred circle. The steam is created by pouring cold water on the hot rocks heated in the fire pit for several hours in preparation for the lodge. As the steam rises carrying our prayers to the great spirit Wakan Tanka, so does the temperature inside the lodge and the physical body begins to sweat and purify.
Sweetgrass is placed on the stones to assist in the healing Ceremony. Hot steam envelopes the lodge as the leader pours water upon the glowing stones. The loud drum throbs steadily as the singers join in with the appropriate songs. Participants are encouraged to connect in their own prayer to Great Spirit while focusing on what is needing attention at that particular time. When the time is right someone calls out, "Aho Mitakuye Oyasin"! or All of My Relations! We completed this for 4 cycles; one door to honor and call in each direction. On our final prayer cycle the flap is then opened as we exit the lodge on our hands and knees one at a time, being birthed into a new cycle of Life.
I brace myself for the first of the traditional four rounds of our Lakota ceremony. As with each round once the Medicine person opens the flap the Gatekeeper offers in freshly baked rocks, fiery red and ready to join us. Our medicine person slowly pours cold water onto each rock while chanting and praying, sprinkling sweetgrass onto the rocks creating a sacred incense carrying our prayers to our Creator. With eyes closed I breathe the sacred scent deeply into my solar plexus. As it fills my physical body I let go into the vibration of Spirit.
The Grandfathers speak to me silently. A solution to a difficult problem suddenly becomes clear to my mind. The rocks take on different forms to help carry their messages. They speak to me deeply and personally their sacred messages. I’m aware of my closeness to Mother earth and to all my relations regardless of form, and feel protected within her womb as my body releases and purifies.
It’s believed that the power of the Inipi can heal sickness of the body, mind and spirit. By purifying with “Spirits’s Breath”; the steam; one opens and cleanses that which needs to be released and healed. The darkness and warmth of the lodge symbolizes the womb, a place of creation, nurturing, safety, and rebirth.
I let the towel wrapped around me when entering the Lodge slip away exposing my naked and sweating body to the darkness. Once again the flap closes leaving nine naked and vulnerable women sitting crosslegged around the red rocks inside the womb as the small lodge is heated by the steam and the temperature continues to rise. Our body's sweat dripping individually upon the earth in an ongoing cycle of release and renew.
Suddenly one of my sisters lets out a long and agonizing moan jolting me from a semi-conscious state. Her moans turn to deep and guttural sobs of pain. They exit through her mouth vibrating through my chest as if someone were ripping out my heart along with hers.
“Oh God help me,” she moans. “Oh God help me, please help me, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”
Her deep sobbing continues for a while until she is relieved of the burden of her disease, which she shares with us in quiet whisper for the first time. Followed by deep silence within the lodge as we each connect in Spirit and prayers of healing to our Sister in need. All the while the Medicine Woman chants her sacred prayers and bangs her sacred frame drum, producing one heartbeat within the womb of our Spiritual Mother.
Sweat lodges, as they are also called, are a native custom dating back to ancient times. Also called purification ceremonies “Sweats” were held before all important events such as battles, vision quests, sacred ceremonies, rites of passage, and various healings. It's intent to cleanse the human vessel giving room for Spirit to enter. Today “sweats” shared with “wasicun” (white man) are a means of teaching the connectedness of humans to all life forms, from the the tiny ant to the infinite universe. As we share in this wisdom, passage ways within our consciousness open allowing space for a different experience to enter as the heat and the body's sweat cleanse the form. Some call this experience hallucinating. I call it “Spirit”, and Spirit heals once this attunement with life is allowed.
My body continues to perspire heavily in the darkness. The Medicine Woman completes her rounds of chants. Moving clockwise around our circle, one by one we offer prayers both individually and collectively, both silently and out loud in song along with the cadence of the drum's heartbeat, for our earth, for all our relations, for our own special requests, for those sharing the ceremony and once again for our Sister in need. Sacred Inipis are for purification and that certainly is being accomplished.
With prayer and the safety of the darkness we are open to express buried thoughts, burdens and fear in this sacred and supportive environment. Through the alchemy of healing waters on the rocks upon our physical bodies, the release of old and current emotions happens, bringing with it the purification of body, mind and spirit. Much healing can be accomplished when fully immersed in the womb of the Mother supported by prayer and nature's healing magic. As a baby's baptism we're being baptized again, though as conscious adults intently into the infinite and loving embrace of Spirit. A rebirth of our soul as clarity of our true journey on earth has the potential to be uncovered in this collective safe space of healing and release.
There has been healing during this evening. My own body and emotions feel so clean and purified that a part of me doesn’t want this time to end. A shower at this point would make me feel dirty. “Om Mitakuye oyasin” we say one more time. Then the flap opens allowing passage to a new birth as we crawl out, symbolically from our Mother's womb, into the early morning sun.
Why this growing movement to share the ancient rites of other cultures? Especially these days of the growing movement toward artificial intellegence and away from our divine creation, there is something to be learned. Many people indigenous to this country, as well as other ancient lands, are now dedicated to serving “Spirit” by teaching us the “old ways” of harmonizing with nature. Mother Earth is calling back her children; red, white, black, and yellow. As we heal individually, as a tribe and as a nation, we affect global and finally, universal healing. A new experience blossoms as all things become “wakan”; sacred, mystical, holy. Then the Great Spirit, “Wakan Tanka” may again walk our Earth in the body of mankind.
© Rosemarie Ceraso
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