I stood outside with a few close friends and several newly-met strangers, eyeing the earthy low profile hut before me. The structure before us was dome-shaped in appearance, structured together by bending and binding tender young willow tree branches. A collection of different materials - mostly blankets, animal skins and a large black tarp layered over the branches. It was far from pleasing by modern standards, but at the same time, it felt powerful and sacred. Beautiful in it’s own standards, not ours.
The hut had no windows - just one tiny door covered with overhanging blankets and tarps.To enter the lodge, one would need to crouch down in almost a humble manner and shuffle through the opening. I felt a ripple of nerves and anticipation ripples through me. I was about to do just that.
While we waited to enter the hut, two elders carefully minded a pretty large nearby fire. Earlier that day, several stones had been carefully selected and placed in the center of the flames. By the time they were taken out, the stones would be scalding hot - just one of the many preparations to prepare for the upcoming ceremony. I absorbed the activity around me like a sponge, fixating on each detail.
The year was 1988, and I was in my early twenties. Like many young adults in their twenties, I found myself questioning and exploring everything. Free from the daily guidance of my parents, I was eager to discover a part of me that reached beyond their influence. Growing up, I was blessed with my parent’s steadfast morals and insight, but a big part of my upbringing was in a traditional religious setting, and my soul yearned for something more.
With the support of some very close friends, I set out on a quest to explore my own spirituality- something that felt more like home than what I was raised in. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I held a great deal of fear for abandoning the belief system that was the core of my childhood. But I was determined and ready to dedicate as long as it took to find what I was searching for.
I had been told stories growing up, and if they were true, my great grandmother was from the Sihasapa or Blackfoot tribe of North Dakota. Curious of my ancestry, II began to read books like Black Elk Speaks and The Education of Little Tree. With each story, I found myself connecting on a much deeper level then anything else I’d encountered thus far. It was a taste of inner peace I knew I was craving. I needed to explore further.
Here I was, two years into my journey of self-discovery, standing in front of this tiny hut, about to take part in a very sacred and spiritual ceremony of the North American Indigenous plains people; The Inipi Lodge or better known as the “Sweat Lodge ''.
Before entering the lodge, we were each instructed to take a deep breath in then begin to move in a small circle in front of the small door. We were to look in each of the four directions, acknowledging all that is, the trees, flowers and grass, the winged, finned and four-legged of the world, the earth itself along with wind, water and soil. I was asked to understand that these were “Mitakuye Oyasin” - “All my Relations” and I was to bring them into the lodge with me as we were all connected.
Once inside the lodge, the hot stones were placed in the center of the lodge, the flap door was closed and water was poured over the hot stones. The stones shrieked in protests as the water immediately vaporized, filling the tiny hut with insurmountable amounts of hot steam. It was pitch black, too dark to see my hand in front of my face, but I could hear the water crackling over the stones and people rustling around. Just then a match was struck and a sage bundle was lit. My nostrils inhaled the steamy sweet scent of a sage as the bundle was then passed to each person in the lodge. We used our hands to sweep the smoke over our bodies and instructed to set our own personal intentions for the ceremony and clear out any negative energy we may have brought into the lodge with us.
That was the first time I had used the ancient art of smudging to remove or cleanse myself of unwanted or negative energies but certainly not my last. I spent the next year attending several inipi lodge ceremonies and learning the traditional ways of the plains people. It was during this time I spent at the lodge when I became fascinated by the practice of burning herbs such as sage, a practice that goes back almost as far as humanity.
Throughout time, ancient cultures from around the globe have used smoke in spiritual ceremonies, each in different ways and practices, but still with the same underlying theme of purification. Yet it is my understanding that none of these ancient people had a direct way of communicating their sacred practices to one other. It seems to me they all were guided in the same direction by something innate and universal (goosebumps).
The use of incenses ( the burning of herbs to create scent and smoke) is still something that is still used in modern religious ceremonies such as the roman catholic church. Makes you wonder if there really is something to all this.
To this day, I continue to learn more about the use of herbs and smoke as a spiritual tool and how each herb offers its own unique benefits. I now grow and create my own smudging bundles, using herbs such as rose and lavender. These herbs have been known to ease anxiety and give the receiver a sense of calm.
Let’s face it, the world is in a bit of chaos at the moment. Who among us doesn’t need to remove negative energy and enjoy a bit more calm in their life? Another tool in the self care toolbox. How it all works I am not sure, there are many things in this world beyond my understanding but as said by Alfred Salvinelli in Power of Plants “Nature understands fire and smoke better than words”