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Anchor 5

Sweat Lodge Healing

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

What, or Who, Is the Magic?

”Ma” is a universal utterance for “mother; ”gic” is a cognate of other derivatives meaning “Earth.” The linguistic roots of magic = Mother Earth. Is She the “Magic” underneath the extraordinary healing that takes place in the Sweat Lodge?

A Sweat Lodge is a dome structure about 4 feet high. Participants crawl into the Lodge on their knees, on the Earth, saying “Mitaqouyasin” – meaning, “all my relatives,” all of Mother Earth’s children. Perhaps the most legendary of Lakota “Sweat” or “Purification” Lodge leaders in the twentieth century was “Fools Crow.” He confided to his biographer, Thomas Mails, that he experienced the Lodge as a complete sphere with a dome above the Earth and the other half of the sphere under the ground; Fools Crow sat on a plane that is ground upon the earth and beneath the sky.


“Nahmaka,” a name he chose to protect his privacy for this Post, he indicated, means lover of Wakan Tanka (a.k.a. Creator, Great Spirit, God, Yahweh, Allah & more) who infuses spirituality into all beings, mitaqouyasin, all our relatives. Nahmaka, prior to being stabbed, had a track record as a powerful, talented man, engaged in struggles for social and environmental justice.

The assailant had been a friend, brotherly, an ally, but also a jealous rival who narcissistically sought superior recognition. Circumstances encouraged the assailant to think that stabbing and killing his brotherly ally, even in betrayal, would lead others to see himself as the more powerful.

Nahmaka lived a spiritual life, always divining direction for his behaviors, and relied upon Wakan Tanka to provide him with protection and successful achievement of whatever he was called to do. Nahmaka’s mother had taught him to alter his consciousness and go directly into the Spiritual Realm for visionary guidance. Until this near-lethal betrayal by a brotherly friend, Nahmaka’s bravery and achievement was so extraordinary as to become legendary in his own lifetime. A man of Spiritual trust, he pondered whether the lack of protection in this incident meant that it was “supposed” to happen?

Troubled, in pain and suicidal, wondering if he had been meant to die, Nahmaka visited a medicine person, Eagleman, for counsel. I come into this story of healing as a part-time apprentice to Eagleman. As a mental health professional, Eagleman and I were in collegial relationship for about ten years, sharing several clients. Additionally, during the next ten years, I became a part-time apprentice to Eagleman\

Eagleman and his wife, Patalene, established what was perhaps the first Sweat Lodge based alcoholic recovery programs in the United States. Additionally, they were flesh cutters for the Sundance ceremony, Eagleman sewing in buckskin straps for the male dancers and Pataline assisting women in their making of flesh offerings. Here are photos of them: a portrait of Eagleman, their wedding picture and the two of them (postretirement), with me, Karl Ostrom in 2012.

A power intrusion

Relying on his inner vision and Spirit Helpers, Eagleman saw the scars in Nahmaka’s back, but also more deeply he saw a “power-intrusion.” Many tribes recognize that a wound causing physical trauma, also assaults the body’s energy system. Metaphorically, it is like an everlasting battery of negative energy that can amplify negativity in thought patterns and be a barrier to complete healing of the physical wound, leaving residual pain – symptoms that were a match to Nahmaka’s complaints. (Unfortunately for patients, Western medicine has generally overlooked power intrusions.)

Different tribes, though recognizing power intrusions in much the same way, developed spiritual/physical treatments that differed. Eagleman had learned from both Dakota and Anishanabe medicine traditions and following guidance from his Spirit helpers drew from both.

Eagleman, like many of his generation, was abducted from his home by the federal government when he was about six years old. After being forced through an elementary and then a high school boarding school, Eagleman fought in the Korean War, then went to the streets of Chicago where he developed alcoholism. After a spiritual awakening he went back to his home Anishanabe reservation, aspiring to become a medicine man. But there were few remaining who knew their native tongue, and no medicine people to whom he could apprentice. Not to be denied his calling, Eagleman went to a Dakota reservation and apprenticed himself to a medicine man for twelve years, before returning to his Anishanabe reservation.

The Four Directions

In preparation for a Sweat Lodge ceremony, Nahmaka was told by Eagleman to make forty prayer ties, ten for each direction, black, white, yellow and red. The Four Directions for many tribes represent powerful Spiritual Beings to whom Creator has distributed Spiritual Power. For readers familiar with the Christian tradition, the relationship between these Four Powers and Creator (“Wakan Tanka”) is like the mystical concept of the Trinity, wherein differing aspects of Creator are unified as One.

Symbolisms of seasons, of animals, of phases of life, of the colors and types of wisdom are differentially associated by various tribes with the Four Directions. Tribes agreeably share in common their belief in the importance of the Four Directions and unlike Western religions’ divisions and denominations, they don’t argue about differences in how those beliefs are articulated. The detail of associations with each Direction, combined with another channel for addressing Wakan Tanka, facilitates intimate prayer and increases the discovery of behavioral options for a responsive faith walk with Wakan Tanka.

Thomas Mails in his book,

Secret Native American Pathways :A Guide to Inner Peace, provides a helpful diagram of how the Lakota Sioux

associate meanings to the Four Directions,

The beginnings of ceremonies are marked by calling to the Grandfather Powers in the Directions: including the Pipe and Sweat Lodge ceremonies that we will be describing for Nahmaka; they also structure his creation of Prayer Ties. Accordingly, to better understand the lessons of healing, which will come from Nahmaka’s healing process, the Lakota’s spiritual relationships to the Directional Powers will be further described.

Powers of the Four Directions are addressed as friends, to be related to without fear, but with respect for their wisdom and strength that they provide. They are called “Grandfather” (“Tunkashila”) as well as friend (“kola”). Immediately following is a tape that has been trimmed to the first minute of the Four Directions Song which precedes the opening of the Sweat Lodge. The verses are repeated for each Direction. Note how the calling uses the names of “friend” and “Grandfather.” This spiritually loving and caring atmosphere infuses the circle of participants’ feelings for one another as they sit around the pit for heated rocks and join in prayer and song. The transformation of people’s dispositions and stumbling chatter before the ceremony to loving and profound prayer or song in the Lodge is amazing to watch.

First verse of Four Directions Song

Nahmaka, for readers learning from this Post, has graciously offered pages from journaling that he did when making prayer ties, which I have drawn from representatively. Small squares of cloth, red, yellow, white and black, for the Four Directions are used to wrap tobacco and tie to an unbroken string. With each tie, a meditational prayer is made that will be held by the tobacco and after 4 days be burned with the smoke carried to the 4 Directions by the 4 Winds. The tie uses the strength of tobacco to hold and to carry prayers. The fullness of Nahmaka’s heart-mind will be fully expressed. When we make a single prayer, we are giving voice to a single part of our very multi-faceted heart and mind. Embodying that prayer in tobacco where it is held to be in a confluence with other prayers will deeply enrich and expand Nahmaka’s prayers.

Nahmaka begins with red ties for the North, the Power of health, the home of White Buffalo Calf Woman, and the Bald Eagle.

Grandfather, all my life I have been strong. I have lived with enthusiasm for justice, for the protection of my people, and for the protection of our Mother. Now I am weak, Grandfather, I am living in darkness. Is it time for me to die, Grandfather? I am in so much pain. I have no desire to live. Grandfather, give me help, or carry me into the next world. Mother Eagle I have followed you over ridges and hills when I could not see the other side. Show me the way, where am I going? I’m crying for a vision; I am crying from an aching heart. I am pitiful, Grandfather. Heal me or take me Grandfather. Look down on me with Sage and Sweetgrass with tobacco for my pipe, lifting me out of my darkness. Woman of the North, you brought us the ceremonies. I offer these prayers, wrapped with tobacco for your Lodge. I beg for blessings for all our relatives, Mitaqouyasin.

Finishing ten ties for the North, Nahmaka takes yellow cloth to make prayers for the Grandfather of the East.

Grandfather, I am in darkness. Bring the power of Sun to shine upon me. I know nothing. I am pitiful. How could my brother stab me? Is it time for me to die, Grandfather? Always, Grandfather, you have protected me. Golden Eagle, always you have circled above me, even bringing me across mountains. Grandfather, I have tried to protect my people, to protect our Mother, to be a loving friend to all our relatives. Now I feel so much pain, but especially the pain of betrayal. I don’t understand, Grandfather. Grandfather, I give up. I’m ready to die. Or, maybe Grandfather, it was time for me to die so that I was not protected from a knife in my back? Bring light into my heart, Grandfather that I might see and understand through your eyes what it is that I should do? Should I take my life? If not, Grandfather, may there be healing to begin a new day with the rising Sun! Mitaqouyasin.

Nahmaka takes the white cloth and turns to the South.

Grandfather, why was I born? Did Wakan Tanka have a purpose for me? Did I fall off the path? All my animal relatives, hear me, help me, we have always been on the path together. I have lost my way. Many of you have died and I was not able to help, but you are my friends forever. We must help each other, if it is in this life or the next. Grandfather, help us. White Crane, I see your wings glistening in the sun, come close so I can follow you. Lead me, where Wakan Tanka wants me to go. Am I to die or to live? If I am to live for others, I need help. I need strength. Help me understand my purpose and restore my enthusiasm for living. Mitaqouyasin.

Turning to the West, Nahmaka begins to cut up the black cloth for making ties.

Grandfather, purify me in freshwaters. Thunder Beings strike me with the lightning that cuts through the darkness, that I may die or live in light. Horse peoples of the West, Oh my Grandfather, I see them galloping across the sky, chasing the lightning. Grandfather, Grandfather, I see my crazy pony dancing in the sky. Oh, let me go to the upper world and join him – Grandfather, he is filled with life, can he come here that we can live together? Oh, Grandfather I am riding in the sky with the Horse People, even though I’m yet living! Thank you, thank you! Let me see through your eyes.

Why was I betrayed? The herbs of the medicine woman have covered my wound. Why am I still in pain? I want to live for others, why am I still in the darkness that leads me into death? Looking down, Grandfather, I see myself. Grandfather, I see that I am very pitiful, feeling sorry for myself because I was betrayed. But Grandfather, you are showing me that the pain of betrayal as I feel, has happened to our people. We have trusted but been betrayed. Grandfather that is why I fought in so many struggles, because our people were being betrayed. Grandfather, even more, you show me Mother Earth being betrayed by two legged children, all over her waters, her land and her forests. How pitiful I am that I thought it was only me being betrayed. All over, two legged brothers and sisters are stabbing one another in the back by killing the Life of our Mother. Grandfather, help me to live that once again I may be strong and know the purpose of fighting for Life, for the tender hearts of the young ones of all species, for the future beings, Grandfather. I see brothers and sisters fighting for justice, for the Life of our Mother. Oh Grandfather, my heart wants to join them. Help me get over this pain and find my way out of the darkness that I may live, live the purpose for which Wakan Tanka gave me life.

The ties were finished, days came, days went. Nahmaka knew he had been granted a larger vision that lifted him beyond his personal betrayal. Yet, he felt that he was still covered in darkness, still weak, still in pain. Why had he not been healed by the gift of his expanded vision? He knew the answer to this question. Healing would come to him in the Sweat. There was something dark and festering, invisibly, in the scar of the knife wound in his back. He sensed that if he could see it, it would look like a mass of scraggly, twisted hair, filled with thorns, and burning.

Nahmaka brought the tobacco ties to Eagleman, telling him what he had seen when riding in the sky with the Horse People and what he sensed was still inside him. Eagleman told him that he would be healed when that monstrosity within him would be removed in the Sweat. Eagleman instructed Nahmaka to hang the tobacco ties above the place, on the far side of the pit in the Sweat, where he would be sitting. The tobacco in the ties would loosen and began to absorb the monstrosity hidden in his scars. Then, in the ceremony, Wakan Tanka would have the evil entity, with all its negative energy, sucked out of him.

The Sweat Lodge Ceremony

Given the intensity of an extraction ceremony, Eagleman convened a closed Sweat Lodge that would include only Nahmaka, myself and Eagleman. A volunteer fire keeper was present to attend to the rocks.

It was early evening and the door flap was open toward the setting sun. Sitting outside the flap, near the traditional Buffalo skull that had sage placed in its eye-sockets, Eagleman led Nahmaka and me in a pipe loading ceremony. He drummed and sang the traditional song as together, with each verse, we loaded a pinch of tobacco into our pipe bowls and sprinkled a pinch of tobacco onto Mother Earth. Our pipe stems were successively pointed to each of the Four Directions as we loaded the tobacco, then to the Earth and Sky. A cap of sage was placed on top of the tobacco and our pipes were leaned against a rack, ready for a smoking ceremony after the Sweat.

Before we entered the Lodge, Eagleman gave instructions. There would be 4 doors (meaning, rounds of steaming and praying with the door being opened for air 4 times.) During the first round, we would sing and pray. During the second round, prayers and song would prepare us for the extraction. In round three, Eagleman instructed that I should suck out the power intrusion and then take the prayer ties hanging from the top of the Lodge, carry them to hang in a tree, where they would be cleansed by the wind, and then return to the Lodge for round four.

At the beginning of round three, Nahmaka stretched out on his stomach, exposing the scars of his wound. I gave out loud calls of Bear Spirit and of Eagle Spirit, then crawled to the side of Nahmaka with the Spirit of Snake. Eagleman drummed with increased intensity and poured more water on the rocks increasing the steam heat to an almost unendurable temperature. I sucked on the scars with all my might. You could hear a pop and a letting go and a black tarry substance ran onto the Lodge floor, then the thorny, hairy, burning ball rolled into the pit of hot rocks, disintegrating in their glow. Nahmaka had writhed in pain, given a loud moan, and then lay silently on the Lodge floor.

A stench permeated the Lodge until Eagleman threw cedar, sweetgrass and sage onto the rocks.

I gathered in the prayer ties, rushed out the flap door, running as quickly as I could to a tree about 50 yards away where I hung them in the branches with prayers to Wakan Tanka and the Four Winds to carry away the negativity, cleansing the ties, Nahmaka, Eagleman and myself. I rolled on Mother Earth, as though putting out flames on my body, before running back to the Lodge.

Nahmaka was laying relaxed and silent on the Lodge floor. As round 4 began, I sensed his vulnerability with the empty space from which the power intrusion had been extracted. As the fire keeper brought in more glowing rocks and Eagleman poured on more water, I prayed for the restoration of Nahmaka’s wholeness. Then, as only an owl can fly silently, even with large wings, it swooped into the Lodge and into the space within Nahmaka. He knew the Spirit Owl, now smiling through the sweat on his brow, he sat up in renewed strength.

After the Sweat, we smoked our pipes in extraordinary gratitude.

Reflections on Sweat Lodge Healing

In the beginning of this Post, the importance of humility was noted as part of the process of entering the Lodge, crawling on the ground; and secondly, doing so with concern for others as well as oneself "Mitaqouyasin," seeking healing on behalf of all our relatives.

The prayer ties illustrated the importance of a holistic, Spiritual dialogue, which was a two-way conversation, not just a petitioning; and the result was receiving an expanded vision of the problem.

The actual extraction took place within what could be called, "shamanic reality." Shamanic healing does not require any type of belief-commitment. Simply, if entered in a holistic way, mind-body and soul, it works. Nor does shamanic healing have any claims on exclusivity. There is, however, a hard lesson to be gained from the healing experience that was just recounted.

Talk therapy and/or in combination with medical therapy does not by itself heal the wounds to the body's energy system that are created through the assaults of physical trauma. Medical techniques and psychological techniques are helpful. But they need to be complemented by work with the body's energy system. This can happen through the type of sweat Lodge healing that we just witnessed. It can also happen through bodywork from a skilled energy-practitioner. And, as I know from clinical experience, it can also happen through psychoanalytically informed "abreaction" work. In the abreaction, the mind goes into hypnotic trance, reaching the initial experience of trauma and the body re-creates the physiological state that occurred in co-time with the traumatic assault. So, any of these approaches to healing are workable, but for the complete return to health, attention must be given to the healing of the body's energy system. A final note on the shamanic healing process, incorporating the process of prayer ties. The goal went beyond simply symptom removal and included helping the patient function within a life framework that generated a renewal of purpose and enthusiasm for life.

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