Fall is truly here. Friday was the first rainy day we have had since we’ve been here. Throughout the summer we had a few thunderstorms; dark clouds rolled in announced by thunderous cracks followed by flashing bursts of light. Heavy rain might shower down for 15 minutes or so but never any longer than 30 minutes. In contrast, the Friday sky was grey and cloudy all day and reminded me of the beautiful fall weather back home that makes you want to curl up by a fire with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.
After a few hours of training at school (we’ve been learning self-defense and use of force to defuse violent situations by a former cop. I thought it was going to be a class that would teach us methods of de-escalation (i.e. non-violent forms like mediation) to defuse tension, which in my perspective would have been more helpful. Instead the course was geared towards those situations you avoid where a student resorts to violence. At times this may happen, and has happened to various degrees, in the school here. Remember, these kids come from damaged homes where physical violence or at least verbal abuse is common. Often, our students may not learn the healthy forms of self expression we all take for granted. In some ways, this class was a direct consequence of Columbine, and the factors that contributed. In that sense, it is important. Also, knives and guns are very common in the rural Montana culture because the majority of people hunt-and usually to put food on the table. I am not trying to make a moral judgment of that culture in any way. However, I think the majority of our time and effort, including our training, should focus on what we do during 99.9% of our work hours, if not 100% of the time on the job: Creating an environment where kids learn healthy, non-violent ways to deal with intra- and inter-personal conflict, stress, and emotion. We need to set our students up to make the good decision, so they do not feel they have to resort to a situation where violence is necessary.) Anyways, enough about that… So once again, we journeyed to Billings to run errands, shop for groceries and to pick up Meredith’s Mom, Diane, and her friend, Carol, for the weekend. The entire time it drizzled and we had a cozy drive in to town.
On Sunday, we went trail riding for a few hours. I had so much fun-it was one of the best things we’ve done so far, and I could not get over how beautiful the country is-the Cottonwood leaves were dressed in their Autumn best-shades of orange, yellow, red, green and brown, and the green pines stood out against the golden wild grasses. We climbed a bluff West of the school to a beautiful lookout where you could see both valleys stretching out below. To our East you could make out the Tongue River, snaking its way below, lined with blooming Cotton woods, and to the West the golden valley floor stretched for miles and miles until it reached a “mountain range” in the distance (the mountains in SE Montana rise like the foothills in Washington). My horse, named Max, was a little antsy, so when I first got on he was a littler ornery and didn’t want to listen to directions. He trotted off in all different directions and I had to really rein him in. But, this just got my blood pumping and made the experience a little more fun. Most of my housemates had never ridden before, though one of them is a pretty experienced rider. She and I would hold back occasionally, giving our horses plenty of space to take off and trot or lope for a bit. It tried our horses’ patience, but I hope they also had fun getting a little speed. We both also offered to help out around the rancher’s place, take care of his horses, and even ride them (hint, hint… ;) ) if need be. He thought he could find some work for us, so hopefully there will be more riding in the future!
Richard Tallbull took us to Medicine Rock on Saturday and also coordinated the trail riding the following day. Richard is a Southern Cheyenne Indian who was born and raised in Oklahoma by white parents and Indian grandparents. As such, he did not really learn about Cheyenne culture until he moved out to Montana and the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Since then, he has learned the language, culture and history of the Cheyenne people. Medicine Rock is the site of numerous pictographs, pictures and symbols left behind by Indians who lived near here or passed through the area. Richard showed us all number of animals: elk, deer, bear, turtles and lizards, human people, teepees, medicine bags and other symbols. The tribal identities of human figures are differentiated so that Cheyenne are distinct from Arapahos, women are distinguished from men, and holy men from warriors. One of the more “famous” pictographs on Medicine rock is the depiction of a vision Sitting Bull had at a Sun Dance ceremony before the Battle of Little Bighorn: “Soldiers and some Indians on horseback coming down like grasshoppers, with their heads down and their hats falling off. They were falling right into [their] camp.” Sitting Bull interpreted this as a sign of success in the ensuing Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand.
Richard has also invited us to participate in sweats in the local community. Sweat lodges have been used in numerous cultures throughout history. When I traveled in the NW highlands of Guatemala two summers ago, I saw concrete and earthen sweat lodges used by the indigenous people. In contrast to the Plains Indians, it is my understanding that the Guatemalan people use their lodges to relieve pain, hitting themselves with reeds in sore areas. The sweat lodges of the Native American people are places of prayer, chapels of God’s creation close to Mother Earth.
Richard estimated that sweats have been around since the 16th century. The lodges, where the sweats take place, are round domes made of willow branches lashed together and covered with some type of insulated material. Historically, sweats were only used by medicine men; these ceremonial sweats, as Richard calls them are much smaller, fitting only a few men. They are still in use today, “off in the hills” for certain ceremonial purposes. Often, these spiritual men pray for the tribe or the needs of certain individuals. With time the modern co-ed sweat evolved for warriors who desired a place to pray before heading out on a war party. The young man’s sweat, as Richard commonly refers to it, is much larger (fitting 12-15 individuals if everyone slides in together) and is a place for all to pray: men, women, young old, Indian, white and everyone in between. It has been a very special privilege for me to attend the sweat that Ernie and Mary Jane Robinson put on every Sunday. Mary Jane is a teacher at St. Labre and Ernie works at the Cheyenne tribal housing authority.
Historically, sweat lodges were covered with buckskin. The Robinson’s sweat lodge is covered by large blankets and comforters and the dirt ground is lined with carpet. Everyone sits around the edge of a three foot pit that is dug in the center. The hosts of the sweat sit near the front door that faces to the East and the women sit on the Southern side. Going around the circle, the men sit on the Northern side, and any holy men sit on the other side of the Eastern door, along with the rock man. The rock man uses a pitchfork to gather large lava rocks that have been heated for a few hours in the fire and brings them in the center pit before each of the four ‘rounds.’ The rocks are called the Grandfathers, because they are so old, too old to really know their age, born long before any of us. Ernie reminds us that they will also live long after us, part of the Maheyote’s (God) creation. Each of the four parts of the circle (the hosts, the women, the men, the holy men and rock man) takes a round to pray. One may thank and pray for the host, the rock man, those who helped to prepare the sweat (chopping wood, gathering rocks, etc.) or prepared food for the potluck afterwards. One may also pray for their own needs and special intentions.
I have found this experience to be so special. Whatever is said at the sweat remains in that circle, and MJ often reminds us that the rocks are so old that they have experienced more than anything we will tell them and so we should not have fear. A deep sense of community is created as people bring their vulnerable selves-sharing their needs and brokenness, as much or little of their humanness as they choose to. Cedar is sprinkled on the rocks, emitting a fragrant smoke for everyone to bless themselves and the doors are pulled shut, sending everyone into complete darkness. The men lead the prayer songs, shaking a gourd to keep time and singing in their native language as the women sing along, while members of the circle give their pray aloud, or in silence, whatever they desire.
The heat reaches higher than any sauna I have ever been into. We estimated the temperature from 125-130º. (On a side note: I know you’re probably thinking, “Is this safe?” This is spiritual practice that has been around for hundreds of years. In fact, it is believed the Native people even used sweating as a form of medicine; I read somewhere that bacteria and viruses cannot survive at a temperature much higher than our internal body temp. The organic ingenuity, the practice of sustainable practices (like the respect for Salmon that causes Indian to return the filleted body to the streams, enriching the forest and stream beds with important nutrients) or medical knowledge they have accumulated, of Native cultures continues to astound me.
Richard has often reminded me to pay attention to what we are here for in the sweat, to our prayers and to whom we are praying to, God. I have found this focus on my prayers or the music helps to make the heat more bearable during the 6-10 minute round. My first time in the dark and music of the sweat was a surreal, almost psychedelic experience. The stark contrast of complete darkness shocked my body as I began to feel the extreme heat waves flow over my body. Then, the music began; songs that sounded as if they had been around from the beginning of creation, in a language that was as organic as the rocks in the center of the pit, the gourd shaking moving these prayers out of our bodies as the sweat ran down our skin. I found my head starting to spin from the sensory overload and I had to close my eyes (most of the time now I sweat with my eyes closed), and focus on the rhythm of the music so I would not pass out. The heat feels much less harsh after 3 weeks of sweating and in a way, is therapeutic. Every sweat is different. Sometimes the rounds are longer, sometimes the heat is more intense as an entire bucket of water is poured over the rocks. Richard tells me that for him, certain sweats may be draining if not everyone is singing and he feels like he has to sustain the entire circle for four rounds. I can very much see how that could be, and am very grateful for those who sustain the sweats-Richard, MJ and Ernie- though for me (and this is part of why I am so grateful), every sweat rejuvenates me and heals me. They say the sweat exiting our pores is the poison and bad spirits leaving our body and soul. I find this to be very true, similar to how a good run or workout can rejuvenate you mentally and emotionally, though I do not diminish the spiritual importance of the sweat.
Again, I just have to say how grateful I am for the invitation to this community-the sweats, the culture, the lives of this people.