Southern Life

Those who know me know that I’m always on the lookout for the new, the unusual, the different. Any chance to experience something I’ve not before, I’m there.

Not.

I’m as adventurous as a Galapagos tortoise, as courageous as Barney Fife without a bullet.

Still, when a friend recently invited me to participate in a Native American sweat lodge, I was intrigued—and, as it turns out, ignorant—enough to say yes.

© 2010 Kaibab National Forest

I DID know that a Native American sweat lodge was a place where men—in Indian tradition, it was ALWAYS men; sorry, no girls allowed—gathered in a small hut, sat naked around a fire, and literally sweated so much that they created their own mud. They became, in other words, part of Mother Earth (which was part of the whole, larger point). Another purpose of “the sweat” was to purge the body of “evil spirits,” stress, toxins, and such, thus emerging from the lodge renewed, reborn.

Given the way I’d been eating way too much fast food, and drinking way too much beer, I also figured that I could use a good toxin purge.

So we got to the lodge: an igloo-shaped and -sized dome made from lashed-together thin tree branches, then covered with, oh, a hundred or so wool blankets. Dug into the ground in the middle of the lodge was a pit about two feet around, maybe a foot deep. A big, roaring fire was ablaze about five feet from the lodge; inside the fire were twenty or so football-sized granite stones, brazing to the temperature of lava. It turned out there was no fire in the lodge; instead, the stones were shoveled into the pit. Probably wise, since there’s no way for smoke to escape—or air to enter—so if you had a fire in a lodge, each of them would end with a headline like, “Ignorant White People Asphyxiated in Freak Lodge Ceremony; Native Americans Amused.”

But the most surprising thing I discovered was that white people have “updated” the sweat lodge, making it politically correct by…allowing WOMEN to participate. There were four guys, and two women there. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m all for women doing anything a man can do…and they can usually do it better (peeing your name in snow notwithstanding). It’s just that I had not come prepared with appropriate co-ed attire.

The others, including the women, had come prepared, and were wearing swimsuits. I, meanwhile, was wearing underwear (light gray boxer-briefs, for those keeping score at home), shorts, a T-shirt, and Docksiders. I would either have to sweat in everything I had on (not a pleasant prospect, since it would have meant a wet, uncomfortable two-hour ride home), sweat naked, or, as it turned out, strip down to my undies and sweat in them. So, when I emerged from the lodge completely sweat-soaked, my underwear was so sopping that NOTHING was left to the imagination. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether to be impressed or not.

So, into the lodge. The seven of us crawled in and sat—sorry, there’s no other way to say this—Indian-style around the pit. The leader shoveled four or five red-hot stones from the fire into the pit, then pulled the blanket flap shut. And when I say “shut,” I mean pitch-black, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face, whose-hand-is-that-on-my-thigh dark.

Oh, and hot. Very hot. Intensely hot. Lack of appropriate adverb hot. The instant the flap was closed, the lodge became Dante-like in its infernositude. Sweat didn’t just pour out of my body: it fled. It ran screaming like a little girl from every pore. I didn’t just create my own mud with my sweat; I created quicksand. What I’m saying is, it was HOT.

Oh, but not hot enough. Because just when my cheese was bubbling and my crust crispy, the leader took a ladle, dipped it into a heretofore-unseen bucket…and poured water onto the magma-like stones. Steam instantly rose from the rocks (I couldn’t see the steam, of course; but the hissing, and the sudden inability to breathe, alerted me to its presence), raising the heat index to Torquemada-torture level. But there was a benefit from having survived that temperature: the knowledge that I could survive on the surface of the sun, surely a handy little technique to know.
Every ten to fifteen minutes, we would all come out of the lodge, dripping wet (and yes, there was most definitely an “emerging from the womb” symbolism there), to drink approximately 28 gallons of water, then return to repeat the process three more times. The final “session” lasted a good thirty minutes.

Truly, though, the human body can, and does, become accustomed to almost any situation. Indeed, ten minutes into the last session, drowning in my own sweat (which was better than drowning in someone else’s sweat, I suppose), I entered this very peaceful “zone.” Sitting in that stillness, that darkness, that heat, I was actually starting to experience and understand the soul-cleansing, spirit-clarifying effects of the sweat.

Until…someone cried, “Yip!” Then again: “Yip! Yip!” Backtracking: as you’ve likely guessed, I’m white. I’m so white I’m plaid. My skin color is on the same paint swatches as “pearl” and “eggshell.” But one of the women at the sweat, Shannon, was whiter than me. Despite being so white as to be invisible, she insisted on being called her Native American name, “Painted Turtle Woman.” It seems that that was the Indian moniker she had envisioned in a dream. Wonderful things, mushrooms. Yip!

Thus did ultra-white suburban middle-class woman Shannon become Indian Priestess Painted Turtle Woman. And it was she who was yipping, not like a turtle, who, in my experience do very little yipping, but like an annoying puppy. Yip! Yip! Just when we were all entering the heightened-awareness, tranquility-state that is the hallmark of the true sweat lodge experience, she commenced to “yip-yip-yip,” harshing my sweaty mellow. Painted Turtle Bitch.

After those last thirty minutes of perspiring, meditating, and thinking of creative uses of painted turtle shells in the killing of Shannon, we emerged from the lodge for the last time. And, except for the underwear-modesty crisis, the very real possibility of dehydration-induced coma, and Turtle Woman’s irksome, infuriating yipping, I left the experience refreshed and at peace.

Some advice should you have a sweat lodge opportunity: drink a lot of water. Wear a swimsuit. And bring duct tape.

Yip!

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Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel lives in Georgia. Besides writing, he enjoys reading, sailing, and baseball. He has been working on his first novel for about thirty years.  So far, he has written three paragraphs, but they are really good paragraphs.