1961 was my Indian summer. I was nine and watched Westerns on TV cheering for the Indians to win. They didn't. I checked out the only book about Indians in the children't section of the library: “The Story of Squanto”. Most days I convinced the girl across the street to play "Indian Adventures" with me. She played an orphan white girl who was lost in the wilderness and I was a warrior who reluctantly agreed to help her. She was not wise in the ways of the forest, so I made her hide in the bushes while I hunted for dinner and fought the bad guys who stalked us.
I chose a male role because the females didn’t have much fun. They washed clothes in rivers, and waited for the men to come back from battles. Sometimes one fell in love with a white man and snuck away to warn him of a surprise attack. She saved him but ended up getting killed and died in his arms.
I accepted those illusions until a rebel high school history teacher discarded the approved textbooks and told us about boarding schools, and treaty violations, and US government approved massacres. As enlightening as this was, there was nothing new about the women.
It was when I came to the Ojibwa Reservation over twenty years ago that my view of women changed, and not just native women. All women. Me.
That summer I did my first sweat and we spent the week in preparation under the supervision of Nick Hockings, an Ojibwa pipe carrier who had been given permission by the elders to share the culture with non-natives if it was done authentically and the people were respectful. We searched for suitable trees, built the structure, covered it until it was pitch dark in the daytime, and collected “grandfathers” (large stones).
Some work was gender assigned. Women cleaned and laid cedar in the lodge and formed a straight line from it to the fire. The men carried the "Grandfathers" to the firepit, built and tended the fire, heating the stones for hours.
Women were instructed to wear skirts for ceremonies and not participate if we were in our periods.The thought of having to step outside the circle because I had a period was a personal challenge. Periods were something to hide. It was bad enough in school for girls in the locker room to know, but for men who were not my husband to know would be humiliating.
I came to learn and not judge, but this seemed sexist. I asked Nick if he could explain and his answer was surprising. He said women possess great inner power which is increased during their moon time. Women don’t really need to do the ceremonies because we have a built in purification system. The ceremonies were created for the men to acquire what women naturally have. It was a good thing to have women because their strength helps the men, but during their periods, they are too powerful and the balance is upset. That’s when bad things can happen.
The day before the sweat was scheduled, I called my husband and told him about the preparations and the description Nick had given. “It makes a sauna sound like a cool breeze.” My husband reminded me I don’t do well in the heat. The more we talked, the more determined I was to do this and prove him wrong.
Everything Nick told us about the sweat was truer than I thought possible. It’s so hot you feel like you will die, things happen you cannot explain. Spirits are welcomed and they make their presence known, even if you didn't believe in them. What didn’t seem logical, now made sense.
Balance is delicate and power carries responsibility.
During the sweat, prayers are offered for sick family members, friends who have died, children in the world who are hungry, and people in the world who are suffering. We pray the leaders of the world listen to their hearts. We pray they have hearts. When someone cries or laughs you do too, but it seeps below the surface finding the deepest pockets of grief and joy. Becoming "one" with others is not a bumper sticker slogan here. It is real. And it isn't for sissies.
I survived my first sweat not because I was physically strong, but because I surrendered.
The Baha’i Shrines in Israel and the Ojibwa Reservation in Northern Wisconsin are the two places in the world where my soul doesn’t have to battle my doubts. The Presence of Spirit is so clear, those questions don’t come up. The question that haunts, is what to do about what I know.
During last summer's visit to the reservation, I woke hearing a voice say, “It’s time to ask for your name.” It is said every one is born with a spirit name, and knowing it helps you discover who you are. I had thought it wasn’t necessary, but apparently someone on the other side thinks otherwise.
In the traditional way, I presented tobacco to Nick, and asked if he would find my name. He accepted and said it would take a year. "All the spirits have to have a chance to talk. Some take their time." He’s found it, and this Saturday is my Naming Ceremony. I feel excited and slightly scared... like when I played being a warrior and was about to set off on an adventure.
But this time, I won't pretend to be someone else.