—How can we get closer to God?—
—In airplanes . . . and helicopters! Vvrroooom!—
(Caleb-3 to Dad)
Harvey’s property was special to the Indians. They needed a place to perform their ceremonies, where it was quiet, where animals and nature were close, and where Indians were welcome. Harvey’s place fit the requirements. The Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians had established Harvey’s land as an official Indian worship site. Local Indians of several tribes set up a turtle lodge and held their sacred sweat ceremonies there. Harvey invited me repeatedly to attend a ceremony. Resisting what I didn’t understand, I politely put him off. One Saturday, though, I reluctantly agreed, admittedly nervous to attend. When I came home several hours later, the children found me exhausted, my hair sweaty and matted. I took a big drink and a shower, then flopped down on the couch. They begged me to tell them all about the Indians and their turtle lodge. I sighed wearily, then told them of my experience with the sweat ceremony.
“Four Indians officiated, with Harvey and some friends. Outside the lodge, Harvey had a bonfire roaring, with big rocks in the fire. The weather was very cold, as you know, with snow on the ground, but all the men changed into only shorts, and the women changed into shorts and t-shirts or loose house dresses. We huddled around the fire to keep warm while the Indians went into the lodge for a private ceremony. Harvey kept the fire hot. But the fire wasn’t for us—it was for the rocks.
“At the entrance to the turtle lodge was an altar—a low mound of earth with sacred Indian things placed upon it. Harvey encouraged us all to leave an offering on the altar. Most left packages of tobacco for the peace pipe. Harvey gave me some tobacco to leave on the altar, since I had not known to bring anything. Then it was our turn to enter. I left my wedding ring and glasses on the altar—it was a place for safe keeping as well as for gifts.
“The turtle lodge seemed bigger inside than it looked from outside.”
I explained to them that the lodge was made of flexible poles curving upward, each end anchored in the ground. A circle of these poles formed the lodge’s round, bowl-like shape, like a turtle shell. Smaller sticks rounded the poles, tied down where they crossed. Canvas tarps draped over the lodge’s shell, one on top of the other, until no light seeped in. A pit about two feet deep sat in the center of the lodge. The pit would hold the hot rocks.
“We all sat around the pit, with our backs against the lodge walls, full of anticipation about the ceremony that was about to take place. One by one, Harvey carried several heavy, orange-glowing rocks on the tongs of a long pitch fork, placing them carefully in the lodge’s pit. Then the door flap was closed and pulled tight. The lodge became completely black, and quickly grew very hot.
“‘Welcome,’ the Indian chief said to us in a friendly voice. ‘This is our sacred ceremony, where we leave the world behind and offer our prayers and songs and offerings to the great Creator, the Creator of earth and sky, of animals and plants, of wind and water. Our Creator.’
“The chief explained that all people are their brothers and sisters, and so we were welcome to worship with them so long as we respected the ceremony and everyone participating in it. The ceremony would consist of four parts, he explained, each about one hour long, where they would offer prayers and songs. In the first hour, we would seek the Creator’s blessings for ourselves, because we cannot bless others if we are not whole ourselves. The second hour would seek strength and protection for our families. The third hour would focus on the world’s children, on their purity and innocence, but also on their need for special protection. In the last hour, we would pray for our communities, and for the world.
“The chief instructed us not to leave the lodge. If necessary, we could leave the lodge between hours.
“‘This is not to punish the participants, but to not disrupt the ceremony,’ he explained. ‘Also, you must understand that in this lodge, as our bodies become weak, our spirits become strong. This is when you can hear the voice of the Creator: in you, around you, in the earth and all things.’
“He would give us water, he said, between hours because we were not accustomed to the rigors of the ceremony. We all felt a little worried, but the chief seemed to be a nice man.
“The chief began the sweat, as Harvey called it, by singing an Indian song. The other Indians immediately joined him. I couldn’t understand a word they sang, but their language and music were compelling, a blend of beauty and mystery. I picked up the melody and hummed with them—as we were encouraged to do. The song ended suddenly.
“One of the other Indians was tall and thin with long, straight black hair. He was blind and had facial abnormalities that made it difficult to speak clearly. But we could understand him. All the Indians spoke and prayed. But this Indian seemed particularly in tune with earth and sky that was home to himself and to generations of his ancestors. He was also very sensitive to our ignorance of their beliefs, and explained things openly, honestly, and without suspicion or resentment of us, the descendants of white men than had driven his people from their native lands, that had destroyed the fabric of tribe and community and family. I could tell he was a good man, an honorable man, and I liked him.
“I saw scars on each Indian’s chest. I knew of the Sun Dance and the painful injury that left those scars. I asked the blind Indian if he would tell us more. By their silent reactions, I quickly gathered that I had asked about something sacred. But he could tell I was sincerely interested, so he explained.
“‘In the Sun Dance, we worship God, the Creator, who is symbolized by the sun, the sun which gives life and brings death to all life through its rays of light and heat. From the top of a tall tree, our brothers and sisters bring ropes to each dancer. Then a brother cuts our chest and pushes strong bones through the flesh, and the ropes are tied to the bones. We dance in worship to God, seeking from Him spiritual power. Sometimes we have visions; sometimes we hear voices. These come from God and give us spiritual power. As we dance, we move away from the tree, pulling hard on the ropes. This causes great pain. Our pain is our sacrifice—it expresses the sincerity of our dance, of our search for spiritual strength. Our pain speaks of the weakness of our bodies and our desire to distance our soul from things physical and to embrace the spirit. Our pain, our dancing, our fasting: these open us to spiritual gifts from the Creator, and give us spiritual power that will stay with us throughout our lives. We dance for hours and pull against the ropes until the bones tear through the flesh. Then we are free from the rope. Then we are free from cares of the world which tie us down to pettiness and triviality. Then we are aware of the deepness of Mother Earth, and of all creation, and of ourselves.’
“‘Thank you,’ I said to him, quietly, with respect and humility. What courage! These were not just scars on his chest, but emblems of his yearning to touch his Creator, the supreme being of the universe, emblems that would always be there to remind him of who he was and of what his life was about.
“After the blind Indian finished speaking, the chief welcomed each of us to join them in singing, as well as we could, and by offering our prayers as we went one by one around the dark circle. Each prayer ended with the Indian affirmation, ‘Aho,’ similar to the Christian Amen, meaning, roughly, The words from your mouth were echoed in our hearts. We agree. I prayed silently for my own strength and wisdom: to grow from the afflictions life brings; to withstand destructive forces; to be a force of creation and contribution in the world. The chief offered a summary prayer, we all whispered ‘Aho,’ and the first hour ended with the opening of the turtle lodge door flaps.”
I told them how January’s frigid air had provided welcome relief from the intense heat, which the chief explained was between 120 and 130 degrees F. We sipped gratefully from the water he dipped and passed to us. The cooled air was blissful, and I sat with a smile until Harvey brought a new bunch of glowing boulders and the darkness shrouded us again.
“As we sang and prayed and talked, and sat in silence, my back and neck and buttocks began to ache. The third hour was more difficult. I reached up and pulled on the poles to stretch and straighten my spine. The heat sapped my strength. There was enough room in the lodge that I managed to lie down, curled up on my side, while the others in turn sang and prayed and spoke and sat in silence. I was suffering, but I was still aware of what was going on and ready to participate when it was my turn.
“During the fourth hour the blind Indian blessed us with a simple yet sublime prayer: “‘Great God, Great Spirit. Thank you for allowing us to send to You our heart’s offerings of prayer and song and sincerity. Thank you for the presence of these good people who love You and reverence You, and who care for each other.’
“As he completed each sentence, the group reverently whispered, ‘Aho.’
“‘Thank you for Mother Earth, for the abundant life She has given birth to: the beautiful butterflies and soaring birds; the fearsome bear and lion; the tall trees waving their breathing, cleansing leaves. Thank you for the honorable people of the world who respect their Mother Earth who brings them life.’
“‘Forgive us for our ignorance, for our apathy, and for the hurt we to do others and to the earth.’
“‘Bless the earth with renewal, with strength, and with a forgiving heart. Bless this land, that it may continue to be a place of reverence and worship, that Your presence may continue to abide through the animals and plants and rocks and air which You created, and through the peace and wisdom of nature. Hinder the path of selfish, greedy persons who would strip this land of its purity, its virginity, its beauty. Do not let pride prevail, but let the strength of humility and silence abide.’
“Silence pervaded for several minutes while the blind Indian’s words lingered in the hot, dark air, and in our minds, while sweat ran from every pore. We listened to the silence, which was not empty, but rather full of energy and vibrancy, full of spirit and heart and soul, full of ripe intention.
“Despite my discomfort, I began to notice within me an increasing comprehension of what was happening in the ceremony, in the turtle lodge. We had entered a place of total darkness and deprivation. To many religious people, this might seem a dismal thing to do. But not to them. These Indians had found a way to leave the earth, to leave their physical, mortal state, by entering a place from which all worldly elements were left outside: light, wind, water, air, food, clothing, pride, luxury. In this place existed only themselves and their Creator, with nothing in between.
“The world’s religions, in their own way, all provide a means of leaving the earth with its physical worries and mortal cares, sometimes by donning white or ornate clothing and entering sacred buildings full of gold, jewels, sculptures, and other emblems of preciousness, of divinity. Buildings like temples and synagogues, mosques and cathedrals. Entering these buildings symbolizes leaving the earthly world behind and transcending to a higher state of being, or to heaven. In these places, we approach God where He is by leaving where we are and trying to close the gap. We often fast, putting off our bodily needs to seek spiritual strength and insight. That’s what the Indians were doing in their sweat ceremony. We had left the world behind and sought to close the gap between heaven and earth, to approach our Creator, to hear His voice through vision and silent inspiration.”
As I finished my long narrative, the children watched me quietly, in their own awe, unable to comment or ask questions. I knew that they hadn’t understood everything I had said, but I hoped that they had felt the bigness of my experience, that it was somehow sacred and important to them, as it had been sacred and important to me. They sensed that speaking would break the magic of the silence, would chase away the wonder and mystery of the images filling their minds. They could almost see the people in shorts and jumpers surrounding the rock pit, see the orange rocks placed one by one in the pit, see the canvas flap pulled tight, see the darkness. They could almost feel the unbearable heat, the hot sweat trickling down every wrinkle, dripping off our noses and chins and eyebrows. They didn’t hear the songs with their ears, but still the songs filled them and moved within them, feeling strange yet wonderful and satisfying.
“Then something really special happened,” I gently broke the silence. “The chief invited us to stay awhile longer to join in smoking the peace pipe. Feathers and beads hung from the pipe on leather strips, each object with its own meaning.”
The feather was an eagle feather, I explained, which is a symbol of the great God, who lives high in the heavens, as the eagle, the greatest of birds, soars high in the sky.
“The chief filled the pipe with red birch bark, lighted it, and puffed at the pipe. He then softly blew the smoke upward: an offering to God, ascending through the air to the heavens.
“’Don’t breath in the smoke,’ the chief cautioned, grinning. ‘It will melt your lungs if you’re not used to it.’”
“We each took our turn with the pipe, relighting the bark, pulling air through the pipe, and blowing it heavenward. I held the long pipe awkwardly in my hands, sucked hard to draw the air through the smoldering bark, through the small hole. I held the smoke in my mouth for a moment, then blew the smoke gently to heaven, my humble offering to the Creator.”
What I had only seen in movies and read about in books had become a reality. I had smoked the peace pipe! I realized that smoking had nothing to do with it. It was all about the offering, an offering taken from the bark of the red birch tree, burning, drawn into me, mixing with my breath, with a part of me, as I sent it heavenward.
“That was special,” I told them.
I reclined on the couch looking at the ceiling. Then I looked at the children with a tired smile, and they knew I was done telling my story.
Erin asked me, “Daddy, what does ‘emblem’ mean?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I replied. “’Emblem’ is a word that means ‘symbol.’ Hmm. That doesn’t help much either, does it? Well, an emblem or a symbol is a small thing that helps us understand something much bigger. Like the eagle feather, a small thing you can hold in your hand and feel, is an emblem or a symbol of God, a person we can’t fully understand, a being we can’t touch with our hands but can only feel with our hearts. So the scars on the Indians’ chests are emblems or symbols of their special sacrifice to know God, and of how he spoke to them and gave them spiritual power and understanding.”
Erin brought me another glass of water and some fruit—two oranges and an apple. Lying in bed later, my mind filled with visions of rocks glowing orange in the darkness, of Indian songs, of the smoke from the pipe, and of the Sun Dance. I wondered about my emblems, about my efforts to see beyond what I could see with my eyes, about my attempts to feel more than what I could feel with my hands.