MOUNTAIN LIFE - Ontario | Winter 2016 - page 116

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instruments in the pitch dark. Glen sings. The
beat is flat, but his voice rises and drops, rises
and drops. The music takes my mind away from
the suffocating heat. When the prayer ends, the
temperature has eased. Glen tells us the sweat
lodge is a safe place to think and talk about our
challenges, and to pray. “Pray to the spirits,” he
says. “There is no right way or wrong way; just
pray.” He adds, “They know everything anyway,
but just pray.”
While sweat ceremonies are as individual as
the people who lead them, there are some
similarities: They are divided into four sessions
or endurances, each separated by a short break
when the door flap is lifted and new red-hot
stones replace the cooled ones. Participants
enter the lodge in a clockwise direction. Women
sit on one side, men on the other. The ceremony
proceeds to each of the cardinal points.
Glen’s wife Jennifer, who is also Cree, sprinkles
the new stones with a herbmixture and blesses
them. The temperature rises as water is applied.
The prayers continue. This time, Glen focuses
on the south for youth. He speaks of residential
schools, alcoholism and abuse, and how it
will be easier for future generations. “We love
our parents,” he assures us. “We forgive them
for what they did.” Most of the others who
sit cross-legged in our semi-circle are young
Aboriginal men. Many college and university
students attend these sweats. Far away from
home, they find comfort in the tradition.
During the next endurance we focus on the
west, which represents adults. The man sitting
next tome speaks up. His wife is pregnant with
their first child. Realizing life is more serious
now, he asks for help tomake his way. He tells
us he’s been five years without a drink. He
drums and sings a prayer in a deepmelodic
voice. His request voiced, my neighbour drifts
off into his own world, speaking to someone I
can’t see in a language I don’t understand. The
drum beats on. More water. The temperature
rises. Others mumble their personal prayers.
Sweat streams downmy temples. My clothing
sticks tomy skin. I’m enveloped in the lodge’s
thick darkness. It holds me tight.
Not all sweat ceremonies are as kind and
supportive as Glen’s. Norm Dokis of the Dokis
First Nation warnedme, “Some leaders have
harsh words for their participants.” Some
sweats are for men only. Women cannot attend
sweats during their menses. You are not to
bring unnatural items such as watches into the
lodge. Women andmenmust dress modestly.
Openness is an overriding value. Glen
explains, “I invite anybody. All nations.” He
says he likes the sweat because it reduces the
stress in his life. “I live with a good woman
and we have children.”
The last endurance honours elders. Afterwards,
we open the flap and pass a pipe around the
semicircle. “Don’t inhale, if you don’t like to
smoke,” says Glen. I take a small puff and hand
it tomy neighbour. Next I’m handed a large bowl
of fresh berries and asked to offer thanks to the
spirits. I say a fewwords and, as instructed, place
a small offering of fruit on the stones. When I
try the colourful mixture of fresh blueberries and
raspberries they soothemy raw throat.
As this was my first sweat, I had limited
knowledge of what to expect. I hadn’t avoided
alcohol for 24 hours and I didn’t have a clear
idea about what I wanted to accomplish by
attending the ceremony. I was mostly worried
about withstanding the heat. But there was
something primal about the experience. For a
time, I lost myself in the repetitive heartbeat
rhythm of the drum, the chant-like praying
in a dark womb-like space. My monkey voice
disappeared. I was in the moment.
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