Soul-cleansing in a Sioux sweat lodge

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There is a full moon glaring through a halo of clouds as we drive up the hill into Sioux San Hospital, on the outskirts of Rapid City, South Dakota. As its name implies, Sioux San caters to the local Indians - out here they rarely, if ever, refer to themselves as "native Americans" - but the hospital's function is not strictly clinical. Once a week a small gathering of Dakota Sioux meets on a dirt lot at the rear of the grounds to perform the Inipi, one of their seven sacred tribal ceremonies.

A fire is burning in a circular pit, three feet deep. Men in torn jeans and baseball caps stand around the edge, gazing deep into the flames. Some wear towels around their necks. Most have scarred, chewed-looking faces. Over to one side stand the women, talking softly. They will sweat first.

A few paces from the fire, due west, is the earth mound on which stand two pipes, the smaller one for the women. Two paces further west is the lodge itself, a circular structure covered with tarpaulins. While the stones are heating in the fire, David and his wife, Sidney, burn sage and sweetgrass in a tin can, purifying the pipes with the smoke. She leans in and scatters sage across the felt floor of the lodge.

Behind a screen of wooden planks, the six women change into their cotton sweat dresses. Sidney leads them into the lodge. Using a garden fork, David carries red-hot rocks from the fire to the flap door, where Sidney takes over, guiding them into the central pit.

"Nearly all of the guys here tonight belong to one of two local drug and alcohol recovery programmes," David explains, as the women's voices start to soar. "Some of the wives, too."

The sweat lodge works on several levels. lt purifies the abuser's body, cleanses the soul through song and prayer, reinforces cultural ties in a sacred ritual context, and provides a natural support network.

However, Christian-sponsored recovery programmes will not allow their Indian clients to attend, since they regard Inipi as a "pagan" rite. "It's ironic," says Victor, a twice-decorated Vietnam veteran, "that their forefathers came to this land to escape religious persecution. They conveniently forget that religious freedom is enshrined in our constitution."

But when it comes to Indians, here in the very heartland of America, such prejudices and abuses are so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

David counts the men: 17. "It's going to be tight," I suggest. The lodge is 10 feet in diameter, maximum. "Hell no," says a tall man with no front teeth and a walrus moustache. "Almost got room to lie down in there," he says, laughing. "Sometimes we're hunched up in two rows."

An hour later the women emerge, glowing in moonlight, wreathed in steam. When they are dressed and standing by the fire again, we change into our shorts and pad across the damp earth, stooping into the black void. I try to enter last so that I can sit by the flap, in case of panic. But the only other white man, an American, creeps in behind me.

Three of the Indians are first-timers, too. As red-hot rocks are loaded into the pit, inches from our toes, the fear is palpable.

"The mind is a powerful thing," croons David, sitting by the door. "If you sit there and tell yourself, `My God, this heat is unbearable', then you're gonna burn up. Instead, you should pray to the creator and offer your suffering to him."

Just before David drops the flap, the other white guy bolts, saying he cannot go through with it. Silently, I curse him.

The lodge is too low to sit up straight, and utterly dark save for the fiery glow. David sprinkles water on the rocks and the air melts. My nostrils are singed, sweat gushes from my head, as he and Victor lead the full- throated Lakota lamentations.

I focus on the timbre of the men's voices, trying to glean understanding through sheer willpower. I reflect on David's words: in here, we are one, united in our suffering. Eventually, I let go of my fear and it vanishes.

One by one, we must offer our prayers to Tunkashila, the Grandfather, the great creator. I am second in line. Caught off-guard, I blurt out something about being guided here tonight, and how I, too, once had a drink problem. It comes out sounding like a cross between a public service commercial and an Oscar acceptance speech.

In the dark, wet heat, I listen to these men praying fervently and at length, supplicating Tunkashilo for release from addiction. They pray for guidance, for relief from pain. For dying sisters, abused children, incestuous uncles. For strength to keep on trying. For a job. For help. For one more chance. I realise that even at my very lowest, I have everything these men want and I take it all for granted. For the first time I am thankful for the darkness.

After two hours, we smoke the pipe and offer thanks. David reminds us that Inipi is sacred, and that we are all now purified.

Outside, I realise that my shame and guilt have gone. "You did good," says David, as he gives me a hug. I search his eyes for contradiction, but find none.