Tuesday, June 17, 2014

How a group of Native Americans helped me on my journey

So to recap, I had gone to a Testament concert, heard the band promote the Longest Walk, immediately felt in my heart that I needed to get behind it and help. Looked it up, saw that they were coming within 20 mi of my house. Called and talked to Red Road Awareness and was invited to bring my family out. My wife joined in and gathered up blankets, eating utensils and other supplies to help out. The first night we talked and I helped them to build sweat lodges. They had a stack of cut branches which helped to clean off and assemble. That night they had some chanting and a prayer circle. My family joined in with the understanding that they worship the same Creator that we do. I remember the elder bringing around the sage insence and waving it above each of our heads. I remember my daughter grinning as the elder came up to her and waved it above her head. Prior to this I had never been a part of any physical type of worship (beyond protestant communion/baptism). It was pushing on the edge of my beliefs but I learned about it and accepted it. This greatly prepared me for what was to come the next night as well as for understanding incense in the Holy Orthodox Church as it is almost the same. The next night we all gathered and talked. I think I might have mentioned before about the Elder named Betty who talked with my children. I remember her teaching them about Mother Earth and how much the Earth loves children. She said that she especially loves children's laughter which is why it's always great for children to play around trees. The trees love it. She talked about getting down close to Mother Earth by simply feeling the grass and dirt or sitting under a tree. As a Protestant Christian, this put me on guard, but I was listening. My kids enjoyed it. At the end of it all Elder Betty told my daughters to always remember that they have a Cherokee grandmother who loves them.

Back to the night of the uipi (sweatlodge). It was getting towards dusk. We were sitting at the picnick tables talking while many of the men were preparing the sweatlodges for uipi. The altar in the center of the men's and women's lodges was burning, getting the rocks hot (I forget the special name for them). We were thinking that we might leave soon but then Elder Betty said to me "Charles, would you like to sweat with us?"  I was a deer in the headlights. I was praying hard asking Christ if this was OK. Somehow I said yes. Earlier that day at work I had been reading quite a bit about it online trying to judge if there was anything un-Christian about it since I had helped to build the lodges the night before. I couldn't see anything wrong in what I had read. So I said yes. I was wearing jeans so one of the younger men loaned me a pair of shorts to wear. They explained that traditionally it is done naked but in modern times and because there are non Native guests the men wear shorts. They advised me to carry in my t-shirt to put over my bald head to protect it from the steam. After we got changed the group of about 12 -15 men were standing there while one of the elders gave talk about what we were to do and what it meant. He explained about the sacred fire and how the lodge represents the womb. When we go in and let ourselves be purified we are to let go of all of our anger, hate, lies, and negativity. We were to give it all up to Creator and let him take it from us. We leave it all in the lodge and when we emerge we are born again as new men who have left all of that behind. They of course explained the procedure for how to enter the lodge, how to sit and what to say. We greet each other with "Mitakuye Oyasin" which means "All my brothers" acknlowledging that we are all brothers as humans even though some are of different tribes and some are white. We are all brothers because we are all humans made by the same Creator. And so we went in.

It was somewhat dark but there was enough light from the flap on the door that I could see by. I crawled around to the back. There was the pit in the center, surrounding that were a circle of NA men, mostly elders as well as experienced young men. They would get most of the steam and knew how to handle it. The rest of us sat in a circle around them with our backs up against the back of the lodge (The whole thing was only about 12 feet in diameter). We were told that if we felt sick or needed to get out, we were free to leave and would say Mitakuye Oyasin and leave, but if possible only do so between rounds of steam, and if possible not at all. We were also advised that if the heat felt too much to get close to Mother Earth and let her coolness comfort us. Indeed later the grass felt quite cool. I should also mention that prior to going in, I had asked Elder Betty if it was OK for me to join the chant being that I was not an NA. I said that I felt like I had wanted to the previous night during the prayer circle but didn't want to do it if it was not appropriate. She said I was very welcomed to join in as much as I was comfortable with and if I felt like chanting then go ahead and let it out.

So, then it began. It's been quite a few years but I remember one of the elders talking. He explained a little bit about the lodge and it's meaning but he was also getting into the start of a Native American council. It was a talk about the state of the world, what their struggles were, what problems we faced. It was more or less a very good sermon. Then he ordered for the person in charge of the fire to bring in the rocks. The glowing rocks were brought in on a pitch fork and put into the center. There were quite a few. Then he closed the flap of the lodge, said a few words (I forget) and then dumped the water on the rocks. Instantly everything went pitch black and I was hit in the face with the steam. It stung a little though I had the t-shirt on my head as advised so I quickly lowered my head. Then the chanting started. My heart feels so alive just writing this and remembering. It was a prayer chant repeated over and over so it was not hard to pick up, so I joined in.  I had read earlier the meanings of most of the chants as "Creator help us!" or "Creator have mercy on us!" (another thing preparing me for the Holy Orthodox Church). I joined in and chanted. I was getting hot but felt OK. I lowered my body (sitting crosslegged) as much as possible and put my palms flat on the ground to cool off. After the first round of chanting was done (I have no idea how long it lasted) then we stopped and they opened some of the flaps to let cool air in and let everyone rest. A few people did excuse themselves with Mitakuye and crawled out. I admit I felt a bit of pride for having stuck it out and staying. Then the elder talked more, though it was also a group talk as other men took turns speaking what came to their minds. Some was warnings about dangers, some was encouragement or spiritual thoughts, thoughts about the sweat lodge itself, about Creator, Mother Earth and their people. Much like listening to a series of quotes from something like the Philokalia or sayings of saints. I remember being in awe and realizing that I was a witness to how the Native Americans passed their knowledge and spiritual wisdome down from one generation to the next for hundreds maybe thousands of years. I remember realizing that this is how it's done. It's not written in books and passed anonymously between people with no relationship as done in the West, but it was done as brothers in a sweatlodge, in spiritual unity. (something that I also saw in the Orthodox Church that is missing in non-Orthodox churches). And so then the next round began....

The flaps were closed, more rocks brought in to the pit, a few words from the leader and then the steam. I knew what to expect, I braced for the steam and joined in the chant. I remember during this chant (and for all the rest) I felt connected with God. I felt that there in the dark I was in a place that was outside of the world and the only thing that existed was the souls of all present and the Creator and he was with us as we called out to him. And then with God feeling so near, I began to sob. There was quite a bit of pain in me from several parts of life and especially with the two years preceding that. I felt as if God were right above me, just a few feet and so I let out all of my pain and wept. No one could tell of course, everyone was chanting loudly in the steam but as the steam lessened I lifted my head up in the darkness and started to sing as I also wept.

We went through another round of that and then the side of the lodge was opened and we exited. As each went out we greeted the others who came before us by grasping their hand, bowing and saying "Mitakuye" and then standing in line, much like the Forgiveness Vespers. We circled the altar and then we were done. I remember then standing outside and actually feeling "purified" I felt much lighter. But more than that I was suddenly feeling the presence of the trees, the sky, the moon, the stars. I felt them as if they were real things, the only things that really mattered as part of creation and that our cars, houses, roads, buildings were all just paper toys. I suddenly realized then that I may be understanding a little of how the NAs view the world. I have read criticism from early settlers that looked down on them for not being industrial and building things. But suddenly I felt as though the Creator had created the world already and it was finished. There was nothing more that needed to be created by us, not really. If this is how the NA's view it then I understand why they would not feel motivated to become architects or engineers. Why add to a world that is already complete?

 I got back to the picnick tables. Not everyone was in the lodges. My wife had stayed with our daughters talking with the other women, she wanted to try the sweat lodge but had offered to stay with my daughters while I went. The elder women asked me how I was doing and how was the experience. I just looked at them and one of them said "I know, there are no words are there?" I shook my head. My daughter said that the men were very loud. We had been in there for 90 min. I changed clothes, thanked everyone and we went home. I remember processing all of it and remembering my connection with God that I felt and realizing that what I previously felt was The Church, was really just part of the gospel of Christ expressed in Western trappings. That's about it. I'll probably copy this out, edit it and write it up somewhere. There was another time when I joined a wapila ceremony. We did a similar sweat lodge to prepare and then did the wopila. The wopila had quite a larger crowd of non Natives, mostly New Agers looking for a spiritual experience. There were drums, chanting (in a large pole barn) and then lights coming down from the ceiling to settle on the altar, then glowing rattles that were very loud and hovered in the air around us. Honestly to this day I don't know if it was a hoax or something real. If it was real then it was something that may not be so good knowing what I know now especially reading Elder Paisios. If it was a hoax then I am saddened for all of the very good hearted and trusting people there.

That's pretty much it. If you want to know more feel free to ask. It all prepared me very well for Orthodoxy which I was overjoyed to find as the fullfillment of all the real things I had experienced with the Native Americans, even down to the passing on of knowledge, spirituality and culture in a personal and physical way.