The fire-keeper removes a rock from the centre of the pyre and places it on a tree stump in the yard. Julio Amaya, a 58-year-old Indigenous carpenter from El Salvador, brushes the coal off the rocks with a pine bough. On a Sunday afternoon, the 20 people who have come to attend the sweat ceremony greet each other affectionately. The congenial atmosphere does little to portend the intensity of the ceremony to come.
Some have come to heal from their experiences in prison. Others are spiritual practitioners who have come to learn. Amaya is both.
“I come here because I need to reconnect,” he says. “Without these sweats I probably wouldn’t be here today, like this, talking to you.”
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The ceremony begins
Everyone contributes to the preparations. Red willow is shaved for the ceremonial pipes. Drums, rattles and eagle feathers are placed on a mound before the sacred fire.
Tobacco is sprinkled onto the flames in obeisance. The rising smoke carries prayers to the Grandfathers.
A pathway, or mi’kana, runs from the burning pyre to eastern door of the sweat lodge. As the ceremony begins, first the women, followed by the men, walk down the mi’kana and crawl into the low half-dome of the sweat lodge. Blankets and tarpaulin cover the lodge’s willow frame, keeping the light outside.
Amaya crawls inside. A’chi Anishinaabe, the old pipe-carrier who leads the ceremony, is the last to enter the womb-like darkness.
“Over the course of the ceremony,” the elder relates, “the spirit of sickness will leave the lodge with the rising steam. It will follow the mi’kana to the fire, which it will enter and transform into something beautiful.”
Watch Shawn Shabaquay, president of the UBC Indigenous Students in Science and Health Association, talk about how the sweat lodge ceremonies transformed his life:
The sweat ceremony begins when the fire-keeper passes seven volcanic rocks from the fire into the lodge. Julio Amaya sits by the eastern door. He grasps the handle of the pitchfork from the fire-keeper and navigates the red-hot rocks into the central pit. He takes hold of the bucket of water next.
As the fire-keeper seals the eastern door shut, Amaya touches the bucket to the rocks in deference. He places it next to A’chi Anishinaabe, who sprinkles sacred medicines onto the rocks.
“Oh mis abuelitos,” Amaya mutters. Sweet grass glints on the rocks as it burns. All my relations.
A seminary student turned subversive from Comasagua, El Salvador, Amaya considers the sweats, sobriety and this community to be a fundamental part of his life.
In spite of his Catholic training, Amaya participated in the traditional life of his people, the Mazahua, “people of the deer.” But he had to be careful: the conservative military dictatorship banned Indigenous cultural practices, deeming them subversive.
“The church considered our ceremonies to be witchcraft,” says Amaya. “The government could disappear you if they heard you partake in the Temazcal, the purification ceremony.”
After dropping out of the seminary, he joined the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front. Amaya is one of the thousands of Indigenous men who fought the military government in the Salvadorian Civil War, a confrontation that devastated the country and left 75,000 dead from 1980 to 1992.
Amaya is also one of many Salvadorians who ended up in Canada as refugees. “Back then, I could not stand to be touched by anyone or anything, because I was a political prisoner during the war,” he says.
Although the war ended for Amaya in 1988 when he arrived in Vancouver, it was only the beginning of his problems.
Working for water
A’chi Anishinaabe leads the chanting during the first round of the sweat ceremony. “This round is dedicated to all of creation.”
The participants beat their drums and shake their rattles. The chanting is empowering.
“The sweat lodge ceremony itself is a recreation of the birth of the universe,” Amaya explains afterwards. “The lodge represents the womb of Mother Earth. The participants experience a reconnection with life’s origins.”
During the ritual, the steam raises the temperature. “It can get very hot inside, and you will feel discomfort. Your mind can go to places where you don’t want to be, but the purpose is to create endurance.”
Amaya closes his eyes in concentration. “You know that it will be hard, you know that you are going to suffer, but that’s when you remind yourself of the reason why you are there.”
Chanting prayer-songs in the heated lodge, the participants feel thirst acutely. To Amaya, the satisfaction of drinking water is something that must be earned.
“Don’t think the ceremony is just going there and sweating. When you get inside, that is the world of the spirits. What you contribute to the ceremony is what you are going to get from it.”
Saving Ceremony, Saving Grace
Light floods the dark lodge as the eastern door is opened. The steam escapes. The burning temperature drops immediately. Some seek relief in the brisk air outside. The first round of the sweat ceremony is over. Anishinaabe oral tradition relates the story of a migration towards water, which would save the people from extermination. A prophecy warned the people against the arrival of a new race.
Moving west would ensure their traditional ways remained alive.
The Anishinaabe migrated from the eastern coastal areas of Canada, across Quebec, Ontario, the Great Lakes region, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
And Anishinaabe traditional ways have survived, centuries after contact and kilometres from the land where they originated, in spite of governmental attempts to eradicate them.
According to Dr. Lee Brown, the director of the UBC Institute of Aboriginal Health, one such attempt was the official banning of the sweat lodge ceremony in 1884 under the Indian Act.
“There was a major effort from around 1880 to 1960 to basically eliminate native people as a racial and cultural group. In Vancouver, the Canadian army arrested native people who were involved in the ceremonies and put them in jail. But things continued underground.”
Dr. Brown conducts the sweat lodge ceremony at the University of British Columbia. At universities, on reserves or in prisons, the healing ceremony is being passed on from pipe-carrier to fire-keeper, bringing much-needed succor to people across the country.
Salvation in the southIn between the rounds, Amaya remains in the comforting warmth of the lodge. He bows towards the southern door, pressing his sweating forehead to the cool earth.“There are four directions in the sweat lodge,” Amaya explains. “Each direction allows you to work on some part of your being: your spirit, your emotions, your mind or your health. I wanted to deal with my emotions, you know… the war, the past, all those things, so I started sitting in the south.”
“Without asking for anything, just recognizing the Grandfather of the South, I believe that He will know what is wrong and help me.”
Over time, Amaya started to heal emotionally. “I didn’t feel so guilty about abandoning my family. I didn’t feel so guilty about the war, about the death of family members.”
From suicidal to sweat
Amaya shivers as he recalls his first few years in Vancouver.
“I had psychological problems as a consequence of the war. I didn’t know English, didn’t have a job, and I started drinking and doing drugs. I wanted to get over my addiction, but I just didn’t know how.”
Suicide guaranteed respite from his life, so he planned to jump off the Lions Gate Bridge.
“I was desperate. I didn’t wanted to live any longer, so I decided to go to the bridge. ‘This life’, you know, ‘this f***ing life!’ That’s what was running in my mind.”
From the sidewalk of the bridge, Amaya spotted a pillar smoke rising from Stanley Park.
“I thought, ‘First I must go see what it is.’ And when I got there, I saw a ranchito and some Indians heating the rocks. I thought: this must be the Temazcal ceremony, I have to participate.”
Right there, more than 3,000 miles away from his Indigenous village, Amaya found a reason to live. The sweat lodge gave him a way to heal his spirit, to let go of his addiction and return from the brink of self-annihilation.
In the silence that follows
The sweat ceremony has come to an end. The participants crawl out of the lodge and stand up shakily in silence. Some sit by the fire and continue contemplations begun in the lodge. Others lie down on the soft earth, submitting to its lulling warmth. Some make their way to wooden benches to smoke; the cool breeze dries the sweat off their wet foreheads. Some pass a jug of water between them, satisfying a mounting thirst.
The power of the water has helped heal many spirits. Few leave the ceremony unchanged.