When Customs Become Confusing

Robert Chanate recalls attending a sweat lodge with some unwelcome and disrespectful guests.

When we accepted an invitation to the sweat lodge we had no idea that white people were going to be going in with us.

The directions given to me and a relative were supposed to lead us to the secluded area where the sweat was going to be held. The route was confusing and full of ndn descriptors: look for a red mailbox, turn by a pond, drive over two bridges, watch for a red ribbon tied around an old pole, etc.

We were unfamiliar with the area and almost turned back but we pressed on because we imagined our host might end up waiting for us to show up. Eventually we found the place, walked up a foot path and came around a corner to see some Native people standing around and visiting. We approached, introduced ourselves and shook hands. Another Native man soon appeared and specifically asked each of us if we were going in. With each affirmative answer, he shook our hands.

I was reflecting on how fortunate we were to have found the place when I heard other voices and footsteps coming up the foot path. The voices were loud so I wondered what kind of Natives they were. Only when they came into view did I realize the newcomers were white people.

Their presence was unexpected and their appearance shocking. Their group numbered about a dozen and the leader had a walking stick, a big beard and a sleeveless fur vest. The rest were dressed as if their outfits were cobbled together from the pathetic pelts, dream catchers and dyed feathers one sees hanging in the Native American section of truck stops. They looked like movie extras who got lost while searching for the set of a caveman film.

As they got closer, I looked around to see how the other Natives were reacting to their arrival. I expected the Natives to step forward and declare this area off limits. Instead, about half walked forward and began shaking hands and hugging the newcomers like old friends. The other half of us looked at one another, unsure of what to do.

I had agreed to go in (by the fire no less) and my sense of cultural customs was that I was bound to honor my word. At the same time, another cultural teaching prohibited me from participating in activities that violated my moral sensibilities. Customs had usually served as guideposts in helping me navigate through different cultural terrains and now it seemed they led me to a tough spot I couldn’t reverse from. If I went in, would this be a violation of my own beliefs? If I refused to go in, would this cause a scene and be considered an insult to my hosts?

I chose the less disruptive path and reluctantly went into the sweat lodge. It was crowded so people were shuffled around and I ended up right next to the leader with the fur vest, which he was still wearing. The round started and the white group started triumphantly yelling and hollering. The fur vest leader was growling like an animal and chanting,“The iron house! He sits in the Iron House!”
I tried to focus on the virtue of “endurance” while the fur vest leader kept on with his shouts and howling. “Free Leonard Peltier!” were the last words out of his mouth as the first round ended, and with it, any concern I had about breaking my word and leaving. The door was opened and I was the first person to escape followed by a few other Native people. Those who got out declined an offer to go back in and we all hurriedly grabbed our belongings and left.

As we were leaving, I thought about the choices we make when our sense of right and wrong conflicts with a cultural custom. We sometimes make decisions simply to avoid group discord even when the less popular path sticks closer traditional ways.

Driving back home, we didn’t bother to follow the previous directions, preferring to find our own way back home even if it was inconvenient.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO.