I am sitting cross legged on the earthen floor, thick patterned blankets between me and the dirt. It is dark inside the dome, which is made of 16 willow saplings tied together with cloth and string and covered in worn blankets and I am centered on the doorway, a square of piercing light that frames the fire a half dozen yards away where the fire keepers are excavating the lava stones, Grandfather, from the molten embers.
I am inside of a sweat lodge, the ceremony, Inipi which means “To Live Again” is to purify and place ourselves in a position of openness to send prayers for ourselves and those we love who are suffering.
“Nothing will hurt you here”
The drums beat and I feel one with the sound. My head is the drum.
My body is heating up, thawing out from the cold of the Winter I’ve been living in for over a month.
It isn’t until the third round that I find the heat unbearable.
It hits me in a wave then.
I have never felt this type of heat before, it engulfs my body and seizes my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. I place the towel over my head, and the experience of having my breath from inside of my body feel cooler than the air outside is jarring.
The steam emanating from the pit in the middle of the dome which holds 14 new lava rocks from the fire outside. And the Mimi, sacred water of life, has been poured afresh, extinguishing their rolling red sparks.
This is the Lakota way.
The door opens and the fresh air takes a while to reach me but when it does it feels life giving.
The chanupa is passed towards me and I carefully take the bowl in my left hand and the lighter in my right. The tip is wet.
The fourth round starts and I feel as though my skin is on fire.
I work to suppress the panic that starts to arise in my body.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
“You are under our protection now.
Now you are family.”