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Sacred White Buffalo Experience: Going Native, in a Good Way

Gale Courey Toensing gives her first-person account of her first time in a sweat lodge, which she did following the naming of the white buffalo calf Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy.

If this were The Onion, the headline would be something funny like MIDDLE-AGED WHITE WOMAN FINDS GOD IN LAKOTA SWEAT LODGE.

But it’s Indian Country Today Media Network and I didn’t find God. What I found was a sizeable chunk of myself, a really effective purification practice for body, mind and emotions, and a major point of reference on my somewhat checkered spiritual journey.

But if you know Lakota people, you’ll find my headline funny. They’re always talking about doing everything "in a good way"—from participating in ceremony to taking out the garbage. It cracks me up. So after seven years of being around Indian people as a reporter for ICTMN, I’m finally going Native—in a good way—thanks to ceremony.

I give thanks to Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy, the sacred white buffalo calf born June 16 on Peter Fay’s ranch in Goshen, Connecticut, for bringing me to the sweat lodge, and thanks to Peter for taking such good care of him.

I give thanks to my friends X and Y—the husband and wife here in the northwest corner of Connecticut who are relatives of Marian and Chub White Mouse, Lakota people of Pine Ridge. X and Y, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, have participated in the White Mouse family’s sun dance for years. I give thanks to Marian and Chub, Marian’s brother Wilbur Leon Old Man Morrison, and Shirley Khabass (whose husband Samir is Palestinian, hence, the Arab name). They are traditionalists who follow the Lakota ways and they traveled from Pine Ridge and elsewhere to participate in the ceremonies for the white buffalo baby.

And I give enormous thanks to Steven Stonearrow, the medicine man (pejuta wicasa), holy man (wicasa wakan) for being the intermediary between this world and the spirit world on my first experience of ceremony.

It started for me on July 19 when X left a message on my answering machine. She sounded excited. “Hi, Gale, I spoke with Steve today who’s coming to do the white buffalo ceremony and I have a message for you from him. Give me a call.” I called her back as soon as I could and she told me that Steve Stonearrow had personally invited me to attend the private ceremonies surrounding the naming ceremony—an inipi, or sweat lodge, and a lowampi, a ceremony of night prayers in which the spirits are summoned. She said attendance was by invitation only. Really? I told her I was honored and would attend. Steve later told me that he and Marian wanted me to write about the ceremonies. He said he had been directed by the spirits to invite me.

Over the next week, X instructed me on protocol. Wear a long dress or skirt, no trousers, no jewelry, no cleavage. Bring a towel. Bring gifts of tobacco or other items wrapped in red cloth for the medicine man, the elders, the fire-keepers and the water pourer. “When you get the tobacco, sit with it outside. Say words in your way, not asking for anything for yourself. Rather, ask for whatever is best for the calf and for all the people. Offer some of the tobacco to your own land that you caretake. These are very traditional and spiritual people from the Lakota Oyate. They carry the old ways, the old ceremonies, and the sacred songs and teach their children the language. They are coming in a humble way, and appreciate when others come in the same way.” Okay, I can do that.

I was told to arrive at the sweat lodge at 8 p.m. but when I got there the ceremony had already started. I would have to wait until the end of the “first round.” I looked around as I waited. The sweat lodge at the top of a small hill behind the house was around 14 feet in diameter and five feet tall—I could see over it. It was covered in what looked like tarps and blankets over a structure of bent saplings. In front of the entrance—the western door—was an altar with pipes and other items on it and beyond the altar was a large log fire with stones heating up in it. A wall of stones surrounded the fire in a semi-circle. I found out later that the stones are called “grandfathers” and because field stones are so abundant in New England, sweat lodges here don’t re-use them as they do in the west, so the “grandfathers” are used once then piled in a kind of wall around the fire.

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The sweat lodge door finally opened and I was invited in. I peered in but it was dark inside and all I could see in the dim light from the opening was a circular pit in the center that was full of stones glowing red hot, and many shadowy figures sitting on the ground in concentric of circles around the pit. There was no room to stand. I crawled in on my hands and knees. Several voices said, ‘Welcome, sister,” as I entered. The man sitting closest to the door told me to sit behind him. I crawled behind him and sat staring at his bare back and shoulders in the dim light. There was something buffalo-like about him—massive shoulders hunched forward. Above his shoulder blades were clusters of welts, each one a few inches long. I wondered if someone had beaten him weirdly just in that area and only later realized that the welts were healed wounds from sun dance piercings. I also found out later that this was the pejuta wicasa, the medicine man.

Someone handed the medicine man a bucket of water. After a few minutes the door flaps were pulled down, the lodge was thrown into pitch blackness, and the ceremony continued. It was hot in there. The medicine man told Chub and Old Man what songs to sing and the singing and drumming began. In the dark, he poured water onto the glowing red stones creating a hiss of steam that made the temperature rise to what felt like an eyebrow-searing level (but no eyebrows were actually seared, I found out later).

As I listened to the heartbeat drumming and the chanting in a language I don’t understand, I shifted around trying to get comfortable sitting on the earth. My thoughts wandered randomly: Boy, it’s hot in here. This is just like being in Jericho, Palestine, the hottest and oldest city in the world built in the desert below sea level—only totally different. Ernest Hemingway said “Never lose your faith in mysticism.” But this can’t be mysticism because I’m thinking about Ernest Hemingway saying “Never lose your faith in mysticism.” Am I going to be able to breathe in here? I left the epi-pen in my bag; I’m sure you’re not supposed to bring epi-pens into the sweat lodge, anyway. And on and on.

I heard the medicine man call out several times what sounded like “He-ay-he-ee!” I thought he must be calling the spirits, and I wondered if that was the name of a particular spirit or a generic name for all spirits. At some point, my random thoughts dissolved and I found myself very focused in the moment and in that place. I stopped shifting around. I listened carefully to the Lakota songs and began to understand them, so I started singing too—in Arabic. Bismillaah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem—In the name of the Creator (one of the 99 names of God), the most compassionate and most merciful. The medicine man tossed some herbs on the stones, adding a pungent smoke to the steamy hot air. Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen, Ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, Maaliki yaum-id Deen—Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler on the Day of Reckoning. Chub and Old Man led the singing and drumming and everyone sang. Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een—You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help. Every now and then someone would call out something that sounded like praise. The wicasa wakan poured more water on the stones, the temperature rose even higher, and more sweat than I could ever imagine my body contained poured off my face and arms. Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem, Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim, Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen, Aameen—Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received your grace; not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray. Amen.

The ceremony went on through four "rounds"—purification, prayer, the pipe, and going out, as the medicine man later explained to me, but I couldn’t tell how long it took. After the sweat lodge, there was a pipe ceremony in a circle outside. Later, during the lowampi, which took place in the basement of the house, the medicine man received the white buffalo’s name—Yellow Medicine Dancing Boy. At the naming ceremony at Peter Fay’s ranch the next day more than 1,000 people showed up, apparently hungry for indigenous spirituality, or meaning in their lives.

I also attended the sweat lodge the next night after the naming ceremony. Or, as I said to my new Lakota friends, “Hello! I’ve come back for more!” But here’s the thing: As a reporter, I use words, facts, documents, comments from others and ideas—the rational mind, in other words—as the tools to create the reports and stories people read in ICTMN. But I can’t find the words to describe what I experienced in the inipi and the lowampi, because ceremony is not a place where words and ideas and reasoning operate. It’s a place where even your senses don’t operate. The medicine man, who is simply Steve and often a goofus when he’s not performing ceremony, said it’s a place where your emotions operate. I think he nailed it. The day after my first sweat lodge he asked me, what was the hardest thing about it? Sweat lodge is not easy. It’s hot, it’s dark, it can be scary in itself and it goes on and on for God knows how long. But the hardest thing, I told him, was not the physical challenge; it was facing my own demons. The demons are like the shadowy figures on the inside of the sweat lodge dome—that fragile dome of saplings and tarps, which I believe holds more power than the massive dome on top of the U.S. Capitol above the halls of Congress of the most powerful country on earth. The sweat lodge banished those demons for now, but I know they’re still around because I’m human.

What I can say is the Lakota people have more hope than anyone I know and maybe the ceremonies are responsible for that. They believe the world can be healed and made a better place for everyone. That’s astonishing considering everything that’s been done to them and taken from them.

But for description, the best I can do is resort to metaphor: When we’re born we come out of the heat and darkness of our mother’s body into the light; we’re brand new and innocent, like the white buffalo calf that came into our world in June. We also come out into the light from the sweat lodge—that dark hot place where time dissolves and neither reasoning nor the five senses inform us. In the confined space of the sweat lodge with the constant sound of the heart beat drum and human voices singing songs of praise and pleading, it’s the spirit world—by whatever name we choose to call it—that informs us, I find that irresistible.

That’s why I know I’ll go back to the sweat lodge again and again. And maybe someday, the spirits will ask me to dance with them, and I’ll gratefully accept that invitation too—in a good way.