I entered the ceremony and sat cross-legged next to Stanford, who, due to his injury, spent the lodge lying on his side on some couch cushions covered with a towel. A few teenage boys filled the pit in the middle of the lodge with river rocks that glowed white-hot from several hours’ heating in the big bonfire just outside. At Stanford’s instruction, I had brought in his bag of medicines. I unrolled a wool rug about the size of a legal pad. It contained a Ziploc sandwich bag of sweet sage, some little leather pouches bound tight to a leather thong, and a whistle made from the bone of an eagle’s wing. Then I tucked four eagle wings up in the framework of the lodge.
The lodge filled with Arapahos, perhaps a dozen women and a lesser number of men. They all wore baggy basketball shorts and carried towels. The women wore oversized T-shirts. The men were bare-chested. Stanford introduced me to them as they came in. I prayed for composure. They were polite and friendly, but I felt hideously self-conscious. I was the only non-native person there. I was nervous, toy-poodle nervous, a blonde curly-haired imposter at Stanford’s right side. Their glances prickled my skin.
Soon the rock pile was high enough that I was getting hot and the doors were still wide open. But there was no rushing. Everyone sat on the floor, smoking cigarettes and joking and gossiping. They seemed to have known each other all their lives. Then Stanford gave the word and the doors were closed, the flashlight extinguished, and I gratefully relinquished my foreignness, whiteness and discomfort to the encompassing dark. Stanford instructed a man to pour some water onto the hot rocks, and the heat bit into my face and arms and burned my lungs.
I pressed my nose and mouth to the ground moving along the base of the lodge where it met the ground, seeking coolness like a trout in a summer stream.
Stanford said a prayer, then invited people to share their concerns. The stories poured slowly into the shared blackness. One man said he had vengeance in his heart.
Sure, I thought chattily, join the club.
He continued. His son had been murdered by some white boys in the wintertime. They'd taken his shoes and clothes and dumped him in the middle of the high desert, leaving him to freeze to death. The investigation would go nowhere, he was sure of it. He wasn't going to do anything irrational, but still, he said, still he felt vengeance.
A wire of horror pushed into my heart, followed by a kind of hugeness. I felt glowing, luminescent, radioactive. A menace. My heart boomed in my ears. By the time I could listen again, a tribal official was speaking about the tribe losing land and how they'd have to unite to keep it.
Then Stanford led us in Arapaho songs and prayer. Then he made choking, convulsing sounds. The heat pressed against me like an iron. I took tiny breaths, the air hot metal in my throat and lungs. Then Stanford yelled, “Open it!” and the man sitting next to the door opened the door. The first of four rounds was over. It was down time, comfortable time, the time after the pain and prayer when you can get up and stand by the fire, or go inside and use the bathroom, or stay in the lodge and chat. Everyone lay there and told jokes. Everyone but me. I was so shocked and saddened about the boy left to freeze that I couldn’t even begin to chuckle at their relaxed humor. I was careful and quiet, hyper vigilant of my duties: putting Stanford’s cigarettes in his mouth, adjusting his towel. The second round passed. After that, the men brought in more hot rocks, just in case we were getting too comfortable. The third round came and went, and then the fourth. Near the end, I handed out the eagle wings I’d tucked into the willow structure above me to people who wanted to beat their skin and get even hotter. By the end, the singing was loud and joyful. Stanford said that the spirits take from him during the first three rounds, but give it all back to him in the fourth.
The sweat lodges were difficult, but I grew to love them, even when I emerged with a clanging headache that wouldn’t go away until the next afternoon. I felt cleaned out afterwards, body and spirit. Stanford sometimes said he wouldn’t be alive without them. Spiritually, I couldn’t even imagine the benefits he received. I could only hear him convulse and retch early in the sweat and dispense little jokes during the breaks (“Time to get going again,” he might say when it was time to start the second round. “Maria, hand me my goggles, and my cape.”) Towards the end, he sang with confidence and joy. I reasoned that getting so hot could only be helpful, physically, for a paralyzed person with circulation problems: the heart races, the blood sprints, banging at the walls of your system, looking for a way out. Bringing new blood to old wounds.
He didn’t consider himself a medicine man, but merely a spiritual healer, because his healing powers were available to him only in the sweat lodge. He’d often vomit as he funneled the bad medicine and sickness out of people, but none of it got on the ground because the spirits would take it.
Sometimes he’d be directed to a plant he’d never seen before, like one that grew by the river and resembled sage. As promised, it cured a man of cirrhosis.
After each lodge, Stanford met with the people who had come for help and told them what the spirits had told him the Creator wanted them to do. Over the years I would spend visiting, that advice included instructions for further ceremonies, or an explanation of where their lost child was, or a reassurance that their tumor was gone – “all that’s left is dried blood and scar tissue,” – or an admonishment that their cancer wouldn’t kill them but their chemotherapy would, or – this, time and time again – instructions to stop drinking or using meth, which was a growing problem on the reservation. He was middle management in the sweat lodge; he wasn’t the big boss. He didn’t heal people; the spirits and the Creator healed people through him.
“The Creator gives power to me and takes it away,” Stanford said.
He couldn’t prevent death. He explained that healers could delay it, or temporarily bring someone back from the other side, but he could not stop it. “When the Creator needs you,” he said, “he takes you.”
One of my favorite things about the sweat lodge was that it felt like a complete experience. During the rounds there was prayer, and urgency, and pain, and then the round would end and everyone would laugh and chat and lie there together, all of us sweaty in the dark, young and old, healthy and sick, Native and white. That’s one big difference between white life and the life I observed at Stanford’s: Here, adults have the feeling they are coming through the difficulties of life together. White people bear the difficulties of life alone, and then smile and wave like everything’s fine. The reservation is riddled with problems, but it felt a lot less lonely than the white world.