There is an old Ojibway (also Ojibwe) proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.”
Having always been interested in the First Nation peoples’ way of thinking, I became quite involved in a number of their ceremonies.
Many years ago a friend who is a Shotokan Karate master asked me if I would like to join in a sweat lodge ceremony being led by Ojibway First Nation’s people. It took me no time at all to say…YES.
One of Sensei Brad Jones (Karate Master) students had made the connection in Manitoba and worked very closely with Clem and Fabian with First Nations Ojibway. Clem was also known as Thunder Bear and Fabian known as Red Cloud who was the elder of our Sweat Lodge Ceremony.
Thunder Bear informed us that, “The sweat lodge is a purifying sacred ceremony amongst our people. The purpose of a sweat lodge is to cleanse, purify, clean old non-serving energy, and to be reborn out of the dark circle of the lodge. The lodge represents the warm moist heat of the womb that we emerge from with a feeling of renewal and enter into the light of the world. The cleansing process is not just a physical cleanse of toxins, but also mentally, emotionally and spiritually through the ritual process. The lodge also serves as a place for worship, healing and for celebration of events or achievements.”
I thought to myself that was exactly what I wanted to experience.
I was told in advance before attending that fasting or light conscious eating for 24 hours before a sweat is recommended. Eating heavily before a lodge may induce nausea, vomiting, fainting or cramping. Also it was best to abstain from all toxic substances such as alcohol, caffeine, recreational drugs, and sugar before sweating to enhance purification. We were also told that the sweat lodge was not recommended for menstruating women, people with high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes nor would you enjoy it if you had a strong dislike for being in small, dark places. We were instructed to wear a swim suit or bring a long beach gown you can wrap around your waist. Ladies could wear an extra long shirt if they wanted also. We needed to bring an offering. A packet of pipe tobacco would do. The last thing was to bring some healthy food for the pot luck lunch we would all share after the sweat.
When we arrived the ceremony was being held on someone’s acreage next to a pond. It was a beautiful location for it. There was a fair gathering of people, many of them martial arts students from Sensei Jones’ and my school. Thunder Bear and Red Cloud welcomed us and shortly after that the explanation of the ceremony started. He points in front of the lodge and said “As you approach the sweat lodge you come first to the altar and the sacred fire where the rocks, called Grandmothers and Grandfathers, are heated for the sweat. We use the name of Grandmother and Grandfather for those specific rocks that we use in the ceremony because we believe that the rocks are people and hold the knowledge of our ancestors.
You notice that both the fire and the altar are in line with the door of the lodge.
He said, “Before you enter the lodge, offerings are made at the altar or the sacred fire.”
Thunder Bear points at the sweat lodge and said, “Many moons ago, the Sweat Lodge was made up of poles of willow lashed together with raw hide and covered by skins of bear or moose, depending on the lodge keeper and his spirit guides. Nowadays the skins are replaced with simple heavy gauge canvass sheets. The entrance of the lodge must always point directly to the East. This has very significant spiritual value as it’s where the sun rises first each day.
In front of the lodge door about 10 feet away there is the altar, which is a mound of earth that was taken from the centre pit in the lodge and piled outside of the door. A few other things you might see that are considered sacred objects by my people are the eagle’s feather, a buffalo skull, a ceremonial pipe, and some herbs that are sacred to the Native American. When you are called upon to go into the Sweat Lodge you will have some tobacco to offer the fire. At this time, you will take a moment to say a prayer for someone or to ask a question. Take as much time as you need to connect to your inner sacred self. You then will crawl into the lodge and take your place.” Items like watches, jewelry, eye glasses even false teeth we were told could not be brought into the lodge. However things like Eagle feathers, whistles, rattles or shakers and medicine pouches were allowed.
Thunder Bear points to the rather large fire now and says “This is known as the Heart Fire where there are different size stones that we call grandfathers; they have been in the fire for over 3 hours. The Grandfathers are awakened in the stones by heating them in a sacred fire until red-hot. Then they are swept clean by means of a cedar bough broom. One at a time they will be brought into the Sweat Lodge and placed into the shallow pit after we have all entered the lodge. This pit is referred as the bellybutton of Mother Earth. When enough Grandfathers are inside the pit, which can vary depending on the intuition of the Sweat Lodge Keeper, then the entrance is closed and sealed up and the ceremony will begin. We then, a few at a time, visited the altar to offer our gift, as well as take a little tobacco and offer it to the sacred fire. As people did this they said their prayer or asked a particular question they hoped they would gain clarity on during the sweat. I had a friend in mind who I had found out recently had become very sick and she was in my thoughts and it was her that I would endure the heat for and ask for her to be helped. After that we were smudged. This is where sage smoke is moved and blown all around you as you use your hand to bring the smoke in and cover your body. Thunder Bear said, “Before a person can be healed or heal another, one must be cleansed of any bad thoughts or feelings, or negative energy – cleansed both physically and spiritually. This smudging helps the healing to come through in an unobstructed manner, without being distorted or sidetracked by negative ‘stuff’ and your experience in the lodge will be better.”
After we were smudged from the top of our head to the soles of the feet, we walked clockwise around the heart fire, which is called the Path of Life. Then we knelt down and crawled clockwise into the lodge, around the small pit in the ground inside the lodge where the grandfathers would be placed.
As were doing this Thunder Bear was speaking, “When you enter the sweat lodge you are seeking the help of the Creator and the spirits. The helping spirits are called into the sweat lodge by means of the prayers, songs, chants, stories, drums and shakers. The sound of the drum is like the heartbeat of Mother Earth.”
After the Grandfathers were brought in, blessed and placed into the pit, Red Cloud the elder of the Sweat Lodge spoke.
“In the ceremony there will be four phases. Each will last between 20 and 40 minutes before we open the flap on the lodge and bring in more grandfathers for the next round. Songs, prayers and stories are offered during the ceremony. Each of you will have a chance to speak or pray within the lodge. Now I want to tell you why there are four rounds to this ceremony now. All four elements are represented during a sweat. The air (steam), earth, fire and water are respected during the sweat. Each round is dedicated to one of the four directions and winds of change beginning in the East. The door to the lodge is pointing east where I sit. The East represents birth and new beginnings: this is where personal intentions or aims are set. The South represents childhood and relationships: where we choose to pray for others. The West is a place of time, death, rebirth and healing: here is where negative influences are released and where healing for others and us is meditated. The North is the place of the ancestors: it is embracing the quiet, deep wisdom of the ages; endurance and gestation while preparing for rebirth are in this area. This is where we pray for our ancestors and descendants.
“While sweating, we ask for strength and guidance to endure our existence and to understand the deeper meaning of our lives. We ask you to remain inside for all four rounds of the ceremony. If you really cannot, then you can go out at the end of one of the rounds.”
Then during a few more words of wisdom, drums and shakers are handed out to people who wish to have them. Red Cloud hands me a shaker and says to me with conviction, “You should have this for the ceremony.” I do not know why but he seemed to be more insistent with me than others.
We are told to keep the reason why we are here, why we are cleansing in this sweat close to our hearts. At times we may feel weak and want to stop the ceremony; it’s then that we have to know why we were doing it and draw strength from our reason to endure the heat!
Next the door of the Sweat Lodge is closed and sealed and we are total darkness with the exception of the glowing red grandfathers that we are all sitting around. I am surprised as wasn’t really all that hot, nothing more than a regular sauna and I think to myself, “Ah this is going to be a piece of cake!”
Then cedar water was poured on the Grandfathers, creating a cleansing steam in the lodge and it doesn’t take long before a thick wall of heat hits me, and almost knocks me over. The next thought to enter my mind was, “This is only the first round.” More water is poured and then herbs were put on the rocks also. It was beautiful watching the herbs dance on the rocks in the pitch darkness, with quick flashes of twinkling light. It would take my mind off the heat as I watched.
Now Red Cloud told a traditional story and then the chanting and songs began. I jointed in using my shaker when I felt moved to do so.
Aglow with the luminance of the Grandfathers, either Red Cloud or Thunder Bear beat a sacred Water Drum and the sounds call forth the spirit guides. I started to sweat like I have never sweated before, and yet I felt that very something special, something sacred was taking place. In the second round the flap door was opened and more grandfathers were brought in and water and herbs were added. With the door closed and sealed again it was black with the little glow of the grandfathers. As I was deep into my ceremonial chanting, in the darkness I saw little sparks of light, like shooting starts flying across the open sky of the lodge. Then the next round began with more grandfathers added. There was a time where I couldn’t breathe. Panicky thoughts and feelings were rising up in me. I focused on my breath and calmed myself, drawing strength from the reason that I chose to do this. Soon I was calm, taking slower breaths. The air was very hot and I had never felt air that felt like it burned as a liquid when being drawn in. Then even that no longer bothered me. I became an observer of what my body was experiencing and my spirit was free! In the last round, some people were screaming and crying out loud, all a part of the cleansing ceremony. Some had stories to tell and prayers to ask for in assistance of sick friend and family members. Sometimes Red Cloud would interpret certain images for people as they saw their spirit guides or totem animals. He would offer suggestions and wisdom for what they were seeing so they could make sense of it. For me, I had the image of a mountain with many trees. I was told that this was source of strength for me; the mountain represented growth and inner strength.
The sweat continued to drip constantly from my body. I could feel it falling off my face and landing on my bare legs. As it hit I was astonished to feel just how hot my own sweat droplets were. The sweat was dripping constantly off my face aa I continued to chant and cleanse. I could see how if you wore jewelry in to a sweat it would burn your skin due to the intense heat.
I experienced during the sweat and purification of my mind, body and spirit, that all sense of race, color and religion was totally disregarded. After all, in the Mother’s womb we are all alike and have the ability to sit with the Great Spirit equally. As the heat rises so do your senses and intuitive nature and you begin to see things that are messages from another world.
At the end of the ceremony, Red Cloud asked us all to give thanks to the spirits for their help and guidance.
When I crawled out of the sweat lodge my spirit felt so new and alive. I was soaked in sweat just as if I had just been birthed from nature’s womb.
I felt incredibly peaceful and calm. Most of all, I was grateful for being alive and sharing this experience with my brothers and sisters of the lodge.
After my first Sweat Lodge ceremony I decided it was something I would do on a regular basis. So when I ran my martial arts school I would give my students who were testing for black belt a choice between taking part in a Sweat Lodge Ceremony or doing a Walk Across Red Hot Coals Ceremony. Both are very challenging. Needless to say each time students would take part in either ceremony, so would I.
Over the years I have participated in many Sweat Lodges from other First Nations People.
I would like to give my sincere appreciation and gratitude to Thunder Bear and Red Cloud, for taking the time to introduce me to the Sweat Lodge and other sacred ceremonies of the Ojibway. Miigwetch.
“The grandfathers and the grandmothers are in the children; teach them well.”
– Ojibwa proverb
Terry Hodgkinson dancing with Sioux Native Indians in South Dakota