We were welcomed to Vermillion, So. Dakota by my dear old friend, Catherine Alexandra, her grown daughter Kim Whempner, and Kim's young sons, Christopher (3) and Benjamin (1 1/2). As we approached the home, we were waved forward by a handmade, cardboard and marker "Welcome Bikrutz!" sign. We soon set up our rig in the alley behind the home and plugged in our electrical extension cord into Catherine's dryer appliance outlet. This wattage allowed for the luxury of air-conditioning in our RV along with the other usual amenities.
Comfortably settled in, we spent the evening eating, catching up, and relaxing in a welcoming environment. Our girls delighted in playing with the little boys and Shaine attached herself immediately to the two housecats. Catherine and I have been friends for 24 years. We met in Santa Monica, California and leaned on each other in the bad old days of broken hearts and pre-nursing classes. It was Catherine who introduced me to scuba diving. I was seduced by the way she described her relationship to the sea creatures: the gentle and shy morey eels, the haughty, protected bright orange California fish, the games she played with the octopi, the gardens of sea urchins, swimming through forests of rapidly growing kelp. To pass the scuba certification, I had to swim to exhaustion in my evening scuba classes. Following class, I drove myself to the medical intensive care unit at UCLA where I worked as an RN on the grueling night shift. I discovered, however, that after swimming, I practically whistled as I worked. I hadn't read about endorphins yet but I figured it out for myself! Although I gave scuba up, I stuck with swimming for a very long time. And then I discovered biking.
Catherine and I have kept in touch over the years. Her life eventually took her and her children to South Dakota where her parents live nearby in another small town. Cat (as she was sometimes called) did some health care related work on the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Reservation and then decided to go to law school. After her first year learning law, she got sick and was hospitalized. One of her care providers advised her to take a sweat lodge cure. Catherine did this and believes it changed her life. She dropped out of law school and became seriously devoted to spiritual exploration which included blending her childhood Catholicism with her walk on the Red Road, the Pipe and Christ.
The day following our arrival in Vermillion, Al opted to bike a 65 mile loop, returning to Catherine's around noon. He did this to allow me the chance to spend an unscheduled day with my friend and to accomplish his own goals in biking. Poor Cody had a marginal night's sleep and woke up with his first stiff neck. So Cody spent most of his day in the rig applying Ben Gay and icepacks to his aching muscles, resting, and doing his obligatory summer reading. The girls were delighted to have the chance to hang out in a home with two darling toddlers and two anxious cats. And Kim was absolutely sweet to supervise the homescene for my peace of mind, because Catherine and I had plans.
Mid-morning, Catherine and I headed out on the long, straight gravel backroads of South Dakota for a small lake where Catherine had been before to pick chokecherries. After some confusion as the roads are not well marked, we found our place and spent half and hour gathering the dark, succulent chokecherries which are used in some Sioux Indian ceremonies. The day was hot, the sky clear and beautiful.
We returned around 2:00 pm and got ready to go to spiritual grounds where Catherine's local Indian community regularly has sweat lodges. Al opted not to go because he feels he has sweated enough on this trip! He had a good point. Cody was still nursing his sore neck and could only walk around with his head cocked to the side, so he too, opted not to go. Annie and Shaine were both interested; however, Catherine talked kindly to Annie about the sweat lodge. She answered Annie's sincere questions and Annie herself figured out that she probably shouldn't go. Shaine and I donned borrowed old long skirts and tee shirts and we three women headed out the door.
Again, we headed out on backroads to the spacious, open country where the sweat lodges are built. It would trivialize the experience to try to detail the elements of the sweat lodge ritual because the complexity in the way the sweat is conducted is far beyond my knowledge. Catherine had tried to minimally prepare Shaine and I by offering a copy of a pamphlett "How To Take Part in Lakota Ceremonies" by William Stolzman, SJ. I was only able to absorb the information in small part and knew I had to experience what I could in my own limited fashion.
This particular sweat was mostly a "giving thanks" ceremony, held on behalf of a young man who earlier, through the community's help and prayers, was empowered to achieve his goal of becoming a Navy Seal. He returned to the community and wanted to pay the people back by offering a pig roast banquet (wopili). Preceding the wopili, many in the community wanted to take part in the sweat lodge. The focus of todays sweat was on thankfulness and prayers for health and healing.
The sweat ceremony began and ended on "Indian Time," meaning we gathered around three and the sweat was over when the prayers and ritual were done. When we arrived on the grounds, an assortment of people were gathering. There was a mix of Indians as well as non-Indians. Catherine tells me that many of the Elders are gracious in sharing their spiritual lives with non-Indians but that, as always, there are rising young leaders who for political, economical, and cultural survival needs, are debating just how much sharing can be done with non-Indians. Some ceremonies are off-limits to all but Indians who can document their blood-lines. In the context of the survival of the Sioux Nation, this is understandable. In spite of my initial hesitation, Shaine and I felt welcome.
Today, there were enough people to hold two separate sweats; one for men and one for women. Preparations made, burned sage filled the air with a sweet and pungent herbal smoke. We entered the sweat lodge clockwise saying, "Mitakuye oyas'in" (all our relatives), and took our places sitting around a circle facing a fire pit. The well-heated stones were put in the pit and raked into place with deer antlers as cedar and sage were sprinkled on. The pipe was carefully touched to the hot rocks. As I looked around, the lodge was constructed of willow branches lashed together to shape a dome and heavy canvas mats and pieces of carpet fashionned the lodge covering. Finally, enough rocks were placed and the opening through the canvas was closed. The lodge was completely dark. The heat became intense. The leader reminded us of the purpose of the sweat and asked for prayer requests. She sang a Lakota song and drummed. The heat became more intense. I began to feel nauseated and dizzy. I whispered to Shaine, asking how she was doing. She whispered back that she could hardly breathe. I tried a technique I had read about, breathing the sage wrapped in a towel held close to my face. It hardly helped. I felt like I would jump out of my skin. Finally, the first round was over and the canvas door was pulled open by Emma, a 13 year old helper. Shaine and I partook of the water passed around in the ladle and then apologetically excused ourselves. The heat of the day seemed mild in contrast but we further sought the shade offered by a tree and mild breeze.
I sat outside the lodge during the second round, listening but not hearing, the prayers shared by the community of women. I felt that I just wasn't meant to be there and that staying outside was the right thing to do. For the third round, I asked to re-enter and was welcomed back. The heat was again intense but I was able to accept it better. And I only had myself to be concerned about, not Shaine in addition. Shaine was happily resting outside, conversing with her age-mate Emma. By the fourth and final round, I was truly enjoying the prayers and sweating in the dark. I noticed a repetition in the words of the closing song and was even able to sing along somewhat. Almost too soon by then, the lodge door was opened and the pipe was passed around with the intention that our prayers be carried to the heavenward to the spirits with the smoke.
Good feelings follow the sweat bath and we lingered around the grounds outside, talking about the heat and the relief we felt from the gentle breeze. The leader offered some comments to the participants and seemed to know just the right things to say. Catherine, Shaine and I piled into the car and drove back over the bumpy road, passing the firepit where the pig was roasting. "Smells good!" Catherine called to the three men tending the pig. "Everyone's mouths in town are watering!" The thanksgiving pig feast was to be held in the Indian Center building in Vermillion.
Several hours later, after showers and fresh clothes, we women along with Annie and Al, piled back into Catherine's car heading for the feast. People were gathering and the potluck fixings were spread on the table. Cat contributed a huge salad and several gallons of delicious peach, peppermint, and regular flavored sun-tea. I recognized the people from the sweat, about half the people there. Catherine introduced me to her friends, the members of the community I had not met.
Before eating, prayers in Lakota language were offered. A leader announced the order of people who should serve themselves first. Because the feast was offered by a young man who wanted to give back to his community, the young men were some of the first to eat following the elders. After dinner, a small circle was formed by several men. A drum was brought out and rhythmic songs were sung. A long Lakota prayer was spoken on the young man's behalf. We moved in a reception line to thank the young man and his parents. All the people finally joined hands and we side-stepped and swayed in a circle, moving first to the left and then to the right in a "round dance." As we danced, I looked around enjoying the assortment of people there. One middle-aged man suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome yet he knew all the words to the song being sung and he danced and sang like his heart and soul were totally into it. He seemed secure in himself. The dance ended and the event was officially over.
Back to Catherine's again, we spoke our goodbyes. Catherine brought out several dream-catchers she had made and offered them to us. Shaine brightened up and asked to be taught how to make them herself. Catherine gave the girls a quick lesson and some bare red willow hoops for starters. It was hard to part. Catherine came into the RV to say goodbye and offer sympathy to Cody who was still mending his crooked neck. After taking a few more photographs, Catherine left with promises to keep in touch.
Miles: Al (single) 65.
Total Miles: 2000
**Next Day's Journal**