A Traditional Native American Ceremony in the Arizona Desert
On Navajo ground, I looked up to the low Arizona sky; the pink that was climbing the azure blue told me that when I emerged from my ‘sweat’, I’d be reborn into the cool darkness.
We waited for our ‘seer’ to prepare the ‘womb’. A small cave sculpted from the earth in which we were to sit and endure intense heat, sweating out all in our lives that we wished to shed, to cleanse and welcome the new.
I was no longer in the US but in Native America, being cradled by the spiritual traditions of ancestral visionaries, led by a man who has earned his title as a warrior, a medicine man and a guide. I was brought here by my curious heart and the longing to connect with a culture that resonates with me so much, it feels like it could be my own.
I came to Arizona as a volunteer through Amizade, an organisation dedicated to finding willing and able people to help communities all over the world through service-learning. Individual volunteers through Amizade can teach English in Brazil, work with the youth in Jamaica or mentor orphanage children in Bolivia. I was instantly drawn to staying with a Navajo family in Tuba City and supporting the teachers and students at the local school.
I was placed with a wonderful and very attentive family who came to pick me up from Flagstaff, a cute little town with the nearest (and tiniest) airport. My host mother handed me my itinerary for the course of my stay and I got excited at all the activities we would do together. On weekdays, I’d be an assistant to a class of 7-8 year olds at Tuba City Boarding School, in the evenings and weekends, I’d be meeting traditional Navajo storytellers, musicians, healers and learning their culture– a lifelong dream of mine.
The main thing I was looking forward to was attending my very first Native American spiritual ceremony. The ‘Sweat’ as it’s known, is a ritual of literally sweating in a dome full of steam; it is a purification practice – think organic sauna with prayers and songs. This is a tradition that goes back centuries and can only be conducted by someone who has gone through years of training and experience and has structured the lodge or ‘cave’ properly. This was something I knew had to be completely authentic and I trusted my ‘seer’ to lead the ceremony, having trained all his life to facilitate all spiritual ceremonies with care and precision.
My host mother was going to take part in the ceremony with me, mentioning that she does a ‘sweat’ as often as she can. She told me to wear the thinnest vest and smallest shorts I could find for the ritual as I was going to be soaked by the time it was over. With bottles of water in hand and towels hung over our shoulders, we drove out to the lodge.
This was to be the climax of my Native American experience before leaving Arizona a few days later. By then my host family had driven me across red, rocky land and shown me the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley in Utah, teaching me their mother tongue along the way. They taught me one of my favourite Navajo words, ‘Diné’ which means ‘the people’ and the sound of it glided across my mouth and tickled the back of my teeth like the hot, glacial wind does along the mesas.
We crawled into the sweat lodge on our hands and knees and our guide placed the stone slabs onto the fire pit in the middle of our cocoon; his pale of water ready to inject steam into the small but comforting space. He placed a bunch of cedar on the pit and its sweet, herbal scent was a beautiful way of perfuming the nook in which I was to let go of my doubts and fears. He picked up a shaman’s drum and sounded out a steady beat.
Why do you think we drum during the sweat ceremony?”
My answer was that it simulates a heartbeat and he nodded in agreement. Native Americans believe in journeying back to our first state of life, the purity of us when we were growing in our mother’s womb – from this we grow again.
We smoked some cedar in honour of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit and the drumming began; we were ready to say our prayers of love, healing and gratitude. The steam hit me straight in the face and sweat cascaded down me freely. My body weakened a little but my mind altered into meditation. It was in that moment that I knew that I wasn’t just connecting to Arizona, but to the planet and all its culture and history.
When the ritual was over, we crawled back out. The sky was navy and the stars were so low, it was as if they were leaning down to kiss us on the forehead. The fresh air rippled through my bones to complete the cleansing. We shook hands with one another, now calling those in our circle our brothers and sisters.
I certainly left Arizona feeling purged of all that I no longer needed to carry around with me, moving onto California, I felt fresh and clear and was humbled by what the Navajo Nation had taught me: We are the children of Mother Earth and Father Sky, we are Diné.