Blankets can protect you from heat, just like they do from cold.
The first week of June, I took part in a sweat at a sweat lodge on Swan River First Nation.
This sweat was connected with the start of fieldwork for a SRFN research project looking into aquatic plants with cultural significance. I was writing articles about two Swan River research projects, so I was invited to be part of the sweat.
Swan River’s land-use research projects combine traditional Cree knowledge and western science. Part of being connected with the culture is starting the process with traditional practices including sweats and smudging.
Since moving to Slave Lake, I have become familiar with smudging. Just like crossing myself in a traditional Anglican or Catholic church, I often do the motions incorrectly, but I participate.
However, I had never been to a sweat before.
Unlike the sweats I had read about, this one had both men and women and people wore clothes. Men wore shorts. Women wore long-sleeve shirts and skirts [some with leggings underneath].
We were also encouraged to bring a towel to put over our heads and offered blankets.
Clothing, the towel, and blankets offered protection from the steam. I didn’t realize this beforehand, but it makes sense. Just like firefighters wear protective clothing.
The heat was intense. The darkness was absolute.
With electricity, we are unaccustomed to darkness. There’s always some form of light. I recall two times in my life when the darkness was notable. The first one was during a new moon at a retreat centre in the foothills. The only lights were my flashlight, one yard light and the stars. I knew the cliff wasn’t very close to the buildings, but still walked very cautiously.
The other one was closest to my experience at the sweat. I was in a glow-worm cave in New Zealand with my sister and other tourists. We floated through the cave on tubes wearing wetsuits. Our only light came from headlamps. At the deepest part of the cave, we were told to turn the headlamps off and look up. The only light came from tiny worms hanging from the ceiling many feet above our heads.
Interestingly, although I am slightly claustrophobic, this was not the point where I was scared. It was earlier, while floating in a wide passage with the top of the cave mere inches from my face. That scared me.
In the sweat, the moment the door shut and we descended into darkness, I was scared. I closed my eyes and started reciting the Lord’s prayer to myself. I then reminded myself that I trusted the people who were running the sweat, and knew where I was.
By the fourth time around, I could open my eyes. However, I couldn’t see much of the darkness, because I kept my head tented by a towel. This tent and taking slow, measured breaths helped me deal with the heat.
We were at the sweat the whole afternoon, but only spent two songs each round in the sweat lodge. The remainder of the time was out in the breeze talking with others [or just resting and rehydrating].
It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and well worth it.