Note: the informant wishes to note that although the word “First Nation” – a general term that encompasses all Native Americans in Canada – is used, the traditional sweat lodge ceremony depicted here is in no way representative of all First Nations. This depiction is about and only about the Stein Valley First Nations.
The following is a transcription of the informant’s recollection. There are some rephrasing.
“F (the First Nation leader who was our guide) tells us that he treats the sweat lodge ceremony a lot less formally than his people traditionally would. In the past the ceremony would involve meticulous preparations and rituals before and after. But he believes that what’s truly important is really only the ceremony itself. So this is the simplified and more efficient version of the ceremony that he invites us to attend.
After everyone changed into bathing suit we stand outside the lodge, uncontrollably shivering a little in the cold. Naturally the students were more or less a little surprised when F suggested that we could take a dip in the cold bath before we enter the lodge. After the ceremony began they soon understood why.
The sweat lodge looked curiously small from the outside. A lot of students were joking about how we could possibly fit 15 people inside. It was built entirely out of spruce, as is the tradition in Stein Valley. Spruce branches and leaves formed the entire dome of the lodge, as well as serving as padding on its floor. There was a small fire pit in the middle: a few rocks formed into an empty circle amongst all the spruce leaves.
We trailed into the lodge and sat down in a tight circle, our backs against the spruce wall of the lodge and our sides against each other. F heated half a dozen rocks in the fire outside until they are a burning red, and then dropped them into the fire pit inside the lodge. Then he brought in buckets of water and poured them onto the rocks. Sweet hisses were heard as the water kissed the stones. Steam with the sweet scent of spruce leaves instantly filled the air; it was as if we were surrounded by tea steams.
He closed the sweat lodge’s door behind him and sat down. It was pitch dark. He said the traditional prayer – a few terse sentences of gratitude, to nature, to his people, and to us, his guests. The ceremony began.
And its procedures were rather simple. He would throw out a prompt, and then we would go around in the circle, each person answering the prompt and talking for as long as he or she would like. The prompts were simple and profound. In this darkness filled with sweet heat and sweeter aroma, simple questions and requests like ‘tell us how you feel right now’ or ‘tell us about a woman in your life who you’d really like to thank’ gained a kind of weight and profundity as they never could in our busy everyday life. Perhaps it was the gradually increasing temperature. Perhaps it was the suffocating heat – but not really suffocating, for it was sweet and encompassing, rather than overwhelming and asphyxiating. Perhaps it was because we had begun to sweat in a way we had never sweat before. It felt healing; it felt clean rather than dirty. It felt like we were not really talking; it was a confession. It felt like we could, for the first time in a long time, be closer to honesty.
Then we’d take a break outside. Many students would dip into the cold bath with sighs of relief. We’d then head back in, and this time it would a bit hotter inside. This process would continue for many more times. No one was required to stay; if anyone felt too hot he or she could simply leave the lodge.”
She was my instructor in the outdoor education program that I enrolled into at my high school. She knew of this ceremony because every year as part of the program’s curriculum she would take the class to Stein Valley for three days with F as the guide.
This is a very traditional form of folklore; well, it is a tradition after all. But cultural traditions like this continue to astonish me no matter how many I come across. It’s always saddening how little we understand of other cultures, and always beautiful how much they can help us.