Many years ago I was asked to assist with a sweat lodge in Boulder Colorado. It was my job to prepare the lodge and heat the stones for the inipi ceremony latter in the evening. Tending the fire is several hours of hot and hard physical work. I get there early set the base, pray over and set the stones that will be used and start the fire. Boulder is considered East Berkley and for some reason the man I was helping agreed to perform the ceremony for a “men’s group” It was not long till vehicles started arriving and disgorging a vast assortment of male hippies, yuppies, and college students. The only thing binding this group together was a massive amount of book learning and no real world experience in Lakota tradition. I could almost see the well-worn copies of Black Elk Speaks and Mother Earth Spirituality on their book shelves. Not a single one offered assistance as they milled around or sat smoking American Spirit Cigarettes and nibbling on granola.
The man who called for the ceremony and invited the people had the same grasp of time as wizards in Middle Earth “A wizard is never late Mr. Frodo, nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to!” Indian time does exist and he was a grand practitioner of the art. The passage of time was marked not only by the dwindling supply of firewood but the disintegration of the conversation among the clueless attendees. Having finally tired of exchanging misinformation in excited, scared and reverent tones my existence was finally acknowledged by the group. “So um, are you being trained as a medicine man?”
I am not sure what the group was expecting. I do know that my answer was not what they were looking for.
The absolute last thing I want to be in life is a medicine man, holy man or spiritual leader of any kind. The entire group looked at me like I was out of my mind. I understand where the desire comes from; popular culture has fed the non-Indian a buffet of Indian flavored myth and legend. Grand tales of spiritual insight and personal power is spun in all forms of popular entertainment. This group had spent far too much time with the mystic warrior feedbag tied to their faces. They were looking for spiritual meaning, a bit of personal power, this was a men’s group so they were also looking for some good old fashioned warrior strength and attitude. They were on the edge of the world ready to transition from the musty pages of spiritual self-help tomes and freeform drum circles to a real Lakota ceremony.
Only 3/4th of the group appeared to have towels with them. Luckily for us only 2 had decided that real men sweat naked and they had not brought swim wear. I gave up my two towels so they could at least wrap up. None of them had any idea that their myths were about to be burned away in a cloud of Lakota reality and scalding steam. Gandalf finally arrived and I let go a sigh of relief as the group turned their attentions to the great and powerful Oz er I mean medicine man. I was forgotten in their mad scramble to gain his attention and favors. I stood aside holding the pitchfork that symbolized my position as fire keeper and watched the melee unfold.
I wanted no part of the actual inipi ceremony. I was just asked to heat the stones. I was tired and just wanted to bring the rocks in and watch the door and hang out by the fire. Unfortunately the singer was not able to attend and no one else there knew the difference between a spirit calling song and “Let’s Go Gather at the River” so I was suddenly engaged to do double duty. I started bringing in the basalt stones, they glowed bright orange on the pitchfork as I carefully set them into the pit in the center of the lodge. The more stones I placed in the lodge the thicker the mix of fear and faux bravado spread from the group. I could taste the sticky sweetness of it. Once the stones were in I grabbed my hand drum and slid my way into the lodge and fumbled around getting the door flap down. The soft orange glow from the heated stones provided the only light.
The medicine man spoke for a bit letting the rocks release dry heat into the lodge. As the stones lost their heat and color I was signaled to begin the 4 Directions Song. The first dipper of water hit the stones and flashed into steam. Most of the group gasped when the vapor rolled over them. One or more yelped and howled like a dog with its tail caught in a blender. More dippers of water, more steam, more heat. There are 4 rounds to an inipi ceremony and half way through I had a nasty surprise for all those men. It is common practice to only bring in half the stones at the beginning and the other half between rounds 2 and 4. For the uninitiated or unprepared the shock of yet more stones being brought in can cause a mental break and many bailed as soon as I put the pitchfork loaded with another glowing stone into the lodge.
After the inipi was complete the ground around the lodge and fire pit was littered with stunned men. I moved about setting the fire so it would burn out and then attended to the casualties giving each a bit of my water. Most had not brought any, or if they did they drank it while nibbling their granola before the ceremony. The medicine man got everyone up for the final pipe ceremony and for spirit food. Many were shocked at how the medicine man and I could withstand the heat, the only answer I could come up with was “we have been doing this for years; our bodies are used to it”. Once the pipe was smoked and the spirit food passed around it was time to leave. The attendees slowly left in their cars. I used the last of the water to fully douse the fire and policed the grounds of cigarette butts, empty granola containment devices, and water bottles. First to arrive and last to leave, there is something you will not read in any books.
I never saw any of the people from that men’s group again. I am sure that many of them decided that Indian spirituality was too much. They all dove back into the safety of their books and drum circles. It is easy back there. There is no hard work, no heat, steam, and darkness. Lakota tradition is easy when you are inside reading a book. The reality is far different.
If you are invited to a Lakota or any other Indian ceremony, forget everything you have read. Be sure and ask the person who invited you lots of questions.
What should I expect?
What should I wear?
How should I behave?
If these questions are not answered quickly and completely then it is probably best that you skip the ceremony. Do not turn to books for these answers.
You cannot buy your way into this knowledge. It takes years of hard work, digging fire pits, chopping wood, hauling water, building the lodges and arbors. You learn by assisting with prep, setup, teardown and cleanup. A book from the new age section of the local book store or a weekend seminar, no matter how much it costs will not give you the knowledge and insight into Indian spirituality. You learn by doing. You learn by listening. If all you do is talk about the latest book on Indian spirituality you browsed or the seminar you attended last month in Sedona you will not learn.
Indian spirituality can bring you fulfillment but it is not a passive tradition. It can be rewarding for those that take the time to lean and make the effort to do.
-update and further thoughts –
I once new someone who’s only goal was to get famous, have lots of hot women around him and do large amounts of cocaine. I thought he was nuts and so did lots of others. It dumfounded him that anyone would not want what he wanted. The sadder thing was that he had absolutely no idea how to become rich and famous just like his hero Micheal Bay, he felt that because he wanted it he was somehow entitled to it.
I received the very same feeling from many of the men in that group. They were there to get spiritual fulfillment that was alluding them, I think a good many of them wanted nothing more than to be a powerful medicine man, and they could not understand why I had rejected their dream. At the same time they were jealous of my having a bit of what they were trying so hard to achieve.
what non of them understood was that my knowledge and position did not come from reading books but hard work, and a willingness to sacrifice. I do not do any of it for personal power or gratification. I do it because it is the right thing to do, not to be powerful or looked up to.
I am sad for them and yet hope that they learn how to get what they need.