NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
"Behave as you would in your white man's church."
-Hoskie, a Navajo
Hoskie emerges from the sweatlodge. Photo copyright by Mikkel
Of all the world's sweat baths I visited, none have retained the
sanctity of the American Sweat lodge. I was privileged to have
participated in two very special and dissimilar sweat lodge ceremonies--one
with the Navajo, the other with the Ogala Sioux.
JOINING RUNNING FOOT IN A NAVAJO SWEAT LODGE
After a cordial interview with Dave Charlie at the Center for
Indian Affairs in Phoenix, I drove 38O miles across the desert
to visit his relatives near Gallup. The land of the Navajos is
much what it always was, the elements prevailing--barren red dirt,
buttes, plateaus, pinons, cedars, their roots clawed into the
arid soil, an occasional puff of cloud in the vast blue sky.
The Navajo nation holds a territory of 16 million acres across
five southwestern states. Its contact with white society is only
peripheral. In its heart live old traditions established long
before Columbus and Cortez--rain dances, hunting rituals and,
most sacred of all, the sweat bath ceremonies.
I wasn't sure if they would accept the presence of an Anglo in
their sweat lodge, but Dave Charlie had put in a good word for
me and had given me some canned goods to deliver. At the hogan
I was introduced to Running Foot, the 92-year-old medicine man, his grandsons and their cousins.
Running Foot spoke only in his melodic Navajo tongue, and graciously
invited me to join them in the sweat lodge. Grandson Hoskie became
my guide and interpreter. The sweat lodge stood a few hundred
yards beyond the hogan. It resembled a giant bee hive--a split
cedar frame sunk two feet into the ground and arching four feet
high, covered with dark New Mexico earth. These earthen mounds
are not uncommon throughout the reservation.
A log fire blazed a few feet away. The grandsons tossed in a dozen
or so melon-sized rocks brought from a distant mountain. When
they glowed red and Running Foot was satisfied they were hot enough,
he signalled Hoskie to take his pitchfork and lay them carefully
in the northern corner of the lodge where they would ward off
the malevolent north wind, carrier of colds and more sinister
illnesses. He stripped off his clothes and crawled in. He sat alone for a few minutes until the temperature was right,
then called us in.
Hoskie put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Behave as you would
in your white man's church."
I was the last to enter. Hoskie called back to his cousins outside
to drop the blanket door. In the sudden blackness, I couldn't
see my own hands, only the dull, glowing rocks. Vision gone, my
other senses sharpened--I keenly felt heat from the radiant rocks
baking my skin, the texture of the bark floor cushioning the frozen
ground, and the shoulders of the grandsons pressed against me.
Mingling sweat streamed from our skins as we sat absorbed in dark
Running Foot began his first chant. The grandsons hummed intermittently
as they translated for me. The spirits of Earth, Air and Water
were being summoned to weave our bodies and souls with the elements.
We were told of the distant time when the Navajo rose from the
Underworld and gathered in a tq'ache (sweat lodge) to create chants
and hymns to be associated with various stages in life.
When the chant ended Hoskie explained that each session in the
sweat lodge inspired four chants, each with different significance.
The Navajo takes sweat baths in sets of two or four, with a recess
outside after each. The chants were handed down through generations
to chosen individuals within the tribe, and Running Foot was the
only one here so chosen.
A few minutes of silence was suddenly broken by a loud crack as
he poured a brew of water, cedar and pinon needles on the red
rocks. This created a nearly unbearable rush of hot vapor that
left as quickly as it came, leaving the pleasant lingering odor
of burned needles. Hoskie told me only needles from trees struck
by lightning can be used. "It cures," he said. "Inhale it, drink
it--it makes you well." A bowl was pressed to my lips and I sipped
the resinous brew as Running Foot's chanting again filled the
darkness. He called on Greater Powers to bring strength and luck
to all residents of the Navajo ranch.
Running Foot doused another bowlful of brew on the hissing rocks
and another burst of steam assaulted us. He began his third chant,
calling for strength and courage to his hunters and warriors.
Before men went hunting, they visited the sweat lodge to purge
their bodies of human odors that might be picked up by a wary
The old man gathered his strength for the last chant of this session.
After a long silence an impassioned voice rose from his throat,
blessing all who traveled from home that no harm would fall. The
blanket, like an eyelid, flapped up and we crawled out, blinking
and dripping, into the chill bright air.
Running Foot began rolling in a patch of sandy snow. We all followed suit. The abrasive sand worked like coarse soap,
scrubbing off dead skin and grime. In this land of little rain
there is no better way to become clean. I rubbed snow all over
my body. It felt delicious.
We burrowed back into the sweat lodge a while later for the second
session. The ritual was similar to the first--Running Foot recited
four chants and poured the healing potion on the sputtering rocks.
At the end of this session, however, he remained behind. "He is
singing a prayer of thanks to the spirits of the sweat lodge,"
explained Hoskie. This Blessing Way Song is also an apology for
any errors in song, prayer or protocol made during the ceremony.
Perhaps my presence was being atoned for. We had another roll
and rubdown in the sandy snow, dressed and strolled as brothers
back to the hogan.
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