Mysticism is a biological process, not a social construct. Though attempts at figuring out how mysticism works is still illusive, using Joseph Campbell’s adroit observations of America’s Western European mystical patterns manifesting as a Hero’s Journey can be useful. To be thorough, this Journey must bridge the protagonist with their home and land they were raised on. It is from this idea that I compare the Western European cultural myth & teaching with that of the Anishinaabe, one of America’s indigenous cultures that settled in the Northern region of the United States and Southern Canada. The picture is of Sleeping Indian. It's what you see of a peninsula from the other side of the channel.
My first exposure to First Nation traditions was as an undergraduate in Religious Studies at DePaul University where my focus was exploring valid spiritual perspectives outside the standard monotheistic models. After graduation, my mentor, Dr. Read advised I find “Roy,” an Anishinaabe licensed social worker who uses First Nation traditions to treat kids in crisis. I was successful in my quest, even if he was only open to answering my questions because of his great respect for Dr. Read and there was a limit to what would share with me. From the start Roy made it clear that he was not interested in defending spirit and soul to our secular society, so together we developed non-religious models around these concepts. Experiencing what spirit and soul mean is why he suggested I come to Canada to see what it is he actually does.
From Roy’s perspective whenever non-Indians bring up "Indian" stuff, it’s frequently draped in vacuous fantasy and culture mongering. Indians view a Sweat as a Religious process that purifies our soul and feel it’s only acceptable when practiced with a qualified Indian trained by appropriate Elders to run the rite. There are NO religious traditions that approve of outsiders copying their practices -- and for very good reasons. For example, the Jewish Theologian, Norman Solomon wrote in the first paragraph of “Judaism, a very short Introduction” that it is impossible to teach Judaism to a society immersed in Christian concepts and ideas. Even without knowing anything about Judaism, a non-Jewish person would understand the sacrilege of counterfeiting an Ark that generally sits on an appropriate altar in a synagogue … but many seem comfortable holding a Sweat without Indian protocols. Because of these frequent violations, Roy made absolutely sure I was given initial cultural explanations over the course of a few weeks as well as rudimentary spiritual teachings before our participation with his elder teaching the lessons of which I will attempt to present here. I have asked Roy to read this article and verify what I say here is as accurately shared as possible.
As proprietary as they are about their culture, I found it interesting that indigenous people in this hemisphere embrace the label Indian because they don’t view the word as pejorative, but in fact a term of respect. Roy said that we were erroneously taught that Spanish seafarers labeled the natives “Indians” because they thought they arrived in India from a Western route. This was clearly not true since India was called Hindustan in the 15th Century; but the explorers found the land here so beautiful it was almost divine. Therefore Indian means something like “People from Eden.”
I must concur that the journey to the Sweat was entrancing and Eden-like, especially driving north along the western shores of Lake Superior from Duluth, Minnesota to Thunder Bay Canada. The land is a blissful stage for First Nation teachings and their applications on how Spirit relates to Tribe (Community), Stories (what I’m doing here), Ritual (creating a beginning, middle and end context around a crisis), and the Sweat (a mode of reconciliation and purification). The Mystery (Spirit) and SWEAT is my “telling” as long as all of us understand that what I’m about to say is going through my filters about what I experienced.
Roy explained that Spirit’s natural way of being is balance. To reach this balance it must reconcile itself in the world in four ways … imagine four concentric circles. The first and innermost circle is my “self” as it aligns with the intellectual, emotional and physical parts of the psyche and how it relates to our “Soul.” After we balance our selves, this soul then aligns with the spirits of our immediate family and tribe, then every other soul in the world and finally with the stars and ancestors. My growing understanding of universal interconnections, prepared me for a more meaningful participation in the Sweat.
We met Roy on Friday after checking into a motel. On Saturday he loaded us into his RV and drove to Armstrong, a very small town 150 miles due north of Thunderbay, where we were carefully given into the hands of Ike, his Elder. Armstrong was developed as a military facility during WWII where the soldiers lived in fragile frame houses. Ike’s home was a clean, small domicile with two floors, modern kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. They had built a 2 room lodge in the back from young tree trunks bent into an arch covered over by clear plastic. A pit was dug into the ground in the center of both rooms. Fire burned in the rear room where large rocks cooked until they glowed red. The entrance was through a door in the main part of the structure and it had a curtained space at the back to change into loose non-binding clothing to liberally release bodily fluids in the heat without constriction. A small hollowed out mound dominates the center intentionally symbolizing a woman’s pregnant belly sticking up from the bare ground. There’s an opening in the mound through which we crawl around a centralized pit dug to receive the glowing hot stones that are deposited. The four of us followed Ike crawling clockwise on all fours around the pit in this snug space only big enough to comfortably hold maybe 8 people sitting up. Roy and his drum were next to last as one of my companions needed to sit closest to the door for the air. The challenge is to not lean on the outer walls so as not to burn your back.
I ended up in the “hot” spot where the heat was the most intense when Ike poured herbal water over the steaming stones. The rotation included three prayers marking off four cycles of fifteen minutes of sweltering heat. Ike’s prayers accompanied by Roy’s chanting and drumming were constructed to invoke and invite the spirit hosts for the gathering. The first session is the opening; the second, entry of the male spirit figure; the third, entry of the female spirit figure, and the fourth the closing. While I was in that mound, the whole ritual felt like it only lasted 20 minutes when it was really an hour. I think my intense focus on the here and now concentrating on the heat made it seem shorter. We were advised that if the heat got too much, the ground was cool and that heat stayed at the top. I thought of laying my cheek on the cool Earth several times, but a voice in my head clearly said, “Don’t lie down. Face the Fire.” So obediently I sat back up and turned toward the pit when water poured from my body. Ike’s prayers, Roy’s singing with his drum and the spirits joining us in that little oven were a true comfort. I didn’t think I could do it. That male spirit told me it wasn’t as hard as I thought. Face the Fire it said and so I did.
Afterwards Roy drove us back to Thunderbay and gave us a tour of the Reservation. He said we could each take a tumbled rock from a mountain which sits close to the waters of Superior. I keep my rock on the floor of my office under the window. But my souvenir was the warm memories I carry with me daily of Roy’s humor, knowledge and hospitality and Ike’s strength and prayer.
So facing the fire means what? Enduring a process I think impossible? Changing something I don’t believe is possible to change? Taking personal responsibility for my actions? Trusting one more time? Accepting help when I need help? Paying attention to how I am not aligned with my soul? – home and family? – Gaia? – my ancestors? Reality is obviously a matter of perception, language, definition, social strictures. If a spirit’s presence can be logically defined by cultures, or even by vision that not everybody has, we need to accept that not all interpretations are about “ourselves” and how we interpret our own visions.
For me there were spirits with us in the midst of the heat and steam. We have a soul. It is not religious or judgmental, nor does it ask us to do anything against our natures. Interacting with spirit is interacting with Mystery, which is a mystical process. All I know, is that it works for me – with or without my filters.