Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Tachih Nádáh

This ceremony is common to almost all north american native cultures. There are as many variations as there are among people. There are many more similarities than there are differences.

Let me remind you that I do not believe in the supernatural. I do not pray in the sense that I expect a god somewhere to listen and give a damn. I still go into the lodge with people. I talk and follow the forms of the traditional prayers. When I leave, I feel better. That's enough. No jealous sky demon has ever acted like it was going to strike me down. I don't get into all of that. There might be some Jungian tribal memory thing going on, I dont care.

We meet in the early afternoon a clan cousin's house. (Apache connections are byzantine in complexity and I won't go into that here) They have a semi permanent lodge set up in their back yard. They are far enough out in the country that it is quiet and we won't be bothered by city noise or prying eyes. There are eight of us tonight, equally divided between men and women. Some cultures have a total ban on men and women doing this ceremony together, some wear clothes. We tend to be more pragmatic about things. After being hunted for the better part of two centuries by the Spanish, the Mexicans, then the Americans a lot of separation of men and women got discarded because there simply weren't enough of the people (indii) to keep things workable. Sometimes we have problems when those from other cultures that have these barriers come to visit. We will warn them about our customs but we don't try to adapt to them any more than that. Warrior societies are like that.

Many of us fast on the day of the ceremony. I will drink fluids but I don't eat. It's just a personal thing. I know people who do the whole dry fasting thing and I have done it before but mainly since it would mean doing without my coffee and having a raging headache before the dehydration sets in I choose not to.

We start by covering the bent willow framework that forms the shell of the Tachih (sweatlodge). It's about five feet tall at the peak and makes a nice circular dome. We are covering it with a combination of blankets (nothing special for the blankets, just old blankets is all) on the first two layers, followed by elk, deer and buffalo hides on the outside. We are looking for something that will be light and waterproof. There are sheets spread out on the floor of the lodge, mainly this is so we won't get all crusty mudded up while we are trying to cleanse ourselves. When we are finished we all go inside the house.

We gather in a circle in the living room and the leader (ha'taallii) welcomes us to the ceremony. We go around the room and introduce ourselves. We use our "medicine names" here. That is the name we use when we are in ceremony. There's a whole involved structure around naming, there's the name that it used in the state records, a medicine name, a name given by your warrior society, a sacred name that is never spoken aloud, and then there's the name everybody calls you by. Again, it's pretty alien and hard to explain. My medicine name translates roughly to "Singing Snake." We pass around a smudge bowl with a combination of sage, cedar and lavender. We let the smoke waft around us, fanning it with an eagle feather. If there is anything specific we want to look for inside the lodge it is stated at this time.

The leader takes out his pipe and puts it together. He (it can be a woman but tonight it is a man) takes a small pinch of tobacco (actually, it's a mix of stuff that grows out in the desert mountains and I am not going to go into the ingredients beyond saying that there is nothing in this pipe that would interfere with my program of drug and alcohol abstinence but when I am talking about tobacco I'm not talking about the Virginia leaf) and begins to fill the pipe a pinch at a time, saying the appropriate prayers for each pinch. When the leader is done the pipe and the pouch go around the room and we each add our own pinch and our own prayers (these prayers can be said out loud or be said in silence). When the pipe is once again with the leader he begins to smoke and pray. He smokes to the four cardinal directions, above and below, the center of things. Then he calls in the powers of nature and the world. It's long, intricate and involved. For me this part is like the sermon they make derilicts listen to before they get fed at the soup kitchen. I maintain a respectful silence but I'm not really all that into it.

Once the leader has finished his job the pipe again goes around the circle and we each smoke a little bit and say our own personal wishes for the ceremony. Then we get naked and go out to the lodge.

The entrance of the lodge is facing to the east. You stand before the entrance and the leader brushes you with sage smoke and a fan made from the wing of an eagle. When this is done you kneel down, touch you forhead to the ground and say "ahéhe'e shik'iihi" (thank you my people), then you crawl slowly around the lodge until you reach your place. There is one special position in the lodge that is right next to the firepit (which is roughly north northeast). The person that sits there is the last to pray each round and tries to keep themselves in tune with the flow of the ceremony. They are also there to aid the leader in any way that might be needed. I like to sit in the slight south west position. When the water hits the hot rocks the steam billows up and across the dome of the lodge right on top of you. I like it hot. During this part of the ceremony we remain silent, focused in our own thoughts.

When we are all in the leader enters and asks for the fire tenders to bring four rocks, one at a time from the firepit. We are using rocks from a dry river bed that have been baked for a couple of days right after they were gathered. River rocks hold the heat longer and seem to get hotter. If you don't put them in a 200° oven for a couple of days there's a chance that when the water is poured on them they will explode. I've been in a lodge when this happens and it's no fun at all. As the rocks are brought in they are sprinkled with fragrent herbs and flowers and the appropriate prayers and welcome is made. Then three more rocks come in. Same thing is done. After the first seven rocks are in more are brought in two and three at a time, the leader uses an elk horn to arrange them in the pit, the person sitting in the northeast begins to sing a song in Apache until we have a total of twenty rocks. The flap on the entrance is closed and we are in darkenss except for the glow of the rocks in the pit. The leader pours twenty times on the rocks, saying the ritual prayers of welcome and calling in the powers. Then one at a time we go around the lodge and say our prayers for ourselves. There aren't any real hard and fast rules on what to pray for. The form is to address the god or power you are intending to talk to and introduce yourself by your medicine name, you clan affiliation, and any honors from battle you might have be given. Then you pray for yourself. I pretty much follow the 11th step of Alcoholic's Anonymous here and tend to pray that I be given only the knowledge of what god's will for me might be and then have the power to carry out that will. It's enough. Sometimes people will ask the leader to give them a medicine name or change the one they've been given before. When everyone has had their turn the flap is opened and there is a slight respite from the heat.

During the rounds of the sweat lodge no one goes in or comes out. If someone gets in distress from the heat they can ask that the flap be opened for them to leave but the round is then started over from the beginning.

The leader asks for six stones, he can ask for as many or as few as he wants, it's pretty hot in there tonight, the steam is scalding and feels alive. We don't need a whole lot of it.

The flap is closed again and this time the prayers that are said are for others. People pray for family, friends, whatever. As long as it is not about you. The flap is opened again.

Some folks drink water in between the rounds of prayers. I don't but that's a personal choice that I made. It's not mandated one way or the other. I just feel a bigger ceremonial connection by having the time in lodge be about stuff going out

This time he asks for nine stones to be brought in. The flap goes down and we begin the "give away." Here we give away the things in our life that are not serving us well. You might have noticed that I am not going into any specifics about what I pray for in the lodge. It's very personal. It's very private. It's between me and what ever power might be out there, not between me and you. After everyone has taken a turn we do another round where we give away things about ourselves that we give to the people and society as a whole. The good things that we bring. After listing all the stuff that's not that great and isn't working it's good to identify what is good and doing the job.

The flap comes up again and he asks for seven stones, one at a time. They again get sprinkled with herbs and flowers, the flap goes down and while the leader does the twenty count prayer and pours twenty horns of water we are dreaming. Trying to be open to any message or emotions that be out there for us.

The flap is opened and one, at a time, in reverse order of entrance we leave the lodge. We stay in silence. Some people use an outdoor shower that is set up, others lie down on towels and stare up at the sky. We are coming back into this world slowly. I finally get up and douse myself with cold water, and start to drink some gatorade that I brought. It takes about forty minutes for us to get in the present enough to go inside and get dressed. Then we attack the pot luck buffet that has been set up. I am still drinking deeply and ravenous. The food tastes great. I am tired, but full of energy.

After the meal we gather again and go over what we felt in the lodge. The pipe is smoked and then put away. We stand around talking quietly about little things. The big things are through for the night. One by one we give gifts of tobacco and a small token of thanks to the leader, the three people that tended our fire, and the hosts who graciously opened their house to us. Then we drift away into the dark night. Cleansed in body and spirit. Part of this world and some other place I can't really explain. There is a thread in this ceremony that runs through us all the way to the beginning of time.

We aren't real hard core about keeping this ceremony all to ourselves, there have been outsiders invited to join our circle. It's rare, but it is not unheard of. I will leave you with the words from an old prayer

biihill hishash aaii diji jooni (may i walk today in beauty)
yexahedela go deya tc'indii (having been prepared, he walks, they say)

good night.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was amazing and beautiful. Thanks for sharing that with all of us.

11:31 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

you're welcome. i try to attend at least one ceremony a month. it helps keep me grounded and aware. i will be doing some other postings that deal with native issues. . .

3:04 PM  
Blogger TFLS said...

Fascinating. Truly fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing this. I would love to experience something like that. My personal spiritual beliefs are open enough to encompass other cultures rituals of connection. And isn't it amazing that your background blends two such mythological cultures! I'm Irish. My personal family history is rife with tall tales and extraordinary events. You are a remarkable combination!

2:11 PM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

My father was able to adapt to the tribal, clan, community stucture of the reservation easily. He was from the West of Ireland (bold Kerry) where the old ways and language were still the norm. When his mother came, she (aside from missing the rain) did the same. I was able to see and hear the similarities. I connected with both Finn MacCool and Coyote stories, I heard the stories of Taza and Nana and Cochise along with the stories of Collins, MacDermott and DeValera. My Apache grandfather had fond memories of the Irish non-coms in the army at Fort Apache. We even incorporated the Irish clan into our geneology. In Apache society you are born to your mother's clan (súl or flute) and for your father's clan (Cassidy). This is something that needed to be done because the Apache have strict rules to prevent any incest from occuring. I try to remain in and a part of all my cultures (I'm American to the bone too) and I believe my children and I are all the richer for it. There are a lot of white people who have been following the teachings of the cherokee metis Harley Swiftdeer that hold community sweat lodges all over the country. They're a good bunch of people. As I said in my post we do invite outsiders into our circle upon occaision. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Even with my lack of belief in gods or other stuff, the validity of these ancient ceremonies still sustains me deeply.

2:35 PM  
Blogger FriĆ°vin said...

Fascinating indeed!

2:54 PM  

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