Sweat, Stones and Visions: Native American Spirituality

by Jon Magnuson

Jon Magnuson is Lutheran campus pastor at the University of Washington in Seattle and cochair of the Native American Task Force of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 19, 1982, p. 594. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our sense of time is unlike the essential character of Indian time. Our frequently misguided efforts to fit spirituality into neat time frames like those scheduled for theater performances or athletic events. As if we could regulate our encounters with God. The sweatlodge reminds us of another way: of surrendering; allowing ourselves to be “gripped” by the Other, renewed, recast, reborn.

Its midafternoon. In a borrowed ‘76 AMC Hornet, holding a fast-food chicken sandwich in one hand and balancing a cup of ice water in the other, I drive eight miles north from this Oregon university town to an abandoned air force base which now houses a modest, little-known alcohol treatment Center for American Indians. As the car radio blasts its frenzied commercials, the sun is shining on meadows along the edge of the lush green coastal hills. A mist from the morning -- wavering, mysterious -- still clings to the valley floor. As part of a personal search for common ground between my own religious tradition and that of native Americans, I have accepted an invitation to share in a sweatlodge ceremony today. Sensing my need to prepare for this passage into another world, I switch off the car radio. Led Zeppelin gives way to the dull rhythm of tires on pavement.

I arrive to see 15 acres of cinderblock, prefab buildings. Many have broken windows; most are painted a drab green. I drive into the parking lot of a run-down barracks unit. The grass remains unmowed. Pieces of discarded machinery, an occasional rusted can litter the lonely landscape. To my right, I catch sight of the ceremonial grounds: the medicine circle, made up of three circular sweatlodges, each about 12 feet in diameter and four in height. In back of each lodge stands a cedar pole 15 feet high, with colored cloths and a single feather teased by the wind. In the center of the circle is a well-used firepit, bordered by three small altars made of earth and stone, each in front of its lodge.

I walk toward the office building. A handful of dusty cars and pickup trucks reflect the afternoon sun. Two dogs play at the far end of the barracks.

Later that afternoon, I sit with Victoria, a 30-year-old Seneca from Cleveland. We talk of the treatment center’s struggle for funding and her work as project director to balance the delicate political dependency on federal and tribal bureaucratic structures. One of 130 such alcohol treatment programs in the country, this one has sought to incorporate Indian tradition and spirituality into its approach. It is trying to reclaim the deepest resources of the native American heritage in order to combat the crippling effects of alcoholism -- an insidious psychosocial cancer eating away the remnants of native American communities. Along with Indian cultural events, support groups and local medical consultations, twice a week the sweatlodge ceremonies are carried out: the ceremonial pipes are prepared, the rocks heated in the firepit, the ancient spiritual songs remembered, the purification rituals relived.

The fire is being lit, the wood split. One hears now the ring of an ax -- deliberate, purposeful. I lean against a photocopying machine in the main office, a stained table with instant coffee to my left and a corner shelf piled high with periodicals. Three or four of us talk together of religion.

The small, round-faced woman, Ivy, is 20 years old and comes from the Lummi reservation in Washington. She speaks of the sweathouse as her “sanctuary.” Her father was once an electric-guitar player, her mother a singer. She recalls years of traveling with them: “They played for different churches,” she says, “all kinds.” She figures she’s seen them all -- and will never forget one that preached that all folks who were left-handed were going to hell. “You know,” she says, half smiling, “I never got over that one. It gave me so much guilt. I was left-handed, see.” I catch a quick glint of her eye. Pat, a staff member, part Blackfoot, takes another cigarette. There is a kind of painful humor now about their early experiences in the Catholic Church.

I have been drawn here over the past year by native American friends. My role as a non-Indian, a Lutheran pastor and a Western-trained psychotherapist was first challenged years ago while I was working and living with a number of Chippewas, members of my first rural parish in northern Michigan. As I increasingly realized the incompleteness of much Western theological reflection, I first turned to, then became disillusioned with, the exclusively materialistic, behavioristic bias so dominant in much of secular psychotherapy. My reading in psychiatry and religion confirmed for me the importance of the symbolic and the intuitive. I have cautiously watched, with interest and support, the assault on the overtechnologized concepts so predominant in Western medicine and religion. (See Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness [Bantam, 1981]; Vine Deloria, The Metaphysics of Modern Existence [Harper & Row, 1979]; Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health [Random House, 1976]; Thomas S. Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness [Harper & Row, 1974].) My conviction has grown steadily stronger that in the remnants of that which our white culture has sought so systematically and unconsciously to destroy lie clues to an understanding of ourselves and others as common creatures of the earth.

The fire is burning down. I wander outside to the medicine circle where six of us have gathered. Now I understand why they smiled when I asked, “What time will the sweat begin?” Indian time, right time, intuitive time, nature’s time: when the fire burns down. We watch the burning logs together. Fourteen rocks stacked carefully in the center, now glowing red-hot from the remaining coals. Conversation passes among us casually, softly.

Dutch, an Oglala Sioux raised in South Dakota, tells me about the numbers of rocks used for different ceremonies. Tending the fire is a lean, longhaired, blue-jeaned staff member called Alfredo. Relaxed yet intent in his movements, he reminds me of a hippie of the ‘60s. He’s part Indian, Dutch tells me, and will be the medicine leader for the sweat. A younger man moves from the woodpile to the circle. Eager; helpful; his voice is stuttering, tongue-thick -- scars from the ravages of alcohol. Alfredo motions. It’s time.

We wait in running shorts or cutoffs. Ivy and another woman stand with wraparound blankets. The pipe is prepared and laid gently against the small earth altar in front of the lodge; the tobacco is blessed and lit. Small ribbon offerings of varying colors are tied to the inside frame of the lodge. A pail of water and drinking ladle are brought and placed next to the door.

Alfredo nods and the thick-tongued one acknowledges his sign. He will be our Stone tender, the fire keeper. Circling the lodge clockwise, I follow the other six and stoop, in my turn, to enter the three-by-three-foot entry. We sit together cross-legged around a shallow pit. The leader asks if anyone is here for the first time. He says the medicine circle has no beginning, no end; he speaks of unity and the importance of the Four Directions; of Grandfather, whom, he says quietly, “we call God”; and “the earth, our Grandmother.”

I remember Victoria telling me that the sweat ritual used here is based on the Lakota tradition  -- the Indians of the High Plains. As Alfredo prepares for the entering song, I remember the Sioux word for Grandfather: “Tunkashila.” The long-haired one continues speaking quietly about the lodge as a womb: the darkness, the heat. The ritual of purification, of going back, is to connect us again with Grandfather, with Grandmother. He speaks about the stones that will be brought in: the stone people, our ancestors. Before him lie two antlers taken from the altar outside to handle the heated rocks.

The ceremonial pipe is lit and passed around the circle, each of us drawing four breaths. The leader beckons the stone tender to bring stones, seven of which are touched by the pipe, greeted with “Ho Tunkashila,” and placed in the pit. Sweet clover is scattered on the stones. We smell the scent, and wisps of smoke fill the lodge. Dutch leans over and rubs the mists of natural incense on his arms and chest. Alfredo asks for water from the stone tender. The door of the lodge is closed now, the blankets pulled down over the entrance. Darkness surrounds us; care is taken that no light is visible during the ceremony. Whether eyes are open or closed will not matter. Alfredo begins in Lakota with incantations, songs, prayers. In the darkness there are sounds of the ladle being dipped into the pail, then water being poured upon the rocks. The heat -- intense, increasing -- envelops the body in waves. The hiss of steam fills the senses. There is nowhere to stand up, no place to move. The medicine leader carries on with the singing of a spirit song, the ladle tapping a drumbeat on the side of the galvanized pail. The steam and heat penetrate the darkness.

I hear gasps for breath. Inside, deep within me, I feel the grip of fear. I want to run. A sudden, desperate urge rises to escape. I steady myself. More steam. Thinking I will faint, my mind cries out, “When will this be over? What excuse can I find for getting out of here?” Familiar habits, techniques for dealing with fear of being trapped, don’t work now. The senses are bombarded with intensity. My nostrils and eyes, my mouth and ears, are filled with steam and heat. I feel the moisture dripping from my body. My ears fill with Alfredo’s incantations and the rhythm of the Lakota chant. I hear others around me join in an easy, high-pitched wailing song.

Our ceremonial leader shouts a Lakota name for Grandfather. With a cry, “Ho Tunkashila!,” the makeshift door of blankets is thrown open. Air and light surround us. Water is brought in. “Here, friends, drink of the water of life.” Around the circle the ladle is passed, each drinking and pouring the extra on face and body. No sense of hurry or time here; no notes, hymnbooks, worship manuals or electric organs. Five minutes pass, ten. Alfredo drinks last. Two more stones are brought in. The fire tender closes the door. Once again, we are surrounded by darkness. The second round begins.

The now-familiar litany begins again, “Grandfather, have pity on us top-legged creatures.” There is more steam and heat; the sound of a makeshift drum, the tapping of a drinking ladle on the side of the pail. I feel faint; the boundaries of time and space begin to collapse. I hear the prayers -- petitions of thanksgiving, a plea for a cousin murdered on a reservation days earlier, prayers for a family, for the fish of the rivers. The heat becomes more intense. I give up control, let Ivy carry what is left of my consciousness on the sound of her voice, chanting the ancient songs.

The third and fourth rounds follow, intermingled with resting times of light, air and water. The scent of sweet clover burns, permeating our circle. Somewhere in those moments, I open my eyes to the darkness, and carried by the dull rhythm of the ceremonial chant, sweat soaking my body, heat singeing-my nostrils, I wait for a vision from the other side of my consciousness. I catch then a glimpse of a man hanging from leather thongs, pierced, in pain, mortifying his flesh, waiting for a vision. The Sun Dance: that holy liturgy of the sun, a sacred quest of the Plains Indians. His face is mine; I recoil in fear, looking again, seeing nothing.

I recognize that my unconscious has been triggered with a vision, paralleled in recent months in the symbol language of my dreams; a struggle with my ego, my consciousness; my need for breaking through and touching a deeper sense of self. I sense anew the struggle with both my love and hate for the pressures surrounding those of us who carry the socially approved but psychologically presumptuous roles of professional healer, clergy or therapist. The vision is a real one for me, foretelling of pride and denial, to be broken only in experience by pain and travail.

The heat increases now, the chanting, incantations becoming stronger. Steam and heat fill my mouth and eyes. In the darkness, Alfredo leads us in a final liturgy of thanksgiving: “Have pity on us, Grandfather.” His prayer triggers for me the opening words of the mass, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” Here is a primal human cry, set against the personal encounter of Infinite Mystery. There are prayers now for the medicine circle, the earth, those who look upon the sweatlodge from the outside, the stone tender. A shout of “Ho Tunkashila!” is lifted upward. For the last time the door flap is flung open. We leave the lodge in circular fashion. Some fall to the grass, breathing deeply the twilight’s fresh air; a few move toward the garden hose near the barracks for water; still others walk toward the makeshift shower rooms in the drab green building turned treatment center.

I stoop to pick up my towel from the side of the firepit and recall something the man named Dutch said as we waited by the fire hours earlier. About how religion was “not meant to be easy.” How the sweatlodge reminds us of that. And Ivy, in our conversation near the photocopying machine, said that the first time she went through the purification ritual she thought she was going to die -- a long-standing fear for her, of darkness and confined places. It was in the community of the sweatlodge, with the prayers and songs, that she was first able to break through and conquer her fears and to catch a glimpse of hope. As I walk back toward the parking lot, I feel a sense of unspoken communion, a common bond with those who shared the songs and heat, the prayers and ceremonial pipe.

This descent into the spirit world has been in many ways a strangely familiar journey for me. I think of my studies at the Jung Institute in Chicago years ago, and am reminded again of the power of the unconscious, the mystery and power of the symbols and dreams that lie deep within the individual psyche. I appreciate now in a new way the sweat-lodge’s role in the native American spiritual tradition -- a unique blend of physiological cleansing and liturgically guided encounter with the deeper levels of self and Spirit.

Reclaiming in these moments my own religious tradition as a Lutheran clergyman, I am struck again by the contrasts as well as the similarities between the two heritages. The essential character of Indian time, in which a ceremony begins with no acknowledgment of chronological time -- “When the fire is ready” -- bears a disconcerting contrast to our attempts to regulate an efficient, smooth-running Western liturgical worship. I am struck by my own tradition’s frequently misguided efforts to fit spirituality into neat time frames like those scheduled for theater performances or athletic events. As if we could regulate our encounters with God. The sweatlodge reminds us of another way: of surrendering; allowing ourselves to be “gripped” by the Other, renewed, recast, reborn.

There is an implicit understanding too that the medicine leader in the sweatlodge has “been there before.” A certain trust is offered in the conviction that he or she can endure this deeper world of pain, heat and darkness. The leader knows the language, the rituals, and performs them almost unconsciously, casually. He or she is the first to enter, the last to drink. The priest/leader is the invoker, the singer of medicine songs, the teller of tales, the friend of symbols. The sweatlodge guide, as priest, is not as much a friend as a guide to another kingdom deep within -- a Spirit World on the “other side.”

My hand reaches to the doorhandle of the car. I pause for a last moment, gazing into the shadows of Oregon’s setting sun. More than anything this day, I have been struck with the unrestricted, open invitation to the sweathouse ritual I have shared. There is no pressure for the treatment center’s members to be involved, no judgment on those who choose not to reclaim that part of their tradition. The center offers the sweatlodge purification ceremony with modest notice -- but with rhythm and regularity. There seems to be a keen understanding of religious experience here as an ultimately personal encounter, guided by community and ritual, but essentially non-dogmatic. I ask myself if it has not been this affirmation of personal destiny and purpose that has historically allowed native American spirituality to be so receptive to Christian religion in accommodating and creative ways. This attitude, implicit in the religion of the American Indian, is the affirmation of a God who transcends all dogma, laws and codes. It is this very personal encounter with the holy that marks Indian spirituality as essentially experiential, yet creation-bound.

Weeks later I sit with my seven-year-old son in a small clapboard house on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I talk with a 70-year-old Red Rock Sioux, her hair white and braided, surrounded by cardboard boxes of letters, discarded magazines and papers. She speaks to me through her remaining teeth of her memories of early childhood: her mother’s story of her brother’s birth in the hills near Wounded Knee on a cold December night in 1890; her own long, good years serving as an Episcopal deaconess for the church’s mission. She still plays the organ for the small chapel and helps lead weekly worship for the reservation parishes. Her knee bandaged from bones now grown old and tired, she talks to me of the resurgence of Indian spirituality, the increasing anger and despair of the young and militant, the power and promise of a God beyond space and time. Her eyes grow deep and understanding.

My son Joshua notices a braided band of sweet-grass near a cupboard door. He lifts it; the end is charred and burned. The old woman tells us it was given to her by a relative over near Rosebud, 50 miles east. Custom says it’s to be burned like incense during long winter nights, to keep away spirits from the other world. “Of course, I don’t believe those things,” she says, turning to stare out the dusty window. I hear the drums now of the sweathouse, feel the heat, hear the Lakota spirit song, and think perhaps I have seen, if for but a single moment, a twinkle in her eye.