The purification ceremony is commonly referred to as the sweat lodge, but this is a misnomer, says William J. Walk Sacred, a Cree medicine man: “When you come out of a purification lodge, you don’t feel the same as when you come out of a sauna. The ceremony is a rebirthing process. There’s something that happens in a spiritual sense that is powerful and uplifting.”
The Indian word for the purification ceremony is oenikika, which means the breath of life. It is a process of renewal through the integration of the spiritual and physical. Walk Sacred explains, “Just think of this as a marriage ceremony that takes place within yourself. The ceremonial leader is the medicine man. He is a representative of the spirits, who works within the invisible realm, in order for you to become aware of the healing process within yourself.”
The lodge itself is made of branches, usually willow saplings, but varying according to what’s available in the region. Blankets or tarps are used as coverings to hold in heat. The circular shape of the lodge is often described as being like a womb or a protective bubble.
The nature of the ceremony differs from tribe to tribe; Walk Sacred explains the many facets of preparing for a Cree ceremony: “When you want to begin, you find a medicine man, and you offer a pouch of tobacco. Tobacco represents a person’s Spirit. Offering tobacco is how you ask the medicine man to work on your behalf in the spiritual world. It’s not like a payment of money; this is his obligation. Once you have taken upon yourself the role of medicine man, it is incumbent upon you to do this healing work when someone comes to you with this offering. So, you bring tobacco to the medicine man. You also come to him with your specific desire. You tell him if it’s a broken leg you want worked on, or if it’s an alcohol or drug problem, or something in the non-physical world. You bring your request to the medicine man.
“At this point, he will give you your responsibilities; he will tell you how to set up the ceremony and what you need to do. You might have to prepare food. Once you ask for a ceremony, anyone who knows about it can come and request a specific healing within the ceremonial function. You never know how many people are going to be there, so you have to prepare food for 30 or 40 people, depending upon the size of the medicine man’s lodge. You might be asked to prepare a specific type of food, like buffalo soup. The people who work in the spiritual world tell the medicine man what they need. This is an offering, and it represents the humbling of our spirit.
“Then the medicine man will give you specific amounts and colors of what we call tobacco ties. These are little pieces of cloth representing the six directions, white being north, yellow being south, red being east, black being west, above being blue, and the earth mother being green. He may tell you that you need 75 yellow ties and 50 blue ones. The colors represent who he is working with in the nonphysical world, and the number of ties represent a specific amount of prayers that are requested by the spirits in order for them to come in and work with you. You prepare a pouch with tobacco, and you direct your prayers into each one before closing them with a tie. Your prayers carry the gift of your heart to the spirits so they know what you’re looking for and they can see the sincerity of the heart. That’s where they look because they know the truth is there.”
The beginning of the ceremony is a time of prayer and contemplation. Walk Sacred explains, “The medicine man begins by setting up an alter. Usually, the alter has some type of antler to hold his pipe. Then he sends up sacred herbs in the four directions. There are four sacred herbs in the Native culture. One is sage, which purifies a room of negative energies. Another is sweet grass.
A medicine man told me, This is what brings in the heavy guys.’ Sweet grass brings in big, powerful beings from the other side to heal you. The third is cedar. Cedar is for purification. It sets up an atmosphere for the spirits to work. It’s a sweetness they like and it’s attractive to the energies of the invisible world. The fourth is tobacco, which has always been sacred to Native culture. It is used in ceremonies of smoking the pipe. It is used to bless the earth. Whenever we harvest herbs or cut barks off of trees, we always offer tobacco to the four directions and to the sky father and earth mother. And we plant tobacco as an honoring of that plant, tree, or substance that is giving its life, or part of its life, to help our life.”
Specific types of rocks, called grandfather rocks, are gathered and placed in a pile. Primarily lava stones from volcanos are used, because ordinary river rocks could explode. A fire is built, and the stones are heated. When the stones are white hot, they are brought into the lodge.
“We honor our relations as we enter the womb’ and again as we leave,” Walk Sacred continues. “We crawl around until we form a circle around the center. The center of the center is where a little pit is dug for the grandfather rocks. These are brought in, one at a time, and the first four are placed in the north, south, east, and west directions. They they’re sprinkled with a little sage and sweet grass and whatever the medicine man might be using. The medicine man offers prayers to each of the four directions, to honor his ancestors, and to honor those in the nonphysical as well as the physical worlds. This is a sacred time. It is a time of prayer, introspection, and healing.
“When the water hits the rock, it goes up in steam, fills the air, and unifies everyone within the womb.’ Everything is united, as we say, all of my relations. At that moment we are connecting ourselves to the basic elements of life, and that brings out the greatest good in people. We are connecting to the movement that is all around us, that we are part of, and never separate from.
“As we sit in the circle, we each go around, one at a time, and we offer prayers of thanksgiving and praise for the Almighty, the great spirits, the great mystery, the sky father, and the earth mother. The medicine man sits by the entrance, and is the first to offer his prayers. Each person then takes a turn. Eventually you come to the end and the medicine man blends all the prayers. It’s kind of like weaving a tapestry. It’s a mystical, magical process, an altered state that goes beyond the physical form. It takes you into the reality of the nonphysical world, where the real healing takes place.”
After the purification ceremony is the wopela, which, broadly interpreted, means giving thanks: “Now, we bring in the soup and foods and the gifts for the medicine man,” continues Walk Sacred. “It might be a blanket, whatever your spirit leads you to bring the medicine man or to offer directly to the mystery. People sit around the medicine man in a circle. Once everyone is in, the windows are closed up. The medicine man’s blanket is laid out on the floor, in the center of the lodge. On top of that is a mat of freshly cut, beautiful sage. The medicine man covers himself with a blanket, and goes into a prayerful state. He takes the prayer ties and sets them up in the north end of the center in a specific fashion. They are laid down on a special type of earth, on top of the sage, which carries the great aroma energy up to the Great Spirit. The prayers are carried up in a good way, so that the Great Spirit will receive them and hear the pitiful cries of his children. After the prayers, the candles are blown out, and it is pitch dark.
“There are specific songs that are sung for bringing in spirits, for talking to spirits, for constantly giving praise and gratitude, for constantly giving acknowledgment to the great mystery for all the gifts of life. This includes the pain and suffering as well as the good times, recognizing that all things flow from the one source, and all things return back to that one source. It’s an acknowledgment. Very holy and sacred songs might be sung for an hour. It depends. It’s all under the direction of the medicine man, although he might not speak a word. A lot of it is done telepathically, through the communication of energy waves.
“We go around to each individual, just like we did in the purification ceremony, and we give prayers and thanks and ask for specific healing. Now is the time to verbalize our requests. After everyone has given their prayers, the medicine man calls the spirits in. The medicine man is in the center. This isn’t just the center of the lodge; it is the center of the universe. It represents the center of life. And that center exists within each of us. Honoring that center brings the nonphysical world into the physical one. So, the medicine man represents the spirit of the God source, and by so doing, he creates an energy that allows the nonphysical world to interact with the physical world.
“Amazing things happen. I went for healing because I was struck by lightning. While I was standing there, all of a sudden, this rattle came out of the air and started pounding me on the chest, hitting me all over the chest and head. Then eagle feathers were all over my face. There was stomping on the floor that sounded as if it came from beings 20 feet high. And you could see lights and colors.”
While these experiences are phenomenal in that they shift our perception of reality, Walk Sacred reminds us that the essence of healing is in the work of each participant: “The medicine man helps us remove the veils that prevent us from seeing life as it really is: unified and sacred. His approach is to help individuals resolve problems by the work they do themselves. They prepare food, make prayer ties, sing, chant, and drum. These remove blocks within the physical structure so that the person is receptive to impulses from the non-physical world.”
Working with spiritual energies is a sacred and powerful process when performed for the right reasons by an experienced person. Unfortunately, the purification lodge has become trendy in recent years, and the right atmosphere is not always present. Native Americans, therefore, warn people to take certain precautions before entering into a purification ceremony: First, if a person is charging money, people need to think about the type of energy this will attract and the effects it will have on the people in the lodge. This is a Gift from the spiritual world that cannot be compensated for by material gifts. Someone who charges for the purification ceremony is not working in the traditional way of the pipe. Second, one must look into the character of the person leading the rite. White Deer of Autumn suggests, “Look into a medicine man’s background the way you would approach finding any new doctor. Find out the person’s track record. Who are they? What are their experiences? And understand your responsibilities of going into the ceremonial process. Then the blessings received will be beyond your wildest imagination.”
Today an increasing number of Indians are victims of cancer and other diseases of the modern world. Native Americans tend not to rely solely on western medicine for help. However, White Deer of Autumn notes that since traditional medicine is best at curing diseases brought on by nature, and since new sicknesses are brought on by technology, some technological medicine may be required. Here White Deer of Autumn talks about his wife’s quest for healing through a combination of old and new medicine:
WHITE DEER OF AUTUMN ON SPIRITUAL HEALING THROUGH PURIFICATION
“When my wife found out that she had breast cancer, and a doctor, without any sensitivity, told her that she needed to have her breasts cut off, she immediately rejected this approach. She knew it was unnatural for her body to deal with radiation. Instead, my wife went through a process of cleansing through sweat lodges and meditation. She returned her body to a more natural form that brought her closer to the earth, and that healed her spirit, which had been hurt as a child through molestation, boarding school, and racism.
“My wife took chemotherapy at the end, and it did prolong her life for a few months. But she reacted horribly to the chemotherapy. Of course she would. She’s a native woman, a natural woman. Putting something so unnatural into her body is going to cause her to react in that way.
“While taking chemotherapy, my wife continued to attend our ceremonies where she would sit in the center surrounded by loved ones. We would offer the pipe, and use rattles and drums and sing for her, trying to create peace and healing.
“She died just after Mother’s Day. I will never forget how she invited the children onto her bed and asked for the pipe. The last act on this earth that she wanted to do was to smoke the pipe with her children. Even though the cancer destroyed her physical body, the healing of her Spirit allowed my wife to make a remarkable, wondrous transition into the next world.”
http://www.spiritalk.net/native-americans-nahealin.html#The Pipe Ceremony
The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. “The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky,” explains White Deer of Autumn. “Nothing is more sacred. The pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words; it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which is the source of life.” The reason why tobacco is used to connect the worlds is that the plant’s roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens.
There are different kinds of pipes and different uses for them. There are personal pipes and family pipes as well as pipes for large ceremonies. The particular stone used depends upon the tribe’s location, and various symbols are added to attract certain spiritual energies. Also, the type of tobacco used depends on tribal custom. But despite these differences, there are certain important similarities: The ceremony invokes a relationship with the energies of the universe, and ultimately the Creator, and the bond made between earthly and spiritual realms is not to be broken.
Ed McGaa (Eagle Man), an Ogalala Sioux, and author of Mother Earth Spirituality: Native Americans Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World, says that most pipe ceremonies have the same intention: to call upon and thank the six energies: “All of our Sioux ceremonies beseech to the four directions, the earth and sky, and ultimately the Great Spirit. We see our Creator through nature, and we try to emulate what the Creator has made. This has worked out well, as you can see from the track record of Native Americans people. The old time Indians were honest, ethical people, and they had an unblemished environmental record. When the Pilgrims first landed, they kept them alive, and they took in black slaves. They were extremely humanistic. That’s one of the main reasons that I believe in the natural way.”
Eagle Man begins a ceremony by beseeching the West power, while thinking about the life giving rains and the ever present spirit world. Next, he beseeches the north power, the source of endurance, strength, truthfulness, and honesty, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, he will look to the east power. The east is where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge, the essence of spirituality. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. The fourth energy is the south power, which brings us bounty, medicine, and growth. Next to be acknowledged is the earth spirit. Eagle Man touches the pipe to the ground, and says, “Mother Earth, I seek to protect you.” Since Mother Earth depends on the sun’s life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sky. Lastly, the pipe is held straight up to the Great Spirit, the Great Mystery, the unexplainable source of all life. These words are then spoken: “Oh Great Spirit, I thank you for the six powers of the universe.” Unlike many westerners, Eagle Man explains that the person reaching out to the spirit world has no fear: “Most of us are not afraid of the Great Spirit. We don’t fear something that has given us our life.”
It is unimaginable for an Indian to break his word after smoking the pipe. In the past, the signing of treaties was always accompanied by pipe ceremonies because Indians believed that smoking the pipe would secure the arrangement. No one would be foolish enough to lie or go back on their word once the pipe was smoked because the pipe was the vehicle for carrying their word up to the Creator. And in return, a blessing would descend from the Creator to the individuals smoking it.
Of course, we all know that the United States government did not share in these understandings, and sent representatives to the Indians to use the pipe as a means of deception. As White Deer of Autumn explains: “You’ve heard of the peace pipe. There is no such thing, in a sense, because that came about when the government sent emissaries to the Native Americans s. At that time, we were still the lords of the land; we still held the power. The U.S. government had to deal with that. They understood that the pipe would allow peaceful transactions because no Indian would ever lie once spoken on the pipe.”
By dishonoring the meaning of this sacred practice, treaties were broken and land was taken but the benefits were short-lived, as White Deer of Autumn explains, “When the Europeans started to use tobacco, they saw it as a market, and thus corrupted its function. Now it is being misused, and you see what happens when a gift that has been given is misused.”
Yet, to those who understand its true significance, the pipe ceremony holds great power, White Deer of Autumn continues, “When a stem and bowl are disconnected, you have two sacred objects. When a stem and bowl are connected, you have a living being. And the pipe is addressed as a living, breathing being. A Catholic priest traveling down the Mississippi observed men laying down their arms in conflict before the pipe. They would not fight in its presence. He said that by carrying the pipe you could pass from one end of this land to the other, without being harmed. A great holy man, named Lame Deer, said that as long as one Indian holds the pipe and prays to the Great Mystery, we will live. That’s how powerful it is.”
http://www.spiritalk.net/native-americans-nahealin.html#The Pipe Ceremony
The ghost dance is a ceremony for the regeneration of the earth, and, subsequently, the restoration of the earth’s caretakers to their former life of bliss. Not surprisingly, the religion experienced its height of popularity during the late 19th century, when devastation to the buffalo, the land, and its Native Americans guardians was at its peak. Between 1888 and 1990, various tribes sent emissaries to a man named Wovoka, who claimed to be a visionary, and who was hailed as a Messiah by many desperate Indian nations. Wovoka maintained that Spirits had shown him certain movements and songs after he had died for a short period of time. In a manner reminiscent of Christ, Wovoka preached non-violence, and most tribes abandoned their war-like ways in preparation for future happiness.
The dance quickly spread to various American Indian nations, and as it spread, it took on additional meanings. While performing the ghost dance, it was believed that you could visit relatives who had left their bodies. As so many Native Americans had lost friends and relatives, this aspect of the ceremony was particularly healing. The Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho expanded its meaning further after being told in dreams that wearing certain designs on clothing would protect them in battle. These beliefs served to ward off fears of imminent danger from suspicious and sometimes hostile white onlookers, but proved futile in the end.
The ghost dance unified Indian people, even tribes with a tradition of conflict. The solidarity of these groups frightened government officials, whose worst fears were realized years earlier when the Arapahoes, Cheyennes and Sioux came together to defeat Custer. As mentioned earlier, most ghost dancers did not embrace warlike behavior. Yet, the government reacted to this outburst of Indian behavior by gunning down ghost dancers at Wounded Knee during a peaceful ceremony. Even women and children were shot in the back as they were trying to escape. Many say this was in retaliation for the massacre at Little Big Horn, since the seventh cavalry was again involved.
Perhaps the government was also frightened of the dance’s spiritual power. According to a historian of that time, James Mooney, during one investigation of the ghost dance, U.S. troops reported seeing approximately 125 people at the beginning of the dance, and twice that number at the end, with no one new coming into the circle.
The ghost dance is indeed magical, according to Gabriel Horn, author of Native Heart: An American Indian Odyssey. Horn, also known as White Deer of Autumn, says the spirits of ghost dancers are ever present: “The Minneapolis Institute of Art put on the first and only exhibit of ghost dance shirts and dresses worn by men, women, and children. The room was black and the clothes were suspended in two circles. You could even see the bullet holes and the blood stains on the shirts from the slaughter of ghost dancers at Wounded Knee under the orders of the government.
“Several Native Americans went to the exhibit, elders as well as young people. The museum would keep it open at night, just for us. We would sit in a circle, surrounded by these ghost dance shirts and dresses, and pass a sacred pipe. We were listening to hear what we could hear, and watching to see what we could see. We wanted to get in touch with those people, those spirits, those ghosts of the past, to reconnect, and to show them that we still carry this love for the earth.
“I will never forget the night that an elderly Ojibwa, Old Man Bill, said to me, There were only 14 of us when we went in to sit among the ghost dance shirts and dresses. Look at all the people now.’ I looked up and saw what he meant. An hour later, we were sitting down at a table, looking at each other. Who were all those other people? It became very crowded.
“Another time a student of mine came to the exhibit. She was crying by a ghost dance shirt. I looked in the shirt to tell her its story because each one told a story. The shirt wearer’s last name was there, and it turned out to be the shirt of her grandfather. There was no way she could have known that when she went in.”
The ghost dance is practiced today, but privately. “It is performed for the same reasons,” White Deer of Autumn says, “because we are losing a lot of our relatives to cancer and alcohol, and the earth is in dire need of healing.”
http://www.spiritalk.net/native-americans-nahealin.html#The Vision Quest
Those of us on a spiritual path believe that we are put on this earth for a special reason, but that reason is not always clear to us. We want to know what we need to accomplish in life for our highest benefit, and, in turn, the benefit of the world. The vision quest can reveal our life’s purpose, but it is an arduous journey into the core of our being that we should only embark upon with sincerity. William Walk Sacred cautions, “It’s very important for people to realize that this is not fun and games. Going into the spiritual world is very serious. If the intent isn’t clear, the spirits will not give the vision. The most important thing is being clear in your heart as to what you are seeking for yourself and the people of the world.”
How to embark on a vision quest varies greatly from tribe to tribe. Walk Sacred’s experience, as a Cree Indian, involved a long period of preparation, which he says is designed, in part, to weed out all but the most committed. Walk Sacred describes this procedure in great detail:
A fire ceremony is a Native American practice that is usually performed every full moon. You do not have to wait for a full moon in order to do a fire ceremony. Fire Ceremonies are wonderful during a New Moon, when you want to introduce newness into your Life. This Native American ritual is easy, simple and an awe-inspiring event.
I often do a fire ceremony by myself during the New Moon (probably every other month) and I’ve done them many times with friends in the backyard where we dug a large pit in the ground in order to build a safe fire. I’ve also used a large clay pot, a campfire, a bonfire or an old barbecue grill.
HOW IS A FIRE CEREMONY PERFORMED?
Each of us bring something to burn that we would like to rid from our past (in Full Moon) or a prayer request of something new (in New Moon), that will burn, turn to smoke and release into the ethers. This allows the past energy to move along to its highest spiritual progression path and the new prayer request to move along to its highest spiritual progression path. We may bring pictures, drawings, or intentions written on a piece of paper for the past or the newness. For the past, after we have burned and released it, then we have something prepared that is written down on a clean sheet of paper. This would be something new that we would like to call forth from God. For the newness, the prayer request is then burned and released into the ethers thereby replacing the past.
We form a circle around the fire and one by one we call in support from Divine Sources that give us peace. E.g. – God, Jesus, Creator, the Blessed Virgin Mother, Spirit, the Universe, the Archangels, the Saints that we may feel closest to, Guardian Angels, etc. We start with a prayer, and end with a prayer that is coupled with thanksgiving that our prayers and intentions have already been answered.
Keep in mind, no one is obligated to speak during a Fire Ceremony. Anyone can participate without stating what they are releasing or calling forth.
After we have called in our Divine Source we place into the fire our pictures, drawings and intended release of the past. Once these things have burned to smoke and ash, we then place into the fire what we have written on clean sheet of paper. This would be what we desire to replace those old energies with and call in new.
The things we address from our past or call into our future can be shared with the group or kept to ourselves as we go through the Fire Ceremony.
YOU WILL NEED ANY OR ALL OF THE FOLLOWING
- A fire pit or fire place where you can safely burn a fire. A barbecue pit or fireproof pot works well too. If you live in an apartment, it is best to find a place outdoors where you can safely burn a fire.
- A bucket filled with water or a water hose to put the fire out after the ceremony.
- Items such as a drawing, picture or written intentions that you would like to release from your past.
- Anything else that you feel would serve you that need to be released.
In strict Native American custom – the burning of sage, sweetgrass or tobacco is burned along with the past, which is given as an offering. When the smoke rises up into the ethers and is carried away to God there should be a quiet or meditative break in order to embrace a new awareness of transformation in your life. It is also symbolic that you can offer up a bit of food you wanted and only ate half of so that you could offer the other half in thanks.
THE VALUE OF IMAGERY
Do not minimize the value of imagery in Native American ceremony. The Spirit of God is real. This is a way of demonstrating our gratefulness and thanksgiving to God. When we pray to our Source and Supply who is God; He can, will and does affect our lives. So honoring Him and showing Him respect is part of this ceremony.
After your fire gets going, each person may contribute to the prayer and then the items are offered to the fire. Tell God and all the Divine Spirits that you have called forth that you offer these things in thanksgiving. Meditate and feel the presence of God all around you. Singing praise, playing peaceful music either through tapes or instruments may also be used.