by Frank Pauc
This first appeared in Frank’s blog on April 3, 2018, as “Smoke and Sweat.” It is republished here with the author’s permission.
Howard reminded me of my father’s uncle. Uncle John was a big man, and always had a ready smile and an infectious laugh. My dad’s uncle always seemed to be up to some mischief. When I was a boy, I could never tell if Uncle John was laughing at us or himself.
Howard was like that too. He ran the sweat lodge at Fort Belknap. Howard had an interesting setup. The lodge itself was inside of a wooden garage. The fire for heating the stones was outside, but everything else was in the building. Somebody told us that this was the only sweat that operated even when it was sixty degrees below zero outside.
Howard sat and talked to us while we waited for the rocks to heat up. They were heating eighty stones, twenty rocks for each round of the sweat. Howard liked to talk. He was good at it, and I liked to listen to him.
Howard was a simple man, earthy and wise. He spoke of many things, all of them connected with the sweat. He told us, “Now when you pray, you don’t ask for material things; you know, like a car or winning the lottery… That’s not right. That just attracts the bad spirits. Pray for your families. Pray for the earth. You will get the material things anyway. The Creator will give them to you. He knows what you all need.”
He took a drag on his cigarette, and went on, “Sure, I’m smoking now, but it’s not just because I like it. That’s part of my prayer, for me and you. When you smoke during the sweat, blow the smoke up, like that.”
He blew a puff of smoke up toward the roof of the garage. “Let that tobacco be your prayer. Let the smoke rise to the Creator and the spirits, like that.”
Howard kept talking.
“We use our medicines during the sweat: the sage, the cedar, the sweet grass, and the tobacco. We call on the fire spirits to heat our stones. Those stones are the oldest living things on Mother Earth. They were here long before we were ever thought of. We use the water, the water that keeps all things alive, like that. The Creator, He cries for us, his children. The raindrops are his tears for us because we are so pitiful like that.”
“That Christianity, that almost destroyed us. They tried to destroy our customs and our medicine. They talk about Satan, whatever that is. If I want to see the devil, I can just look at you or me! We all do bad things. We don’t need a devil for that!”
Howard laughed, and said, “I got nothing against those Christians. They got their Easter today. At least the little kids get an egg hunt!”
“I don’t care what color anybody is. Everybody is welcome in the sweat: black, yellow, white, red, green. We even had priests come to the sweat! They got something from it too! Anybody can sweat with us.”
“The important thing is the prayer. We have to pray for our families, for our babies, for the ones not even born yet. We have to pray for the earth like that. We have to pray for ourselves. Don’t forget to pray for ourselves! We need prayer too!”
“Pray to the laughter spirit. We need to joke and laugh. We need to cry too. Some people say that we shouldn’t cry during the sweat, like that. We can cry. The spirits help us to cry. Our ancestors are with us to help us. Cry if you want. Enjoy the sweat.”
“I don’t control’ the sweat. I don’t control’ nothing in there. The spirits, they are in control. Whatever happens, is from the spirits. People say that I run a hot sweat. The spirits decide how hot it gets in there. They decide how hot we need to be. I don’t control that.”
“We have four rounds, one for each direction, one for each color: yellow, black, red, and white. We call on those spirits. We call on our ancestors. We call on the Creator.”
The sweat took three hours. We all sat in the dark. Howard ran a hot sweat. The steam coming off of the rocks burned my face and shoulders. It was hard to breathe. It was hard to pray out loud. People sang traditional songs. The stones glowed in the dark. We burned sage and tobacco and sweetgrass and cedar. We prayed.
The following morning we had a pipe ceremony. Tuffy led the ritual. He had us all sit around the buffalo skin. He burned the sweet grass. He prayed in his language, and then in English. Tuffy told us a story:
“When I was a boy, I went to the mission church here in Hays. One Sunday morning, I saw my grandma sitting in her chair. She told me that she wasn’t going to church no more. She said that the priests in the Church had been lying to her for all these years. She tried to raise her kids as Catholics. They didn’t turn out good. They drank. The ways of the priests were no good. I stopped being Catholic then. I was sixteen. I went back to our old ways.”
Other people in the circle talked about the Church. They had nothing good to say. They talked about the old boarding schools, where little kids were forcibly removed from their families and brainwashed. The children in these schools forgot their language, their customs, and their values. Some of them were beaten and abused in the church-run schools.
I am not ashamed to be a Catholic. I am ashamed of things that my Church has done.
Tuffy lit the pipe and we passed it around the circle three times. We prayed. We spoke from our hearts.
We said goodbye to the people at Fort Belknap.