In North American native culture, being of ‘two-spirits’ refers more to a cross gender orientation to the world than sexual preference. Most people self-identify as either male or female—a two-spirit often identifies as both.
Recently, Shelley and I had the pleasure of attending a sweat lodge for two-spirit persons and allies on the Tsleil-waututh First Nation. Located on the north shore of Burrard Inlet across from Vancouver, the setting is lovely—a place of tall timbers of Douglas Fir, Hemlock and Spruce and coastal plants like huckleberry, salal and fern.
It is the sweat lodge of Elder Sandy Leo Laframboise, a two-spirit woman I met while researching My Heart is Not My Own. Also known as Dancing Two Eagle Spirit, she and her community have been having sweats here for years.
The ceremony began with introductions. Shelley and I and one other person were newbies—everyone else was a veteran of this sweat lodge community. Although we were both nervous I don’t think I’ve ever felt so comfortable in a group of strangers. There was a lightness to the group—the sort of joking easy-goingness common among people who are relaxed in each other’s company.
Dancing Two Eagle Spirit prepared a smudge of sweet grass that she passed around the circle. In First Nations traditions, smoke from burning sweet grass is used to purify and is often used in ceremony.
Paul, the Fire Keeper, also known as Dream weaver – Spirit Dancer took me under his wing and explained his interpretation of the fire. I learned that virtually everything has meaning within the sweat ceremony—the way the rocks are placed, the use of tobacco, even the direction and vigour of the fire.
After raking the fire circle smooth, Paul sprinkled tobacco over the charred earth—an offering to the earth in appeasement for the burning that is to come. The stones to be heated are chosen by participants—the exact number in accordance with the Elder’s wishes for each of the endurances. I think it was 12,7,12, and 7—seven stones for the first endurance, followed by the additions of 7 for the next, and so on. Our Elder has an optional fifth endurance as well.
Did I say everything has meaning?
The stones are called the ‘grandmas’ and ‘grandpas,’ in deference to the fact that, as part of Mother Earth, the stones are literally our ancestors. The Fire Keeper created a platform for the grandmas and grandpas and invited everyone to help in completely covering the stones with wood.
The fire and the sweat lodge entrance are west facing—which is a direction associated with deep healing. Somewhat igloo shaped, it is lit from the west and east entrances. Paul explained that the east is associated with deep focus or visionary insight. The Fire Keeper told me he liked the energy from this fire—it burned evenly from the west and east sides, a nice balance between the energies of healing and insight.
As the flames engulfed the wood we sat in a circle and shared intentions for the sweat. Letting go of negative feelings, finding a path to openness and healing, and creating a space for personal growth were common themes. The Elder cautioned us newbies to prepare for two things—the intensity of heat when water is placed on the stones, and the complete darkness within the sweat lodge. She advised us to breathe through our mouths and direct any fears toward the heated rocks in the center of the sweat lodge.
And then it was time—Dancing Two Spirit Eagle invited us to enter the sweat lodge.
There were thirteen of us. I’m tall and we were so close I was touching the women on either side of me. The Fire Keeper and a helper selected the requested number of now glowing stones from the fire and, using a pitch-fork, rolled them into the pit into the middle. Dancing Two Spirit Eagle then asked for the door to be closed.
I was glad that I had been warned about the blackness and the searing heat of the steam. And I found the proximity of people around me reassuring–thirteen individuals enduring the sweat as one.
With each endurance a Water Pourer would lead the assembled in prayer and songs. As in a womb, the experience was all feeling and sound—it was an experience almost devoid of visual cues. I don’t remember smelling anything but I won’t forget the intensity of the other two senses. Drums. Rattles. Steam. Songs. Prayers. More steam.
At the end of the endurance Dancing Two Spirit Eagle would say—‘this endurance is now over. Open the door!’
We crawled out of the sweat lodge in turn—everyone dripping wet. We drank water, snacked and cooled down, preparing ourselves for the next endurance. Dancing Two Spirit Eagle told us that snacking between endurances is not common to all sweat lodges–in this case she encourages all participants to do so because some of the participants have health issues.
My own experience of the sweat surprised me. After the second endurance I felt light-headed and I wondered if I could endure the last three sessions. But something happened during the third endurance—a transformation—something between a second wind in a long run and euphoria. Endurances four and five were wonderful—I knew what to expect and was able to let go. Unlike the first two, I didn’t want these ones to end.
I look forward to doing it again—many times.
(All photos by Shelley Wuitchik.)