A North American Way of Healing

by Arthur Joseph

The sweat lodge purification ceremony is known and used in every comer of Native America. Within this continent's rich variety of natural and cultural circumstances it serves a great range of human needs.

In the Mexican village of Huexoculo there are still many stone and adobe lodges in use. They are called temascales, from the Aztec words tema (to bath) and calli (house). Cortei chronicler, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, records that the Aztec chief Montezuma used sweat lodge daily. The Spanish considered such frequent bathing a danger to health, but Aztec medicine men prescribed the lodge for many ills.

Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux Wichasa Wakon (Holy Man), used his lodge to send out prayers for all nations:

Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather
All over the earth. The faces of living things are alike.
With tenderness have these come up out of the ground.
 Look upon the faces of children without number,
And with children in their arms,
That they may face the winds
And walk the Good Road to the day of quiet."

In 1931, Black Elk entrusted the poet John G. Neihardt the "save his great vision for men" by recording his prayers and testimony in English m the legendary book, "Black Elk Speaks.' Years later, in the early 1940's, he called another young writer, Joseph Epes Brown, to preserve his prayers and procedures for the Seven Sacred Rites of the Oglala Sioux. In the resulting book, "The Sacred Pipe;" Black Elk describes the sweat purification ceremony (inyipi).

Although Black Elk was the highest authority on ceremonial fonnality, he knew when to make exceptions. In an interview in Parabola (Feb., 1979), Brown told of traveling with Black Elk in Denver during the 1940's, when it was not very pretty - mostly, stockyards and railheads - an unpleasant place with a lot of anti-Indian prejudice. They had trouble finding a hotel that would let them stay. The room they ended up in was dingy and terrible. Black Elk wanted a sweat to cleanse himself of the city and the room. Brown didn't know how this could be done, but Black Elk didn't hesitate. He pulled some loose bricks out of the coal fireplace and heated them in the coal fire. They pushed all the chairs together m a circle, threw the bed covets over them, and brought in the hot bricks in a coal bucket They sweated, prayed, smoked and sang. And it was good.

Leonard Crow Dog, in Shamanic Voices' by Joan Halifax, tells us that when he was a young boy, growing up near Rosebud Sioux reservation in South Dakota, his Father and Uncle used sweat lodge to prepare him for four days alone, in a deep hole in the ground, tied up in a blanket, fasting and crying for a vision. The assistant, a brother, would have liked to use a steel shovel to carry in the red-hot rocks, but his uncle insisted that it be done in the most traditional way, on forked sticks. The fast was fruitful. Leaonard Crow Dog had a strong vision and is a healer and leader today.

Among Charles Thom, Sr.'s people, the Karoks, the creation is renewed each year in a ceremony. A medicine man prays and fasts in an underground sweat house without water for ten or more days. Then, still fasting, he emerges and travels unseen over sacred trails in the mountains, bathing in many cool springs but not drinking, singing the songs of creation. He gathers medicines on the mountain and brings them back underground to the lodge. Only the medicine people know everything that he does.

In New York, I met a young Ojibway man from Canada near Hudson's Bay. He spent the early part of his life living pretty far out in the brush with a small band of his relatives, mostly trapping and hunting for their living. When he was about fourteen, all his close relatives died from tuberculosis. Somehow he got to the States and went to college in New York. He was very intelligent and capable, but lonely. He turned to alcohol and was very sick for a few years. Then he met a medicine man from Northern California who performed the sweat lodge. It took us about two years to get him into the lodge, but once in he remembered the prayers and stories of his grandmother and how his Father used to do sweats. Soon the ceremony was turned over to him to lead. He had a lot of good medicine to share. I saw him continue to use the lodge to heal his body and remember. The last time I saw him he was seeking out medicine people and enrolled in college courses. A good strong woman was with          . He gave me a buffalo knuckle bone which I still carry.

In the Sierra Nevadas, I was invited into the lodge of a man who learned with the Navajos. The Navajo lodge is dug about two feet into the ground. It has a center pole that supports a tipi-like pile of split cedar rails covered with earth. The medicine hole and hot rocks are off to the side by the door. They use the dry heat a lot It's like the desert sun in

Navajo land. He used a medicine root which is a relation to the root used in Northem California, but because it grows in a different land it has another scent.

In every area the lodge is used to gather the elements of the land and the powers they call upon.

Charles Thom, Sr., Karok Ceremonial Leader from the Upper Klamath River in the Siskiyou Mountains of Northern California, often says, "I come from a very abundant area. I deal with the mountains, the wild rivers, the eagle, the deer, the- cedar, the natural altars, many sources." Charles Thom uses a portable lodge of blankets and willows that he can pack deep into the mountains and sacred area where, as he says,

"They ask me why I don't light a spirit fire here and I say you're sitting right m the middle of it."

There are many ways to perform a purification ceremony in a spiritual way. Ceremonial Leaders may work according to the tradition of their tribe, according to their visions, or according to spiritual guidance.

The traditions of a tribal people will reflect not only the powers of the land on which they live, but also experiences gained on their past migrations. The Parrot Clan, ranked highly among the Hopi people, received the power to give the blessing of fertility when they were traveling in the far south. Even though they've been settled in the desert at Oraibt for 700 years, they still use parrot feathers in their ceremonies.

When someone who cries and fasts receives a strong vision, then later when they conduct a ceremony, they may use something; certain medicines, number or arrangement of rocks, or certain procedures to express something from their vision. This puts them in touch with "the other world" and helps bring the power of their vision into the ceremony. This can be very good, especially if the vision is your own, so you can see it all very clearly.

I was once in a sweat lodge with a young Indian leader who went by very strict procedures. After every prayer he would dip a fir branch in the water and spray the hot rocks four times, and it was good. 'Ihen, in order to concentrate his whole heart on a long set of prayers for all the living souls of the Earth, the sky and the other worlds, he passed the water bucket to an assistant, a friend who was a strong supporter, very respectful and obedient, butperhaps not too experienced. He didn't have a fir branch and, unfortunately, a soup bowl was at the bottom of the water bucket Feeling around m the dark, the assistant fished it out. Then, after each and every prayer, for each and every bird, bush and star in the universe, four soup bowls full of water hit the rocks and exploded into steam. It got extremely hot, but the assistant didn't let up a bit. If I wasn't used to Charlie 'Mom driving the sweat lodge into the other world, I don't think I could have stood it myself. The young leader was very strict with himself and said every prayer he set out to say, and one more besides. Then he said, "let's get out of here!" We had to half carry the assistant to the river, but quite a lot of creation got well prayed upon, and it was good.

Only leaders with a lot of experience and strong faith in the Great Spirit can go by spiritual guidance. These are the powerful medicine people. They pray directly to the Great Spirit, "Come in and guide us." When the Great Spirit comes in the lodge, they recognize it and go with it one hundred percent. It's not possible to say everything that happens in the lodge when high caliber medicine people go with the Great Spirit one hundred percent, or everything the Great Spirit might do when we give it a chance. But we can say that high caliber medicine people always give the Great spirit a chance.

Since 1981, Arthur Joseph has assisted Charles Thom, Sr. at  wilderness journeys and sweat lodge ceremonies. He is a Board Member of the Earth Cirde Association. In 1971, while working on an erosion control project in the Oregon Siskiyou Mountains, he had a close encounter with Bigfoot, but did not meet Charlie Thorn at that time.