Dave Nevill’s Sweat Lodge Experience

Dave Nevill

The following story was written by Dave Nevill (a career counsellor at Ituna School in the Horizon School Division and an Education graduate student) as a requirement for Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose’s Educational Psychology 824 course.  He entitled it, “First Nations Group Therapy: A Sweat Lodge Experience.” This story was submitted to Education News by Dr. JoLee Sasakamoose.

As the last vestiges of light shrunk from sight at the far side of the lodge, I could feel the warm embrace of shared humanity with the confines of the small, cramped space. As a relative newcomer to this ceremony and healing center, I was welcomed into the congregation; I did not feel alien, awkward, or foreign. The pitch darkness and intense heat surrounded me in its urgent grip and I began to feel a connection to something larger than myself, a sense of community, a healing presence, and an association with the wisdom of the Creator. I was drawn into the spiritual ritual as one of them as if in answer to the bundle of prayers and expressed gratitude echoing throughout the dark lodge. As the day drew closer that I would attend the sweat lodge at the First Nations Healing Center in Fort Qu’Appelle, my apprehension grew. This was not going to be my first sweat either. Having experienced four previous sweats fifteen years earlier at Muskeg First Nation Reserve, I had a very good idea what to expect. However, I was attending this sweat in a different community, with people I had never met, in a ceremony that I didn’t fully understand, in a situation definitely outside my comfort zone. As I later realized, this sweat proved to introduce me to a larger experience than I had previously been exposed to.

To alleviate my anxiety somewhat, I chose to call the Healing Hospital a couple of days before and find out the protocols for the event. I found out the location, time, and materials needed. I picked up a bag of oranges for my offering to the feast after the event and a carton of cigarettes for a deeper prayer offering during the ceremony. I didn’t know how to offer any of these items to the ritual, so some things would have to be left to learning on the spot. Upon my arrival prior to the event, I was met by Darla and Char who were also participating; they had found out where the sweat would take place and I followed them to the building, talking a little apprehensively. Several First Nations men were lounging casually outside the building and they eyed us curiously as we walked up. They responded to our approach with a friendly and welcoming demeanor, soon to be followed by introductions, handshakes, and some good-natured ribbing. I settled in to wait with them as my two companions entered the building to join the other women. The fire heating up the rocks crackled nearby.

I sat beside a man who turned out to be their spiritual elder, or knowledge keeper as he preferred to be called. After conversing for a while, he sensed that I was sensitive and somewhat knowledgeable about First Nation’s issues and he expressed his feelings about living conditions and treatment within Canada as our election approached. He was shocked that I had been relatively ignorant of residential school issues and abuse up to about two years ago; I suggested the white man wrote the history books to suit themselves.

The ceremony started with a sweet grass cleansing of ourselves and our prayer offerings. As I was unfamiliar with the proceedings, the knowledge keeper told me to do everything his buddy did and I would be okay; I watched him closely anyway for guidance to make sure I didn’t mess something up with the ceremony. I was surprised when the pipe was passed around the circle of men and it was given to me to participate. Maybe I was given the honor of smoking the pipe as I was making a tobacco offering for a prayer and this was the way for the smoke to carry my prayers to the Creator, according to their traditions. Never having smoked a piper before, I did the best I could and passed it on. Several of the men handled the pipe in a particular way after smoking it as if in prayer to the Creator.

A clipboard was passed around which we were all asked to sign and indicate our reasons for attending the sweat. Most people chose spiritual and ceremonial from the list including emotional, mental, physical and social realms. I went with the crowd and chose those as well, even though I would have liked to pick emotional and mental. At this stage of unfamiliarity, I didn’t want to stray too far from the norm and I didn’t necessarily come to the sweat to gain clarity on any personal issues. After the knowledge keeper did extensive prayers for several of the other men and women, he called me over and asked me what type of prayer I was looking for. Not sure I myself, I hesitated. He helped me out by suggesting a prayer of thanks and I quickly assented. I knelt by him and he spoke a prayer in Cree for me.

The first round of the sweat soon followed the prayers. After removing my shirt, I crawled into the far side of the sweat lodge in just my shorts and a towel over my neck, beside the knowledge keeper as he indicated. The lodge was about four feet high and encompassed half the room, in a circular shape, and was covered with an extensive layer of blankets. I waited in silent anticipation as the rest of the group of men came inside and some of the hot, glowing rocks from the fire were gently placed in the center container of the lodge. I could feel the heat they generated in the small space. Each rock was sprinkled with sweet grass to cleanse it as it was dropped into the pot. The women and children were the last to crawl into the cramped lodge and the blankets then were draped over the door. Pitch darkness descended over the small space and congregation, except for a faint glow from the rocks. The sweat ceremony was about to begin.

The knowledge keeper started the round by offering prayers for various members of the group, including the family, which sponsored the event and were attending. After each offered prayer, he would splash some water on the hot rocks in the center. There was a slight pause before the heat enveloped the others and me. A murmur of assent rose from the room in answer to the prayers, splashes and heat. He gave thanks to the Creator for answering their prayers and started singing in Cree. We were all asked to pray in our own way as part of the ceremony. Several songs and prayers followed the first, accompanied by more splashes and waves of heat. I remained quiet throughout the first round and just became a part of the group process. After about ten minutes, a call was made to open the doors and many people exited the lodge for a break from the heat. I remained in the lodge and just relaxed.

Subsequent rounds were led by different people, including one of the elder women, whom the men suggested would make it a very hot round. They all followed the same process, prayers, and offers of gratitude to the Creator, splashes and waves of heat. The heat became more intense in the later rounds and I was forced several times towards the end of the round to cover my head, shoulders and mouth to deal with the intense heat. I even tried to participate in the singing on the fourth round as I felt a part of the communal ritual. I’m sure I butchered the song but felt good about it anyway. I exited the lodge with many of the others at the end of the second, third and fourth rounds too as I needed a break from the heat as well. I would crawl back into the lodge with the other men as more glowing rocks were brought in and deposited in the middle container. Comments were made when a particular big rock was deposited; that was going to send off some real steam.

I was struck and awed by the perceived power of prayer that was deeply felt by the participants in the sweat. They truly believed that the Creator would intervene in their everyday lives if the right prayers were offered to him through this ritual sweat. The power of this belief had helped many members of the congregation overcome personal hardships, stress, and illness. I was also deeply impressed by the sense of community that pervaded the scene; these people were not alone. They were surrounded by their communal family who, by participating in the ritual with them, would support them to overcome their trials and become whole again.

This shared experience was evident in their conversations after each round, a certain kinship with each other: They were a part of something that made them whole as individuals. It was an experience of shared hardship, of a mutual connection through an activity that required some courage, mental fortitude, and physical endurance. Char mentioned afterward that she had birthed two children and that knowledge alone helped her endure the most difficult parts of the experience.

In a sense, the sweat lodge can become a powerful healing agent for any nation and any individual who is willing to participate in the collective experience and gain support and encouragement from family, friends, community and the Creator, through a sacred ritual that pulls participants outside their comfort zone. This type of communal belonging is obviously very special to these First Nation’s people. It speaks to who they are as a people; it is part of their identity. Many kids were at the sweat and it was obviously extremely important that the essence of the ritual be passed on to the children of the community. Three generations were represented in this lodge experience. One might think that maybe they would want to keep that ‘specialness’ to themselves to avoid contamination. But they don’t, and that is a truly amazing feature of these people.

I have been part of the Catholic community for many years as a non-believer and never once have I felt the same sense of belonging and openness to the heart of their ceremonies as I felt in my first sweat lodge in the Fort Qu’Appelle community. They opened up their ceremony to three outsiders with open arms and wrapped us up in their communal embrace like we were one of them. Granted, there were some suspicious glances from some, which you can hardly blame them for, considering what the white man has done to them and how they continue to be treated. There are some sexist aspects to the ceremony that some women would object to. Women had to cover their legs, were only allowed in the sweat after the men and couldn’t participate in the pipe ceremony.♠ But the First Nations people are truly forgiving and generous in that they invite us outsiders to participate with them in one of their most sacred rituals as if three hundred years of history is suspended for the moment. If I can feel the power of this group embrace, one who is not a believer and not a member of their community, what could this do for someone who is one of them and is a believer?

For counseling, the therapeutic benefits are palpable, especially for First Nations children and adults who can identify with the shared belief structure. The collective embrace of the community surrounding an individual in need, and drawing them into their collective, would have a very powerful healing and supportive component. I witnessed the power of the community in my initial sweat experience with them and that communal embrace is the key. I have a sauna at home, and a sweat without the community is just a good sweat. I could see the benefit for voluntary participation of any aged individuals who are experiencing grief, depression, anxiety, addiction or a crisis in their lives, particularly those individuals where community support and kinship is more important than personal disclosure and in-depth counseling.

I made an attempt to participate in the fifth cowboy round and as soon as I heard the huge splashes of water dumped on the rocks, I knew that this was a mistake. I crawled from the lodge under the blankets, gasping for air, desperately trying to cover my burning skin. Several of the others did the same. We had a good laugh over it. Another shared experience to talk about if I ever go back. Maybe it will give them something to talk about in successive sweats as well, the white guy who thought he could hack a cowboy round. Maybe they will have a good laugh over it, which surely can’t hurt. Following the sweat, there were several prayers over the food for the feast and then we all sat in a circle and dug in. The kids brought me food: vegetable and berry soup, bannock, cake, candy, drinks and fruit—a virtual never-ending banquet. They kept bringing it as fast as I ate it. I had to stop them and even take some of it home. One of the members joked that I wouldn’t need a midnight snack tonight, which was so true.

As I rose to leave, I gratefully acknowledged their generosity with handshakes all round to the men and thanks to the women. The knowledge keeper told me I should attend their “all men” sweat on Monday. I could continue with this communal experience if I wanted to. I traveled home in my soaking wet shorts and burned shoulders, content in my shared community experience and alignment with the Creator. Maybe I will go back on Monday…


♠Professor Note: The sexist aspects are really defined through a Western perspective and have that appearance when done so.  However, when one is taught the teachings of the power of women and their role, it isn’t sexism – more that our role is different.  However these teachings take a long time to learn and to understand.