Saturday Story: My Experience In a Sweat Lodge.

posted in: Day In The Life, Story 1
Chaiwa-Tewa girl with butterfly hair arrangement. Photo: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's 'The North American Indian': Photographic Images, 2001.
Chaiwa-Tewa girl with butterfly hair arrangement. Photo: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis’s ‘The North American Indian’: Photographic Images, 2001.

In 2005, I went to a sweat in a sweat lodge in the desert of New Mexico. The ritual was lead by a Native American from the Tewa tribe* and it was, as you can imagine, really hot in there.

Going to a real sweat lodge for a purification ceremony sounds like something a person would seek out and pay handsomely for in the name of spiritual enlightenment or woo-woo. But my sweat happened by pure chance and that made it more remarkable (and more woo-woo, I suppose.) Here’s what happened:

I was in Albuquerque for the 2005 National Poetry Slam. I was slamming on the Green Mill team that year; I can’t remember how our team did, but just being at Nationals was good enough for me — Nationals is the biggest competition of the year and a huge party. Plus, I was excited to be in Albuquerque; I had never been there before and was taken with the adobe, the baked streets, the tumbleweed, the dust. At that time in my life, I was what you’d call “straight-edge.” That meant that I didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs, ever, not even a little bit. That might not seem impressive, but it sorta was because I was twenty-four and hung out with poets and writers. Poets and writers are not known for temperance, I don’t know if you heard. My position on such things made me an odd man out; I had to look hard for my kinsmen.

I found some on that trip. Over the few days I was there, I fell in with a group of people who also strictly abstained from all mind- and mood-altering substances. We hung out in the downtown area after the slam competitions wrapped and watched poets from Portland and L.A. and Asheville get absolutely wasted as they went from bar to bar. We felt self-righteous and enlightened, I’m sure, and we were probably as insufferable in our own ways as the hard-partying poets were in theirs.

On the morning of the last day, while everyone else was nursing hangovers (or still out from the night before) one of my new friends asked us if any of us wanted to do a “sweat.” He was a 6’10 Native American man of indeterminate age. He wasn’t a poet at the competition but a friend of a friend and I had spent enough time around him by that point that I could make the call about his skeeviness or lack thereof: no skeeve detected. I’ll do it, I said, as long as we could be back by lunchtime to head to the airport. No problem, our friend said, so several of us — including two women and I wouldn’t have gone if I was the only female — hopped into the back of his pickup and we headed out into the desert.

The sweat lodge was a homemade hut in back of the man’s clapboard home. It looked like an igloo wrapped in blankets and furs with a hole up at the top where the smoke could escape. Before we went in, our friend told us what to expect. He told us to remember to breathe, breathe, breathe, and to not freak out when we felt like freaking out. He also said that if we felt like we were dying, we needed to say something. He told us this as we stood around this enormous fire pit — the stones needed for the ceremony were deep in the bottom of the fire pit, for this is how they would get hot enough to use. We threw all this wood in and stood back from the wall of heat that rose up. It was bizarre to be at a roaring fire in the morning in the desert. It added to the strangeness of the entire experience but I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the least, didn’t feel like I was in the wrong place.

We were instructed to head into the lodge. We ducked down and took our seats around the circle. Our host had a helper who arrived at some point and they went about transferring the searing hot rocks to the middle of the circle. Every time they brought in a rock the lodge got about 30-degrees hotter. Sweat was already rolling down my back, dripping into my eyes. Then the two men came in and I saw both carried a large cistern of water. The flap on the lodge closed and we were all plunged into darkness.

My friend intoned Native American music and words and his assistant beat a drum. A loud “Ssssssss!” cracked through the music when water was poured onto the hot stones and steam would blow us all back; this happened again and again until it was hard to tell where my body ended and the steam and heat began. I remembered to breathe. Once I let myself relax into such a bizarre, exciting, we-ain’t-in-Kansas-anymore experience, I felt some kind of peace or joy, I suppose; maybe it was even a little transcendent. I’m not a woo-woo gal in the least, but I suppose if you go to an authentic sweat given by an actual Native American at his desert home and don’t feel something, you are too cynical.

Did I have visions? No. Did I find my spirit animal? No. Did my skin look amazing when I left? You bet your kokopelli. I have kept in touch with no one from that group, but I remember some of their faces. I can’t remember names of people I meet — like, I forget them the moment I learn them — but I never forget a face.

*My apologies to my friend if I’m wrong.