In Memory of Ruth MacKay by Kelly Schmidt
I’m writing you because I know you would have wanted to experience this with me.
Marcel, the elder who taught us about Anishinabe philosophy yesterday called us today to invite the whole crew to join him in a sweat. Like in a sweat lodge. We were extremely honoured to be invited to such an event and honestly, how many people get invited to something like this? We accepted, of course, and prepared ourselves for the three hour journey North to Marcel’s home in Hollow Waters. The whole trip I tried to imagine what it would be like. I knew certain bits about sweats from a friend of mine who’d participated in one. I knew to expect sauna like conditions, to wear cotton because it’s natural and will continue to breath when it gets water logged, that there is some type of ceremony that goes throughout the sweat, and that it would be uncomfortable. Some people experience hallucinations because of the intensity. But other than that, I didn’t know much. It seems like explanations are vague. Besides, each tribe does the sweat ceremony differently.
After some right and some wrong turns, we arrived in Hollow Waters. We met Marcel at a community house. The sweat lodge was out back. I was anticipating a large building where lots of people could fit in and it would be the whole community having a sweat together. I have no idea where this idea came from because it wasn’t close to reality at all. The sweat lodge was a small one room round cabin built of logs with carvings on the corner gables, like something we’d find at home in Millarville.
At the lodge doors we gave a gift of berries and loose-leaf tobacco to Marcel – traditional gifts to present the elder at a sweat. These items are also used during the ceremony. We then took a sprig of cedar and a pinch of tobacco each, going up to the fire, offering up a prayer, and placing the cedar and tobacco in the fire. It made a crackle and smelled so nice, sending off a delicate smoke puff. We then proceeded into the lodge. To my surprise, there was a second shelter inside the lodge made of heavy canvas on a willow frame, rather low to the ground. We crawled in through a small opening to sit in the smaller shelter. It had a large pit in the center and we sat around it, women on one side, men on the other. It was a tight fit. I don’t think that many people normally do a sweat together as we were shoulder-to-shoulder, not even enough room to cross our legs.
Marcel began the ceremony by passing around the peace pipe. We could either puff it or just cross it in front of us. I puffed a bit to taste the tobacco, but don’t worry, Gran! I didn’t draw much into my mouth. I’m all healthy here! The pipe went around the circle three times. Then the heat began. Red hot, glowing rocks were placed in the pit, each one represented something that Marcel explained. The women had a special role in this part. After each rock was placed, a woman (we got to take turns) would sprinkle a bit of ground cedar over it. The cedar would sparkle and the smell soon surrounded us. Once all the rocks were in place, the canvas hut’s door was closed and it was dark inside. Pitch black. I couldn’t see anything except the glowing rocks in the center. They didn’t cast enough light to see anything else. I was cold at this point because the ground was cool dirt. I snuggled up to the rocks for warmth. Marcel then took a cedar branch bundle, dipped it into a bucket of cedar water and sprinkled it onto the rocks. The sweat had begun true and proper. The steam felt like a warm hug. You know how much I like warm hugs! It was heaven for me. Marcel explained that this round was for giving thanks. He sang a song accompanied by his drum and many different rattles, each one representing something in the ceremony. Each rattle held personal significance to Marcel, giving me the feeling that Marcel had invited us into something that was personally intimate with him. I was being invited into closer community. During the song, I closed my eyes and felt the pleasant warmth encircle me, having no particular thoughts. It was soon over and the door was opened to let some light in.
More glowing rocks were placed into the pit while Marcel talked about the next round. This was to give thanks to the women in our lives. That’s when I really thought of you, Gran. I began to cry. I miss you and I am so thankful that you were in my life. I realized that a sweat is a lot more than just a ceremony for the sake of ceremony. These were some deep emotions I was beginning to have. I thanked God for you and for my sisters and my mother. The man who was helping Marcel put some Bear Root onto the rocks, sending off a spicy, comforting scent that felt like salve to my sad heart. I breathed it in deeply as Marcel sprinkled more cedar water to create more steam. He then sang another song that penetrated my soul, allowing my sorrow to have a voice. My body was ready for this round to be done. It was struggling against the heat. My mind was freaking out a little, wondering if for some strange reason oxygen had stopped seeping into the room. What if nobody noticed I was passed out? My soul wanted to continue though.
The door opened for more rocks to be heaped on, giving a respite from the heat as cold air rushed in. This was short lived, as there were now a lot of hot rocks in a small space. This third round was for healing. A pot of bear grease (real bear grease) was passed around. We were to rub this wherever we felt we needed healing. I was even encouraged to put a touch into my mouth to heal the insides as well. So I did. Never shy away from the adventure! It tasted like bear… my favorite…. I rubbed it on other places and soon smelled rather wild. I couldn’t tell what was grease, sweat, or condensation by this point and I didn’t really care either. During this round, we each got a turn to wipe a bird wing over spots that needed healing. This round was the most intense yet. There were waves of heat washing over me, almost unbearable but really comforting at the same time. I cried some more. I prayed for healing for people I love. I prayed for healing for others in the room. The heat seemed to penetrate all my sore aches. More waves, more song. Some of us were singing along by this point but I couldn’t. I kept crying. And crying. Would I stop? I imagined death by crying. I think my soul was being healed. I seem to bottle up pain a lot. I wish I wouldn’t but I do. I asked God to heal my soul. The man helping Marcel was going through a rough time. He was crying and coughing the whole way through this round. After he said that he wasn’t expecting to have a very emotional time of it. He thought it would be a pleasant sweat but sometimes the Spirit has other things in mind. I think the Holy Spirit definitely had something in mind for me.
In between this round and the final round we placed some berries on the hot rocks and got to eat some of the berries and drink some cedar water. By this point I’d come to think of the water as medicine. That’s what Marcel called it and it sure felt healing as I was drinking it. Cedar has lots of vitamine C in it and I’ve heard it has antibacterial properties. It was a refreshment. And then… The final round.
The rest of the rocks were piled in. It was so hot, Gran. So much steam. But by this point my soul, mind, and body were ready to accept what was. I don’t remember much about this round other than feeling a peace. Not just the soul peace that we usually talk about but an everything peace. Emotional, Physical, Mental, and Spiritual. The four parts that Marcel had talked about in Anishinabe philosophy that were important to reconcile. Heart, Mind, Soul, Spirit. It is so familiar to me. It was coming together. We sang, we prayed, we worshipped God. Marcel isn’t a Christian but he understood us and allowed us to worship God. Isn’t that wonderful? How wonderful to be free. He was a wonderful example of respect for others.
After this sweat we left as we entered, burning a sprig of cedar and tobacco. I felt such peace and serenity, like my journey was not alone, surrounded by my friends, new and old. Beloved of God. Loved by you.
You encouraged me to explore new cultures. You inspired me to travel and really learn from the people, not just go for what I can see. You taught me to ask questions and learn from new communities. And that’s what I was doing. Thank you for sharing your life with me. I hope that I’m able to help others learn to love others like you taught me. I love you, Gran.