There is no place on Earth I would rather be
Note: I asked Wesley and Jay if it was OK for me to write about this. They not only told me it was, but that it’s important for me do this as many of our people are getting further away from our traditions…
22 stones glowing in the darkness of the sweat lodge. There were 11 of us tonight, all glistening with sweat. The first round was Wesley singing Lakota songs and telling the newcomers what to expect.
This second round was for our prayers. This was during a warm spell in February and the weather was perfect, about 30 degrees, with a full moon and a starry sky lighting up the snow. Orion and Jupiter were bright in the south.
We had spent several hours getting the stones red hot in the fire just outside the door of the lodge. The fire was melting the snow in a circular pattern that was spreading farther and farther out from the intense heat. The rest of the stones were rippling with bright red and orange, alive with the fire deep inside.
Jay is a tribal council member and had given me an eagle feather before the ceremonial sweat started. We had sweated together several times before tonight. My youngest brother Scott had been in a sweat lodge before, but this was our first time together.
Andrew had just turned 18 and was living in a home for boys who were trying to get their lives back together. My 10 year old son Jacob was sitting beside me. It was so dark that sometimes he would brush against me just to make sure I was still there. This was his second sweat ceremony. Both times he had wanted to come in on his own and I didn’t have to ask him either time.
The prayers started by the door, each person praying for whatever was important to them for as long as it took. Everyone else was respectfully quiet until their turn came.
Several prayed silently before letting the next person know they were done. Andrew, Scott and Jacob each did their prayers silently. Then it was my turn. This was too important to me to say silently.
“Miigwech, Nimishoomish (Thank you, grandfather). I’ve been thinking about choices. There are many things we do not say to each other in the course of our daily lives. We talk about superficial things and not about the important things we can talk about here.
For some reason, we wait until we come here to say the things we should be telling each other every day. These stones, the grandfathers, have been waiting for us since the earth was new.
Our ancestors walked past these stones, but these presented themselves to be used in this ceremony tonight, just for us. It has been a very long time since they could come alive with heat.
The feather given to me by Jay was from an eagle that has flown countless thousands of miles and has seen the earth from high above. He may have seen each of us in this lodge at some other time in the past. He chose to give his life so Jay could have these feathers and I appreciate the one he has given me today.
Andrew, you are 18 years old and ready to go into the world on your own. You have many choices ahead of you. Not all of them are easy and many are traps put in your way to slow you down or send you down the wrong path.
You have chosen to work and to stay in a place to finish high school and to better your chances of success. Ivy and I are very proud of you for the choices you have made so far. I know your family is important to you, but not yet ready to support the choices you need to make.
Know that trust, respect and a good reputation take a lifetime to earn, but loss of trust and a bad reputation take only minutes. There will be times when the right decision is not the most attractive one, but deep in your heart you know what is right. We will be your family for now and when you are ready, you can help your own family. We know you will be able to do this.
My youngest brother Scott, you have been struggling with alcohol for a very long time and it has caused you to lose your children. But you have been going to meetings and have been making a tremendous effort to stay on the right path. I can see how difficult this is for you at times and I am very proud of you for staying strong.
I struggled with alcohol for years and know this is not easy for you. Alcohol has ravaged our family. I am honored to be sitting next to you in this lodge and I have waited a very long time for this night. You, too, have choices that will be difficult to make.
When you quit drinking, others will not support this and will actually make an effort to cause you to fail. Sometimes they will win. I have seen this happen many times and it happened to me. We will do everything we can to support you and help you. We know you will be able to do this.
Jacob, I am so proud to be your father. You have a good heart and a giving soul. After our first sweat we drove home with the radio off and talked for well over an hour. We talked about the stars, the universe, your school and what you want to do when you get older.
We talked about music, what we are reminded of when we hear certain songs, how it could be summer below the equator when it’s winter here and how birds can stay together in a flock without hitting each other. But most important, we just talked. I had that relationship with my uncle Lloyd and I hope that you and I always have that relationship. I want you to know that you can always talk to me about anything.”
Scott and Andrew and I went out to bring in the rest of the stones. 22 more, for a total of 44 stones. It was going to be very hot for the rest of the ceremony.
Wesley and Fred closed the door and made sure no light from outside was able to get in. The pit was full of glowing stones, each stood out plainly and they were so hot that when Wesley started putting cedar water on them, they didn’t even get dark. The hissing of the steam was fading as Wesley’s drum was getting louder.
As he started to sing again, Jacob brushed against me and I realized there was no place on earth I would rather be.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.