Over the weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a traditional Native American sweat lodge Ceremony (Inipi) with the invitation from my great friend and spiritual brother Chad. The I-ni-pi ceremony (lakota: ini- from inyan, rock + -pi, lodge), is a type of sweat lodge, is a Lakota purification ceremony, and one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota people. It is an ancient and sacred ceremony that has been passed down through the generations of Lakota. Chad had been participating in said ceremonies for about a year and is learning the very intricate details of fire tending and all the traditions associated with the ceremony. On Sunday I drove down to Chad’s house and picked up lasagna at Colasante’s Ristorante in Morgantown, WV on the way as an offering for the ceremony which is part of the tradition. Once I arrived at Chad’s house, we got prepared by burning sage and listening to native American drumbeats. After which time we loaded up our backpacks with towels and we headed to Deep Creek, Maryland where the ceremony would take place.
The man who would be leading the ceremony’s name was Dave. He had spent many years traveling and learning his Lakota Native American heritage and the rituals associated with various celebrations, healings, and traditions. When we arrived, I could see an enormous fire burning in the back, and as I got closer, I could see how specifically the logs and rocks were constructed to maximize the heat transfer to the stones. As Chad introduced me to Dave, I immediately felt a sense of a good-natured person who was eager to pass on his knowledge and experience to others passionate about our ancestors who lived close to the earth.
It was great talking to Dave, and we both share a passion for Peru and the culture and traditions of the Peruvian people, which was nice to talk to someone who had experienced the Peruvian culture. After meeting Dave and talking for a while, I took the lasagna into Dave’s house and placed it in the oven to be ready when we finished the ceremony. Dave’s house was amazing, filled with unique trinkets and pictures from his travels around the world. I walked outside to help with the preparations when another person arrived named Eliot, who was very down to earth and eager to participate in the ceremony.
Dave explained a lot of the processes involved in the ceremony and the rules and traditions that had been followed for generations. It would take years to understand and know the ceremony’s intricacies, but Dave gave me the short and sweet version for the time being. Dave asked me to also be a fire tender with Chad, which I was honored to perform as it is a coveted position and the first step to learning the preparation or the ceremony. Dave completed a short prayer with sage and prayer ties, chalupa, antler, and tobacco before entering the Inipi. Chad explained some of the tricks to fire tending; as Dave and Eliot entered the sweat lodge, we began transferring the rocks from the fire to the Inipi. The fire is so intense and hot that it can quickly sear your skin and burn your hair, so being aware of the fire’s activity is essential, and you almost need to become one with the fire. Balancing the rocks on the pitchfork is tricky and takes time and practice to be skilled, but I pulled it off. Dave and Chad said I did a good and since I did not drop any rocks or transfer any hot coals with the rocks into the Inipi, I was sure to always do everything clockwise, including circling the fire to remove the stones. After chad and I finished transferring all the stones into the Inipi, we undressed and wrapped towels around our waist before entering the Inipi. Before entering or taking part in any sharing, the phrase Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ or “all my relations” is spoken; when someone makes this statement, it’s a recognition of the principles of harmony, unity, and equality It’s a way of saying that you recognize your place in the universe and the position of others and beings in the realm of the real and the living.
The Inipi frame is built from willow branches and constructed in a very particular way so that the energy flows correctly with the door always facing West. It is covered with blankets and rugs and finally with tarps. Chad entered and took the hot seat, which is the east side of the Inipi, and I handed the buckets of water to Dave before entering the Inipi on my knees. Once inside, we hung our prayer ties above us, but I forgot mine in my jacket, but he assured me there was plenty to carry my prayers. Dave then gave us a talk about the songs he would sing and closed the door, at which time it became pitch black inside. As Dave poured water onto the rocks, you could hear an intense sizzle and then and an overwhelming sense of heat and steam. Dave then began beating the drum and singing native American songs that were very powerful and immediately brought you into a trance. Dave’s singing was powerful, and the drumbeat intense, but like a maestro, he knew when to bring up and take down the beat. Some of the songs he sang were of the four winds and the thunder gods dating back hundreds of years. As the steam and heat built, I focused on my intentions, and although it took a little time, I was able to make a lot of breakthroughs in my thought patterns and even began to visualize my intentions and how they would play out in the real world. Just as it got to the point of being overwhelming, Dave would bring down the tempo and open the door. We would have discussions pass around a ladle of water, and give thanks before shutting the door and doing it again. On the third time, we passed the Chanunpa (sacred pipe) and smoked some rosewood and tobacco before closing the door and doing another round. We went through six rounds, with the last two being a burnout where Dave poured most of the remaining water onto the stones, which created intense hot steam, at which point I used the balled-up sage to breathe through. The further you get into the session, the more intense the visuals become, and determined to break free of negative patterns and truly focus on your intentions.
After 6 sessions of about 20 minutes each, we finished, and I was drained but had a clarity of mind and spirit. We sat and talked about our experiences and the world before saying a prayer and exciting the Inipi. Dave kindly offered us a shower before we sat down to eat lasagna. I pulled the lasagna from the oven, and as we sat down, Dave began to tell us many stories about the Sundance festivals and the history and traditions of the Native American people. He had an immense knowledge of many ancient cultures and traditions that lived close to the earth. We sat and talked for hours and enjoyed each other’s company and experiences before saying goodbye and heading back home. I am very thankful for the opportunity and feel blessed to have been invited.
Traditions associated with sweating vary regionally and culturally. Ceremonies often include traditional prayers and songs. In some cultures drumming and offerings to the spirit world may be part of the ceremony, or a sweat lodge ceremony may be a part of another, longer ceremony such as a Sun Dance. Some common practices and key elements associated with sweat lodges include:
Training – Indigenous cultures with sweat lodge traditions require that someone go through intensive training for many years to be allowed to lead a lodge. One of the requirements is that the leader be able to pray and communicate fluently in the indigenous language of that culture, and that they understand how to conduct the ceremony safely. This leadership role is granted by the Elders of the community, not self-designated. This leadership is only entrusted to those who are full members of the community, and who live in community. It is never given to outsiders who then leave to sell ceremony.
Orientation – The door may face a sacred fire. The cardinal directions may have symbolism in the culture that is holding the sweating ceremony. The lodge may be oriented within its environment for a specific purpose. Placement and orientation of the lodge within its environment are often considered to facilitate the ceremony’s connection with the spirit world, as well as practical considerations of usage.
Construction – The lodge is generally built with great care and knowledge, and with respect for the environment and for the materials being used.
Clothing – In Native American lodges participants usually wear a simple garment such as shorts or a loose dress. Modesty is important, rather than display.
Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ “All My Relations”