On the third day of clinics, we were invited to attend a traditional sweat lodge held by the elders of the Sheshatshiu community. The day had been long and arduous, with a steady stream of appointments and surgeries. We had slept very little the night before due to our emergency cases, and many of us were ready for a break. When the invitation to the sweat lodge arrived, five out the eight of us scrambled to get home to change and grab towels before piling into the van and heading out.
The evening sun stretched long rays though the cedar trees as we made our way down a bumpy road deep into the forest off the main highway. In truth, I had no idea what a sweat lodge was. In my sleepy, dehydrated state of mind I imagined it to be a more spiritual, ritualistic-form of a sauna. I had no other assumptions about what the sweat lodge would look like, who would be running it, or what the experience would entail. All I knew was that it was a privilege to attend such a culturally significant event, and that I was happy to satisfy my own curiosity.
We approached a clearing in the woods. A simple, square, one-story building with a large ramp leading down to a massive outdoor fire pit came into view. The fire contained piles of large egg-shaped rocks that were being carefully attended to by a man who directed us inside the building. Just inside the door I saw our sweat lodge. The ‘lodge’ was a simple, black-canvas, domed structure the size of a five-person tent. The floor of the lodge was lined with mats and cedar branches, giving the air a fresh and earthy smell. And in the center there was another fire pit with a small pile of the smoldering, mysterious rocks.
The elder who would be leading our sweat lodge greeted us as we entered the building. To the right of the lodge was a seating area with couches, comfortable chairs and rugs. As we sat down to remove our shoes, he took in our nervous smiles and made some jokes to ease the. The rocks, he told us, were called “lava rocks,” and, being volcanic, they held a tremendous amount of heat. When Dr. Lavers asked where the rocks came from the man quipped with a smile: “from the earth.” He described the sweat lodge as meditative and spiritually cleansing, and an opportunity to send out prayers and acknowledgements to people in need. The heat, he added, was intense, and while it was perfectly acceptable to leave the lodge at any time, we should try to be strong and endure it. This experience would be what we chose make it.
Armed with nothing but the clothes on our backs, a bath towel, a bottle of water, and our wavering confidence, we each descended into the darkness of the lodge — the women to the left of the pit, and the men to the right. We were warned that the heat would rise and concentrate above us, so we should remain as low as possible, and to use the towels to protect our sensitive faces and noses from the steam. The full experience would occur in five stages: the first stage would have the fewest rocks, and then they would slowly build up the pile (and the heat) as we progressed.
Ten people managed to squeeze into this tiny space, and already I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the heat. With one last look at the trees and fresh air beyond the lodge, I watched the door close, and we were sealed in absolute darkness. The first two stages of the sweat were a disorienting blur. The elder led the sweat with stories, traditional chants and songs accompanied by drums. The first splash of water hitting the lava rocks sent an eerie hiss into the darkness, and the heat immediately assaulted my senses. I quickly yanked my towel over my face and tried to take slow deep breaths. Each inhale was like forcing hot molasses into my lungs. This was not a soothing sauna that I would relax into at a local day spa; this was something that I truly would have to endure.
By the second round of rocks, I was fighting internally with myself to not scratch through the walls to escape the heat. I concentrated on my breathing and listened to the sound of the steady chanting and beating of the drums. My fingers dug into the branches and earth beneath me, trying to seek out any cool relief. After what felt like an eternity I could feel my body slowly acclimate to the heat. I had enough conscious thought to answer the elder when he asked if any of us would like to send out a prayer for someone. I decided to acknowledge my grandmother who had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer. Saying her name out loud and thinking about her helped me gain more mental strength over the physical struggle I was enduring.
After the third and fourth rounds, we were allowed to exit the lodge for short breaks from the heat. With limbs that felt more like jelly than muscle and bone, we plopped ourselves down onto the couches and attempted to regain our senses. I could feel my heart beating through my skin; a steady, dull throb that made my whole body ache. But besides the weakness I felt from my body, my mind felt unbelievably clear. We were surviving this! The weak smiles we all shared with each other echoed this thought. However, our satisfaction quickly evaporated when the elder informed us that last round, while the shortest one yet, would also be the hottest.
Once again we descended into the darkness, although this time with the confidence that we would complete this journey together. Through the light from the door we watched as they brought in pile after pile of lava rocks; stacking them so high that the elder had to reach out with his tobacco pipe to steady a few rocks that teetered precariously close to our toes. As we settled into our spots in the lodge I noticed one of the Innu men holding what looked like a large bird wing. Assuming it was part of some traditional prayer or song, I watched as he tucked the wing into the ceiling of the lodge and reached to close the door once again. It wasn’t until about half way through the sweat that we realized what the wing was for. By that time, the heat had reached the most intense level yet, and with each spray of water the group would whoop and cheer.
Then, all of a sudden, I could hear the sound of air whistling through feathers as the man across the pit whipped the hot air down from the ceiling onto our heads. Around and around the heat barrelled down onto us, and the whooping and cheering growing louder with each pass. In my mind I was reminded of the finale of a fireworks show, a last chance to show them everything they had. And, just like that, as soon as it began, it was over. The doors opened up, we were released from the heat, and world outside looked a little bit brighter than we remembered. Red-faced and exhausted we thanked the elder taking us on this journey and slowly made our way back to the clinic. I’m proud to say I survived the sweat lodge, and that I was able participate in a tradition that is held sacred for so many people. It was an amazingly intense experience, one that I hope to reflect on for years to come.
Michelle Gorayeb, AVC 2017, traveled to Nain & Sheshatshiu in 2016 as one of the student participants on the Chinook Project. As part of the experience, the students craft various pieces of reflective writing. This is one of Michelle’s pieces