The purification ceremony is commonly referred to as the sweat lodge, but this is a misnomer, says William J. Walk Sacred, a Cree medicine man: "When you come out of a purification lodge, you don't feel the same as when you come out of a sauna. The ceremony is a rebirthing process. There's something that happens in a spiritual sense that is powerful and uplifting."
The Indian word for the purification ceremony is oenikika, which means the breath of life. It is a process of renewal through the integration of the spiritual and physical. Walk Sacred explains, "Just think of this as a marriage ceremony that takes place within yourself. The ceremonial leader is the medicine man. He is a representative of the spirits, who works within the invisible realm, in order for you to become aware of the healing process within yourself."
The lodge itself is made of branches, usually willow saplings, but varying according to what's available in the region. Blankets or tarps are used as coverings to hold in heat. The circular shape of the lodge is often described as being like a womb or a protective bubble.
The nature of the purification ceremony differs from tribe to tribe; Walk Sacred explains the many facets of preparing for a Cree ceremony: "When you want to begin, you find a medicine man, and you offer a pouch of tobacco. Tobacco represents a person's Spirit. Offering tobacco is how you ask the medicine man to work on your behalf in the spiritual world. It's not like a payment of money; this is his obligation. Once you have taken upon yourself the role of medicine man, it is incumbent upon you to do this healing work when someone comes to you with this offering. So, you bring tobacco to the medicine man. You also come to him with your specific desire. You tell him if it's a broken leg you want worked on, or if it's an alcohol or drug problem, or something in the non-physical world. You bring your request to the medicine man.
"At this point, he will give you your responsibilities; he will tell you how to set up the ceremony and what you need to do. You might have to prepare food. Once you ask for a ceremony, anyone who knows about it can come and request a specific healing within the ceremonial function. You never know how many people are going to be there, so you have to prepare food for 30 or 40 people, depending upon the size of the medicine man's lodge. You might be asked to prepare a specific type of food, like buffalo soup. The people who work in the spiritual world tell the medicine man what they need. This is an offering, and it represents the humbling of our spirit.
"Then the medicine man will give you specific amounts and colors of what we call tobacco ties. These are little pieces of cloth representing the six directions, white being north, yellow being south, red being east, black being west, above being blue, and the earth mother being green. He may tell you that you need 75 yellow ties and 50 blue ones. The colors represent who he is working with in the nonphysical world, and the number of ties represent a specific amount of prayers that are requested by the spirits in order for them to come in and work with you. You prepare a pouch with tobacco, and you direct your prayers into each one before closing them with a tie. Your prayers carry the gift of your heart to the spirits so they know what you're looking for and they can see the sincerity of the heart. That's where they look because they know the truth is there."
The beginning of the ceremony is a time of prayer and contemplation. Walk Sacred explains, "The medicine man begins by setting up an alter. Usually, the alter has some type of antler to hold his pipe. Then he sends up sacred herbs in the four directions. There are four sacred herbs in the Native culture. One is sage, which purifies a room of negative energies. Another is sweet grass. A medicine man told me, 'This is what brings in the heavy guys.' Sweet grass brings in big, powerful beings from the other side to heal you. The third is cedar. Cedar is for purification. It sets up an atmosphere for the spirits to work. It's a sweetness they like and it's attractive to the energies of the invisible world. The fourth is tobacco, which has always been sacred to Native culture. It is used in ceremonies of smoking the pipe. It is used to bless the earth. Whenever we harvest herbs or cut barks off of trees, we always offer tobacco to the four directions and to the sky father and earth mother. And we plant tobacco as an honoring of that plant, tree, or substance that is giving its life, or part of its life, to help our life."
Specific types of rocks, called grandfather rocks, are gathered and placed in a pile. Primarily lava stones from volcanos are used, because ordinary river rocks could explode. A fire is built, and the stones are heated. When the stones are white hot, they are brought into the lodge.
"We honor our relations as we enter the 'womb' and again as we leave," Walk Sacred continues. "We crawl around until we form a circle around the center. The center of the center is where a little pit is dug for the grandfather rocks. These are brought in, one at a time, and the first four are placed in the north, south, east, and west directions. They they're sprinkled with a little sage and sweet grass and whatever the medicine man might be using. The medicine man offers prayers to each of the four directions, to honor his ancestors, and to honor those in the nonphysical as well as the physical worlds. This is a sacred time. It is a time of prayer, introspection, and healing.
"When the water hits the rock, it goes up in steam, fills the air, and unifies everyone within the 'womb.' Everything is united, as we say, all of my relations. At that moment we are connecting ourselves to the basic elements of life, and that brings out the greatest good in people. We are connecting to the movement that is all around us, that we are part of, and never separate from.
"As we sit in the circle, we each go around, one at a time, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the Almighty, the great spirits, the great mystery, the sky father, and the earth mother. The medicine man sits by the entrance, and is the first to offer his prayers. Each person then takes a turn. Eventually you come to the end and the medicine man blends all the prayers. It's kind of like weaving a tapestry. It's a mystical, magical process, an altered state that goes beyond the physical form. It takes you into the reality of the nonphysical world, where the real healing takes place."
After the purification ceremony is the wopela, which, broadly interpreted, means giving thanks: "Now, we bring in the soup and foods and the gifts for the medicine man," continues Walk Sacred. "It might be a blanket, whatever your spirit leads you to bring the medicine man or to offer directly to the mystery. People sit around the medicine man in a circle. Once everyone is in, the windows are closed up. The medicine man's blanket is laid out on the floor, in the center of the lodge. On top of that is a mat of freshly cut, beautiful sage. The medicine man covers himself with a blanket, and goes into a prayerful state. He takes the prayer ties and sets them up in the north end of the center in a specific fashion. They are laid down on a special type of earth, on top of the sage, which carries the great aroma energy up to the Great Spirit. The prayers are carried up in a good way, so that the Great Spirit will receive them and hear the pitiful cries of his children. After the prayers, the candles are blown out, and it is pitch dark.
"There are specific songs that are sung for bringing in spirits, for talking to spirits, for constantly giving praise and gratitude, for constantly giving acknowledgment to the great mystery for all the gifts of life. This includes the pain and suffering as well as the good times, recognizing that all things flow from the one source, and all things return back to that one source. It's an acknowledgment. Very holy and sacred songs might be sung for an hour. It depends. It's all under the direction of the medicine man, although he might not speak a word. A lot of it is done telepathically, through the communication of energy waves.
"We go around to each individual, just like we did in the purification ceremony, and we give prayers and thanks and ask for specific healing. Now is the time to verbalize our requests. After everyone has given their prayers, the medicine man calls the spirits in. The medicine man is in the center. This isn't just the center of the lodge; it is the center of the universe. It represents the center of life. And that center exists within each of us. Honoring that center brings the nonphysical world into the physical one. So, the medicine man represents the spirit of the God source, and by so doing, he creates an energy that allows the nonphysical world to interact with the physical world.
"Amazing things happen. I went for healing because I was struck by lightning. While I was standing there, all of a sudden, this rattle came out of the air and started pounding me on the chest, hitting me all over the chest and head. Then eagle feathers were all over my face. There was stomping on the floor that sounded as if it came from beings 20 feet high. And you could see lights and colors."
While these experiences are phenomenal in that they shift our perception of reality, Walk Sacred reminds us that the essence of healing is in the work of each participant: "The medicine man helps us remove the veils that prevent us from seeing life as it really is: unified and sacred. His approach is to help individuals resolve problems by the work they do themselves. They prepare food, make prayer ties, sing, chant, and drum. These remove blocks within the physical structure so that the person is receptive to impulses from the non-physical world."
Working with spiritual energies is a sacred and powerful process when performed for the right reasons by an experienced person. Unfortunately, the purification lodge has become trendy in recent years, and the right atmosphere is not always present. Native Americans, therefore, warn people to take certain precautions before entering into a purification ceremony: First, if a person is charging money, people need to think about the type of energy this will attract and the effects it will have on the people in the lodge. This is a Gift from the spiritual world that cannot be compensated for by material gifts. Someone who charges for the purification ceremony is not working in the traditional way of the pipe. Second, one must look into the character of the person leading the rite. White Deer of Autumn suggests, "Look into a medicine man's background the way you would approach finding any new doctor. Find out the person's track record. Who are they? What are their experiences? And understand your responsibilities of going into the ceremonial process. Then the blessings received will be beyond your wildest imagination."
Today an increasing number of Indians are victims of cancer and other diseases of the modern world. Native Americans tend not to rely solely on western medicine for help. However, White Deer of Autumn notes that since traditional medicine is best at curing diseases brought on by nature, and since new sicknesses are brought on by technology, some technological medicine may be required. Here White Deer of Autumn talks about his wife's quest for healing through a combination of old and new medicine.