Sarah Lynch, AVC 2019, traveled to Nain and Sheshatshiu in 2018 as one of the student participants on the Chinook Project. As part of the experience, the students craft various pieces of reflective writing.
During our time in Sheshatshiu, we had the opportunity to participate in a traditional “sweat”, a practice passed down in the regional culture for many generations. The sweat lodge is used for many purposes including spiritual, physical, and emotional healing. As such, the ancient practice holds great significance to those who participate. Sweats are held multiple times a week at various locations. Some participants attend regularly for cleansing and meditation, some attend only on occasion, and some sweats are held to help people who are struggling with addiction. It is an invaluable part of the Innu culture, standing solid throughout decades of changes and hardship.
When we arrived at the lodge, a roaring fire was blazing outside atop a mound of smooth round rocks. As our host stoked the flames, he explained the rocks were collected mostly from the surrounding marshy area and must be glowing red before they were deemed ready for the sweat. We entered the building and crawled into the lodge-a dome shaped structure made from hand-tied sticks covered completely with thick canvas. The floor inside was laid with fresh pine boughs and small mats arranged in a circle, surrounding a central sand pit. We crawled to our places with an air of excitement, uncertainty, and a hint of apprehension (our host had described in detail the extreme temperatures we would be experiencing). As the last person filed in the door flapped was closed and we were plunged into complete and utter darkness. There was a comfortable heat emanating from the mound of rocks that had been shoveled into the center pit, and the smell of spruce permeated the area. One of our hosts proceeded to explain the history of the sweat, the meaning behind the process, and what we could expect in the next few hours. Another began a prayer in the traditional dialect. As he spoke he began throwing handfuls of marsh water onto the glowing rocks. A loud hissing sound erupted and a wall of steam began emanating throughout the dome. The heat was intense and relentless, and I felt myself begin to feel anxious-it was hard to breathe, and I felt as if the darkness was squeezing me like a vice. Our host reminded us to breathe normally, to find a mental space in the present, to focus on slowing our thoughts and reaching a point of meditation. He told us it was ok to have fears, that our demons and mental insecurities would tell us we couldn’t handle it but he encouraged us to acknowledge those fears and rise above them if we could, and to reach a place of peace. Another host began rhythmically pounding a drum and singing a traditional chant. As the drumbeats rang in my ears I felt my mind slow, the force of the blows drowning out all of the doubts and insecurities that had been swirling in my mind. I began to breathe deeply and embrace the warmth radiating to my core, and give myself over to the power of the ancient ritual-and I felt in that moment an incredible peace and strength. I knew that I would carry this feeling with me for the rest of my life, and when fears and doubts surrounded me I could find that place in my heart and rise above them. We completed three more sessions that day and I left feeling so incredibly grateful to have been welcomed into such a powerful and meaningful tradition.