Dancing Light brought her tobacco and told her it was a gift for Great Spirit. She guided her hand to throw it on the fire. When Suzanne had removed clothing down to her shift, one woman picked out an herb bundle and lit it from the fire. This, she fanned until wisps of smoke spiraled up from it. Then, she circled each woman, smudging them with the fragrant sweet grass smoke. When Dancing Light took the bundle, she waved a feather fan through the smoke. “Prayers to great spirit,” she explained. She motioned for Suzanne to turn before her while she smudged her, back and front.
The each woman knelt and kissed the ground at the lodge door, muttering words she didn’t understand. When she crawled into the narrow opening and sat cross-legged in their circle, Red Hawk handed Joseph to her. She sat him in her lap. He was wide-eyed with curiosity about the strange surrounding. It had no vents or windows. The room was very dark; it’s only source of light was the door. In the middle, a round pit had been hollowed from the dirt. The last two women to enter were the drummer and Dancing Light. They sat on each side of the door.
The lanky Joseph, who even as an infant was clearly to be as tall as his father, let out a squeal and squirmed until she was holding him by the waist, so he could stand on his feet. Dancing Light signaled to the drummer, and the woman began a slow, quiet heart-beat rhythm. She spoke the next words in English, so her guest could understand, holding the embroidered pouch in both hands, like an offering.
“This lifeline that once tied Suzanne to her son Joseph is cut now. She can no longer feed and keep him safe out in the world. Great Spirit, we give you this cord. May you tie it to you and your new son, Standing Heron, to feed him, to keep him safe on the good red road.”
The women passed the pouch, and Dancing Light’s sister looped the medicine bag around the newly named infant’s neck.
Dancing Light spoke to her. “You must keep this medicine bag close to him at all times until he has passed his first year. Put it in his bed at night, let him wear it at all waking times.” She gestured to the drummer, who changed the rhythm.
The women began to sing a chant that sounded unlike any Indian music that Suzanne had heard before. It was a lullaby. Sweet, gentle. She couldn’t join in because she didn’t know the language, but Standing Heron began to bounce, dancing to their tune. The sentiment of offering the umbilical cord to their God touched her. She felt it was a beautiful sentiment but was conflicted because she knew it was also against her faith. Am I practicing witchcraft? she wondered. What would Reverend Willard say if he knew I asked a heathen God to take care of my son? Do I confess this?
The ceremony continued when Red Hawk brought four molten red stones to the door, placing them in the pit. Dancing Light again lit sweetgrass and passed it over the stones, which threw up arcs of star-like sparks in the gloom. She intoned what Suzanne thought might be a blessing of the stones though she couldn’t understand the language. When Dancing Light poured a dipper full of water on the rocks, steam burst from them, quickly filling the lodge. Suzanne felt as though she herself was enclosed in a womb, safe and warm. At this point, the baby’s face puckered, and he began to fuss.
“That’s enough cleansing for Standing Heron.” Dancing Light motioned to Suzanne that she was to pass the baby to her, which she did. “Red Hawk, take him until we finish.”
Once Joseph had been passed from the lodge, Dancing Light called to Red Hawk to close the door. It was pitch dark when she began to pour dipper after dipper on the rocks. Soon the air was so filled with the clouds of hot steam that it was difficult to breath and Suzanne felt her skin was scalded. She fell to the ground, pressing her face against the cooler earth. Sweat poured from every pore on her body. She was drenched in mere minutes. The women continued to sing, song after song. When the steam dispersed, Dancing Light again poured a dipper on the rocks. Sometimes they stopped to speak. Suzanne could only think it was a prayer, or at least she hoped it was prayer. For all I know, she thought, they could be calling the devil. Dancing Light had explained that sweat lodges were to cleanse the body, and she now knew what that meant. She would be clean from the inside out. What was it Reverend Willard had said about their singing. Like cicadas who had sung their insides out.
At the end of the ceremony, Dancing Light called Red Hawk to open the door. Clouds scented with sage poured out. As the women crawled through the door, they again bent to kiss the ground in gratitude.
Suzanne would never forget the experience. The lodge had impressed her; she even smelled different after she’d changed from her shift to dry clothes. More than that, she knew she was opening herself to experiences that were making her think differently. She felt guilty, a little like a tippler who didn’t want to stop. She wouldn’t be able to tell her husband, or Reverend, or even Martha.
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