Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Still Finding Ways To Kill Injuns

This summer, I went with much anticipation to my first sweat lodge. I was excited because unlike most psuedo-religious fringe activities indulged in by the sun-addled residents of Southern California, this time I would be in the company of a genuine Native American, member of the Oneida tribe and renowned ‘Fancy Dancer,’ Hanna Gilan. I was instructed to bring my sweat dress (my Hawaiian muumuu, but near enough), water, and the commitment not to laugh no matter how weird the white people became so that we would not offend Hanna's well-meaning friend who had invited us.

Let me tell you a little about Hanna. If you can imagine a female basketball player with the physical range of a bendy toy, the energy of a puppy, the face of Pocahontas, and a punk haircut, then you can pretty much picture Hanna. She is kind and wild all at the same time. She will be as likely to launch into a rant, down a bottle of champagne to no apparent effect, and curse like a fishwife, as she is to bring a yoga class to tears with her gentle wisdom. A lady who has lived a lot, won’t tolerate BS, and like a stray solar flare, brings warmth and light in a combustible mix to any universe she happens into. I adore her!

The universe we were happening into that night was a bungalow in a sedate suburb of Pasadena. Our first intimation that we were near the lodge was a young woman wandering around Ophelia-fashion in a long dress and smoking a cigarette. A car pulled up behind us with two gray haired ladies in muumuus - another clue. We assembled in a living room where photos of children graduating and in military uniform competed with tribal artifacts - masks and feathers, an arrow, and many books ranging from Shirley McClain (help!) to the 9 Principles (I didn't have time to find out the 9 principles of what, but you can be pretty sure of the content, none-the-less). The house belonged to an elderly man with surprisingly good teeth and the demeanor of a sprightly janitor. I looked in vain for evidence of his loving wife but found only male hued towels in the bathroom (emerald and claret), although there was toilet paper, so if he's widowed or divorced it's been for a while. He hovered in the background, showing off his good teeth, while we deposited our potluck offerings in the kitchen, paid our dues ($10 each for our entrance into another realm tonight) and took our place in the seats around the living room. I sat very close to Hanna, who sprawled in her seat, legs crossed defiantly. I figured she was already wound up by the Native American artifacts. Any moment now, she's going to reclaim the pipe and make off into the night, I worried.

Our Mistress of Ceremonies was a brick-built woman (who claimed Native American trace elements), with the face of a Scottish sheep farmer, and an amazing resemblance to one of my former teachers, who lived with another elderly lady in the days when female companions were considered exactly that. I expected to be drilled in my times-tables, but instead was given an overview of the evening’s procedures. We went in turn around the room to introduce ourselves. The usual mixture of impressionable women with long hair, pedicures, Valley Girl accents, and a sweetness about them that was just begging to be exploited. We had the two obligatory Northern Europeans (German and Austrian), who of course were taking the whole thing way too seriously, and a couple of Asian girls who had become stuck somewhere between blonde and Hindu but were perhaps hoping to resolve that by transforming themselves into Native Americans. Most were new to the sweat lodge, but very, very keen to experience it. Two hippie-dippy veterans spoke of amazing releases they had experienced in the past and “getting it all out.” Hanna and I must have looked like twin Pierrot clowns at this juncture, eyebrows arching to the ceiling. Then it was Hanna’s turn. “I am Hanna,” she began, and in her mellifluous, woodwind voice recited her credentials, among them convener of sweat lodges for the women of the Oneida and for the youth of North East Indian tribes. The Scottish-ancestored Shaman looked nervous as the other women looked on enthralled. I sensed a mounting spiritual stand off, but the Scottish woman had the good sense to offer Hanna the most honored position – that of the water pourer. Hanna had already explained to me that it was such an important job that only those who could remain humble were offered it. She was charged with “balancing the energy.” Then it was my turn. “I am Louise Godbold and I’m British,” (pause, then Hanna’s whooping laughter) “and I’m already looking for the door!” Despite my promise to Hanna, her paroxysms beside me hardly allowed me to get the words out for my own hysterics. “And if you see me make a slight gesture or change my facial expression, I’m having a big release.” The group laughed politely and then settled down as Hanna and I continued to heave silently on the sofa. I fixed my gaze on a painted mask to control my giggles and didn’t dare look at Hanna.

A few points of protocol later (don’t cross in front of the stones or the lantern because somehow that would harm the children – what children?) and suddenly women were stripping naked and wrapping themselves in towels. Hanna was nowhere to be seen. I managed to disrobe under my muumuu, which doubles as a kind of bathing hut. Out in the backyard, I was greeted by what must be a point of curiosity for the surrounding neighbors. It appeared to be an igloo made of Indian blankets. There was some complicated protocol about walking anti-clockwise around the igloo, stepping on 7 stones, each with a different color to represent a different chakra. There was some procedural point I had missed while studying the bookcase about these stones and rising energy. I didn’t feel anything and then wondered if that was because I was still wearing my sandals. I hastily removed them and hoped there were no penalty points for wearing shoes on hallowed ground. At the lodge door, the Scottish woman (aka my math teacher) did something with eagle feathers and sage smoke, finishing by tapping the feathers on your belly and inviting the ancestors to “accept this sister.” I noticed she had a practiced flick of the wrist that seemed to come in handy when wielding feathers or making what looked like the sign of the cross at her breast. I wondered if I should perfect that as part of my own professional repertoire. Perhaps a flick of the laser pointer when doing a PowerPoint presentation? A flourish of the cell phone when taking calls in public? I remembered to crawl into the lodge and turn left so that I didn’t harm the children, or myself, by falling into the fire pit. Inside, I could just make out what looked like a survival shelter made of bent twigs, hung with dream catchers and lined with black bin liners. Somehow the black bin liners were very incongruous. Skid Row architecture meets Plains Indians. One by one, I watched my sisters’ knees as they were blessed and crawled into the lodge. I found myself sitting at the back between the ashram Asian and the German. People filled up the space in front of me until we were 20 shadows sitting in the dark and cramped space of the only other structure I’ve seen smaller than my bedsit in London. The grinning janitor brought glowing stones on a shovel and deposited them in the pit next to Hanna. “Close the flap!” called the Scottish woman in an imperious voice, and we were plunged into total darkness.

I can’t breathe! I panicked, surrounded by impenetrable blackness, the pressure of bodies and viscous heat. It was so dark it was like I had already fainted. The womb of Mother Earth. If this was the womb, then I was drowning in amniotic fluid. Trying to remember what I had been told, I pressed my hands into the floor, scrabbled to my knees and hit my forehead to the floor. Got to keep my heart higher than my head, I instructed myself, Keep in contact with the ground, the ground remains cool. The piece of sage we had been handed was worse than useless. What I needed was smelling salts. As someone practiced in the art of fainting, this was old familiar territory – only I don’t usually faint packed in among 20 bodies in complete darkness and unable to breathe. By the time they discovered my body I would have truly passed into another realm – permanently! I swallowed the hysteria and clung to the towel rolled up under my forehead as the Scottish woman called upon the spirits of the North and the South, the East and the West, the Red, White, Black and Brown people, (this is hell, this is hell) various strange-sounding deities, Mercury and Uranus (I recognized those), the little people to tickle our toes so we wouldn’t take ourselves too seriously (not much chance of that as my bottom was now high in the air in an attempt to stave off the waves of dizziness), our ancestors, Merlin (Merlin? Whoops, wrong tape, reacted my befuddled brain), and the rest of a long litany which I could only pray would be over soon. I searched my brain for the part of the schedule when they opened the flap again. I seemed to remember there was Part One: prayers for ourselves; Part Two: prayers for others; Part Three: open round (which sounded like something from a game show); and Part Four: blessing. Yoga breathing, I told myself, This is what Navy Seals do in confined spaces. Fill the back of the lungs, deeeeep breath, exhale pulling stomach to the spine. Mercifully, the incantation had stopped and we had started on the round of prayers. “Identify yourself to the universe,” boomed our Mistress of Ceremonies. Hanna was ladling water on the stones for all she was worth, judging by the hissing coming from that corner. I wished she wasn’t quite so punctilious. As I gulped soggy hot breaths from between my knees and tried to ignore the ringing in my ears, my body started squidging about under my dress until my belly slid off my knees and one side of me collapsed onto the blanket. “I am Sitha,” one of the participants informed the universe. “I pray to my ancestors and the spirit of Spiderwoman,” (did she really say Spiderwoman?) “ to allow me come into the fullness of my power.” “Ho!” responded the group, in what seemed an unlikely choice of affirmative. I willed the earth coolness along my side to rise into my body. I wondered if anyone would notice my prayer would be a bit muffled, but figured I didn’t dare pull myself into a seated position. “I am Kelly,” sang one of the Valley Girls, “please help me do well in my massage therapy mid-terms.” “Ho,” responded the group. “Idiot!” I muttered into the floor. It was my turn. I struggled to get my bottom back in the air. “Erm, this is Louise. Please help me to write my book, finally,” I prayed and subsided back onto the blanket. When it came to Hanna’s turn, she launched into the Oneida language. She appeared to be taking it all very seriously, but I noticed some references to the Healing Center at the reservation, which probably meant she was praying that she could get back to a proper sweat lodge as soon as possible. “Open the flap!” commanded our misplaced druid and suddenly the light of the lantern illuminated the glistening bare breasts of a lady to my right. I finally got close to dancing around naked in the moonlight, I mused, as I sucked in the meager amounts of fresh, cool air coming in from the flap. Somehow it didn’t seem worth the accompanying near-death experience.

Our faithful janitor appeared with more glowing stones. One of the lodge participants made a bid for freedom and I was tempted to follow after. Partly being stuck at the back, partly wanting to experience something (however bastardized) that was dear to Hanna, and partly the Empire Spirit held me back. “Close the flap!” Pitch darkness again and Part Two had begun. I resumed my bottom-up position but still experienced the blood rushing away from my head in dizzying waves as I choked on the darkness. “I am Sitha,” (Oh, here we go again!) “I pray for all children around the world.” “This is Helen,” (the Valley Girls had adopted my telephone manner of address for the universe) “I pray for my boyfriend/brother/friend/mother/step-father/cousin-once-removed/gas-station-attendant-near-where-I-live, that they can be delivered of their addiction/intestinal problems and pass their mid-terms.” It all blended into one. Apart from the boyfriend in Cabos, who was there without his girlfriend on his first vacation since joining the Sheriff’s department 4 years ago. Somehow the specificity of it stuck with me, along with the impression that the relationship was not destined to last long. Unless she was the one with glistening breasts, that is. My turn. I prayed something innocuous for my son and that he would get to experience a sweat lodge. Why the heck did I pray that?! Definitely suffering from lack of oxygen to the brain. Not only that, but I was in danger of drowning in my own sweat as rivulets cascaded into my upside down nose. My dress was now sodden, but I didn’t have time to contemplate the aesthetics of the situation as I was still concentrating on deep breathing. There is nothing spiritual about this, my mind raced, It’s purely an endurance test. Hanna’s turn. Thank God, must be near end of Part Two. “I pray that people don’t spend energy on self improvement, but concentrate on self acceptance,” prayed Hanna in Please Take Note English. “Amen! I mean, Ho!” I waved my bottom in agreement, sniffing away the sweat and trying to edge away from the burning flesh either side of me. Swelter. Suffocate. The print on plastic bags floated into my mind: Do not put over head. How ridiculous! Who would put a plastic bag over their head? Let alone seal it and then heat it up! Got to get out of here. My fingers scrabbled at the bottom of the plastic to pare open a hole. Nothing doing. I imagined punching a hole in the wall and only just controlled the impulse as the final “Ho!” signaled the rising of the flap. “Fan!” we gasped and the janitor obliged by plugging it in and sending cold air into the fetid lodge. Immobile and light-headed, I sat upright against the flimsy wall. I could make out Hanna’s silhouette by the entrance. Some of the women were lying down, legs curled. I can’t take this anymore, said my voice in my head, but couldn’t utter the sounds. Before I knew it, more stones arrived and the flap was closed again. I hit the deck. Whatever happened now was purely about survival.

Part Three, I remembered, was about letting it all out. There were moans and whines in anticipation. I suddenly had a premonition of group hysteria tipping my own already barely controllable hysteria into a frenzied outburst; limbs torn asunder in my race for the exit, trampled flesh mashed into the blankets, hot stones ricocheting off the plastic walls and the Scottish woman’s head. The incipient whines mounted into crying, then sobbing, then high-volume gibberish as the Valley Girls explored primal screams, the German discovered her inner child, and others raved: “Need to forgive,” “Self acceptance!” “ Guilt, guilt, guilt!” “Finger painting.” (Huh?) “Maniacal laughter!” prompted my neighbor. “Please don’t!” came my only muffled contribution. Impressionable to the last, the group started laughing like oxygen-deprived hyenas. In rising desperation, I stuck my fingers in my ears and burrowed my forehead deeper into my towel. Slick legs and damp clothing hemmed in my blindness and my lungs struggled to fill with the mixture of heat and sweat and steam. “Now imagine you are 2 feet in front of yourself,” said our guide (not easy, given the dimensions) “and you’re seeing all your beauty and talents.” “I love you!” said a very convincing voice in my ear, until I realized she was talking to a separated version of herself. “Now give away those talents to the universe!” warbled the voice of our chief tormentor. “I give away my poetry,” she started us off. I can only imagine, I thought ruefully. Hopefully, the universe will find some appropriate receptacle for it. “I give away my intelligence, my beauty, my compassion,” chirruped the others in turn. Not much left for me. “I give away my ability to find humor in extreme situations,” I said from between clenched teeth, “and my desire for new experiences!” That one I didn’t want back. Hanna growled in the corner. Whatever she was giving back included whole migrations and enough wackiness to sustain several Old World mental health systems. The ringing in my ears had started a dance with the darkness, swirling in red and black patterns. My heart was jumping against my collarbones. “Open the flap,” Scottie commanded. This time there was no hesitation. “Girl coming through!” I shouted. “Oh stay!” pleaded one of the ninnies. “You can’t leave before the blessing!” remonstrated the High Priestess of the Back Yard. “Sweethearts, I know when I’m about to go,” I responded remarkably lucidly for someone who was nearly tearing her wet rag of a dress in her desperate attempt to climb over bodies and crawl for the flap, “I’ll spare you the drama.” “Thank you!” said one of the Valley Girls, sweetly. “Close the flap!” issued the draconian voice. Our janitor duly sealed the flap as I took my last look at the prone forms steaming gently in the dark interior. I lay back in a deck chair and tried to get oxygen into my beef jerky head. As the leaves of the surrounding trees came into focus, I avowed my preference for ‘the everyday spiritual.’ I also praised the wisdom of the universe that with my low blood pressure I was born Catholic, not Native American. The sound of women’s voices floated from under the pile of blankets: “Spirit of the wild woods.” “ I am.” “Spirit of the rushing wind.” “ I am.” I looked around for agog neighbors, but nothing disturbed the peaceful evening; evidently in Pasadena they are accustomed to chanting igloos and the servant of Hades with his glowing shovels.

I grew chilly in my wet dress and was relieved to find my towel had retained the heat of the lodge. I wrapped it around my shoulders as the last invocation to the ancestors drifted out and bore with it the imperative to “Open the flap.” The lantern light bounced off the janitor’s teeth as he helped slippery, naked women out of the lodge, to then fall spread-eagled on their towels. Some of the larger ladies reminded me of something laid out on a slab in a fish market. Our intrepid ashram Asian went behind the tree and did sun salutations, steam still rising from her head. Hanna boiled in her towel on a bench. Our solicitous janitor was instructed to pour 6 glasses of water and then seal the lodge so that our ancestors could continue to sweat. I could just imagine my father in the spirit world groaning and reminding me this was another reason he had raised me Catholic.

Once dressed and reassembled in the living room, Hanna and I resumed our position on the couch. “What did you think of the heat?” asked the Scottish Shaman slyly. (Hanna had mentioned that she was used to very hot sweats.) “Fine, if you want to tie a plastic bag around your head!” retorted Hanna. “You should really get rid of that plastic. You’re supposed to use skins so that there can be an interaction between earth and sky. I’m sure I’ve lost a few brain cells!” “Different traditions,” came a voice, “Done plenty before,” murmured another. The ashram Asian made some sort of ‘ohm’ hand gesture at her heart. I worried for her equilibrium. “Did you notice how it suddenly started to get hotter in the third round?” asked our hostess, deciding to ignore Hanna. “Yes,” agreed Miss Massage Therapy Mid-term enthusiastically, “We were giving so much out!” My interpretation inclined more to Hanna’s analysis that in fact we were all being slowly asphyxiated.

“It was interesting listening from the outside,” said the janitor, who was still hovering. “It all seemed to be one musical note.” Musical note? I had expected the next sound to be sirens. The janitor suggested we all took a turn at smoking the pipe, which I discovered from the look shot at me by our ceremonial priestess to be what was in the blanket roll beside my feet on the table. She reverently produced a 3-foot long wooden pipe, a shell, various beaded pokers and yet more sage and eagle feathers. I had heard from Hanna the call of the traditionals to return all pipes to the Native Americans (to prevent precisely this type of Native American-flavored Tupperware party) and so watched Hanna’s face for signs of impending trouble. Our presiding priestess packed the pipe with Natural American Spirit tobacco (what else?), stretched her arm to light the bowl and instructed us (with no sense of irony) not to inhale. The pipe was passed from shaky Valley Girl to shaky Valley Girl who each did a very poor impression of a smoker and actually failed to notice when the tobacco ran out. The priestess harrumphed over and with a wrist flick, stamp, and twitch of feathers replenished the tobacco. Hanna disdainfully took her turn. I declined. It was unfortunate that this could be interpreted as a statement of disunity, but frankly after nearly losing consciousness and being kippered in the sweat lodge, I was not about to contract some orally transmitted disease into the bargain.

We were told to remain seated while the pipe was packed away again and it was returned to its buckskin bag without being either appropriated by Hanna, or the subject of a furious tug of war. Relieved, I went to join the throng in the kitchen and ate copious amounts of fruit while Hanna sat morosely on the sofa. She made an abrupt move to leave. “You’ll have to drive,” she said, handing me the keys, “I feel sick.” I hurriedly shook the gargantuan hand of the would-be Shaman and thanked her for an “interesting” experience and waved to the Valley Girls, who waved cheerfully back. “I think I’ve been poisoned,” Hanna moaned in the seat next to me on our way home. “I can think of better ways to lose brain cells… Suffocated in the name of enlightenment!” She leaned out of the car door at the next stop sign: “They sodomized my culture,” she said, and spewed onto the pavement.

Copyright © 2006 Louise Godbold

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