San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


When I heard the Volkswagen turn into the yard I went over to the window and pushed the curtain back. Wally and Stephen were stepping out of the car.

Wally High is a local musician and song-writer. He claims he’s part-Indian but he can't tell you which tribe. He doesn't know. "I think being in doubt is to my advantage," he once told me. "Psychologically I have to consider myself related to all of them."

Stephen Lord comes from Washington state. He's retired navy and a late starter at the writing game. He says he's in Baja to write a book about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Last summer he paddled a canoe up the Missouri River, following the explorers' 1804 route. Along the way he studied the Indians, even lived with them on occasion. Out of this adventure grew Stephen's interest in Amerindian ethnology. Like Wally, he has a great fondness for guitar picking and folk songs.

"Come on in guys," I said, holding open the trailer door. "I'll put on some coffee."

"Can't have any," said Stephen, shaking his head. "We're on a water fast."

"Yeah, we're having an inipi tonight," declared Wally. "And we have to purify our bodies. So we've been fasting for the past few days."

As the two men sat at the table, I asked them what an inipi was.

"A Lakota sweatbath ceremony," said Wally.

"We built a really terrific sweatlodge yesterday," said Stephen. "Made it out of ocotillos and tarps. And we've got everything we need for the ceremony except a doorkeeper."

"And that's where I come in," I ventured.

"Well, you don't actually come in. You stay outside and pass hot rocks inside with a shovel."

"I see. You want me to be a tallow pot."

"A what?" said Stephen.

"The guy who stokes coal on a locomotive," I said.

"We were hoping you'd take a more spiritual approach to this," Stephen said.

"What do I have to do?" I asked, ignoring his injured tone.

"You have to take the rocks out of the firepit one at a time with a shovel and walk them along the sacred path to the sweatlodge. As the leader, I'll take the handle of the shovel as you feed it into the sweatlodge and I'll touch the mouth of the ceremonial pipe to each rock and steer the shovel until it's over the pit, then give the handle a twist so the rock drops in the proper place."

"That's all I have to do, just shovel a few rocks?"

"And make sure the flap to the lodge is secure so we don't lose any heat," said Wally.

"Sounds simple enough. Where's it going to take place?"

"We built the lodge at my place," said Wally. "At Pete's Camp."

Pete's Camp, known on the map as El Paraiso, was about twelve miles north of my place.

"What time do you want me there?"

"About an hour before sunset," said Stephen. "That'll give you some time to read up on the ceremony before we start. We’ll have a book waiting for you.”

At four thirty that afternoon I strapped my sleeping bag to the back of my motorcycle and drove into town where I bought some bolillos (white buns cooked over a mesquite fire) and some fruit. Then I made the nine-mile trip to El Paraiso.

Wally's house was surrounded by a wooden fence and the sweatlodge was inside the yard, on the west side of the property. There was a mesquite fire burning about fifteen feet from the lodge. Skull-sized rocks were stacked on the wood, which was circumscribed by a ring of stones that became a narrow path to the opening flap of the sweatlodge.

The sweatlodge itself was an impressive dome structure about eleven feet in diameter. It was covered with tarps, which I presumed took the place of the animal skins the Indians used. I looked inside and couldn't help but admire the workmanlike ocotillo framing and lashing. There was a hole dug in the sand in the center of the lodge. The ocotillos themselves had been carefully planted. There was moisture around the base of each one.

"We put them in last night during the full moon," said Stephen, noticing my slow, leisurely inspection. "We put some nitro-humus in the holes before we planted them. They should root all right."

The pit for the hot rocks in the center of the sweatlodge was directly under an X formed by the pattern of lashed ocotillos overhead. I was told this was where the spirits entered. There were six small bundles hanging in various locations from the lodge roof. I was told these were tobacco offerings for the spirits.

I saw Wally coming out of the house carrying a bundle of blankets. He and Stephen began spreading them over the sweatlodge.

"There's a book on the passenger seat of my van," Stephen called to me. "Read chapter two."

I got the book and sat down facing the setting sun.

Chapter two described in detail the sweatbath ceremony. Since I wasn't going to be inside the sweatlodge, my duties were rather simple. Besides conveying hot rocks, I was to replenish the water supply whenever the bucket appeared outside the flap. I was also required to take the ceremonial pipe when it was handed to me and place it on a mound of sand that Wally had piled about two feet in front of the lodge. It was the sand that had been removed to make the inside rock pit and now represented the vision quest hill. Stephen had made a pipe holder by inserting two 'Y' shaped twigs into the mound.
Another thing I was to be alert for was the sound of someone slapping his own body. This apparently signalled his need for more heat and I was supposed to step onto the sacred path and shuttle over four more rocks, one at a time (rocks are employed in multiples of four).

I expected to hear a certain phrase repeated frequently, the Lakota words Mitakuye oyas'in. Apparently the invoking of spirits by the agency of a sweatlodge must be done for the proper reasons. Participants need the correct attitude. No thoughts of personal gain or egoistic pride could attain to any spiritual profit. The Indians performed the ceremony for the benefit of their relations. Mitakuye oyas'in --all my relatives.

The late afternoon air was cooling quickly. I watched the gold coin of the sun drop through a slot in the mountains to pay for the stars. Stephen went over to the van and removed a long, narrow flannel bag. He opened the drawstring and took out an Indian pipe, richly decorated with a tanned leather grip, feathers and several mink tails. The business end of the pipe was long and made from a soft, reddish stone. There was a buffalo carved near the chin of the bowl.

"It's Catlinite," said Stephen, handing the pipe to me. "The only place you can get it is in Pipestone, Minnesota."

I turned the two-foot-long instrument in my hands. It was beautiful. Stepehen took the pipe and went over to the sweatlodge. He placed it in the twig cradle on the sand mound, stem facing westward.

"Sun's down," he said to Wally, who was tucking the blankets and tarps flat along the ground.

"You've got the tobacco and sage ready?" Wally responded.

"All here," replied Stephen, holding up two small bags, then looking at me he said, "When I hand the pipe out to you, put it on the mound and then start bringing in the rocks one at a time. Seven to begin with."

I watched as the two men stripped off their clothing, took a sprig of sage out of one of the bags and touched it to the glowing rock pit. The sage smoldered fiercely and each in turn waved the smoke over their bodies. They walked around the sweatlodge "sun- wise", or clockwise, each waving a sprig of sage. Then Stephen took up the pipe, threw open the flap and they entered without a word. I went over and made sure the flap was smoothed down and lay thoroughly flat on the ground. Then I sat up against the fence near the fire.

The voices of the two men were an inscrutible muffle through the blankets and tarps but I knew they were incanting the pipe ceremony. Then the flap opened and Stephen's arm held out the pipe. I hurried and placed it on the twig cradle. Then I took up the shovel and walked between the narrow path of stones to the firepit.

The heat was Dantesque. I had to make three approaches before I could center a glowing rock on the flat of the shovel. The flap opened as I neared the sweatlodge and I fed the shovel slowly inside. Stephen grabbed the stem of the shovel about midway and directed the rock to the west side of the central pit. He turned the handle and the rock tumbled off.
The next three rocks were placed at the north, east and south points of the pit. The rest of the rocks were dropped in the center. Then the flap was closed and I doctored the trailing edges to block out the ebbing light.

By this time there was a fine display of stars and I sat back against the fence and meditatively surveyed the sky. I could hear water inside the lodge being ladled onto the hot rocks. The sound of the hissing steam was strangely soothing. After a little while a loud slapping noise signalled me to pick up the shovel and deliver four more rocks. Then the sound of the steam rose up to tempt the spirits with its intimation of devotion and purity. I sat back and quietly waited, feeling the warmth of the glowing rocks and embers of the outdoor firepit.

I was up and down several times over the next few hours, refilling the water pail, shuttling hot rocks. There was so much body-slapping going on I was beginning to think I was a porter at a convention for Swedish masseurs. Finally a loud cry of "Mitakuye oyas'in!" heralded the opening of the flap and the two men emerged unsteadily.

"That was great!" declared Stephen. "We could have used a little more heat, though."

"It was starting to cook there at the end," said Wally.

"Want to go in and give it a try?" Stephen asked me. I stood up, hugged my arms against the cool night air and declared my need for a good steambath. I removed my clothes and Wally held the flap open as I crawled inside the dark dome.

"There's a pail of water at the west end of the pit," said Wally. "Throw some on the rocks when you want more heat." Then he closed and sealed the door.

With a little groping I found a damp towel and sat on it in the lotus position facing the dull, glowing rocks. It was very humid and quite warm. I reached for the pail and scooped some water out, more to hear the hissing noise than for the heat. Almost immediately the chamber got warmer. Sweat began to bead up on my forehead. After about ten minutes I was running with moisture. I could hear Stephen outside ululating under a cold-water shower. I threw the flap open after about a half hour, stepped out naked into the cold air and look up at a cathedral of stars. It was exhilarating.

Wally called from the house and announced that soup and fresh fruit were ready. I quickly took a cold shower, put on my clothes and went inside. After a leisurely dinner, we agreed to turn in early. I took my sleeping bag and climbed onto the roof, intent on sleeping under the stars. But the wind picked up and the moon, having risen while I was in the sweatlodge, crested the edge of the roof and shone in my face like a cop with a flashlight.

A few minutes later I noticed my feet got cold.

And then it became plain there was nowhere up there to relieve my bladder.

I zipped the sleeping bag up, pressed my head deep into my pillow and shivered for another hour before finally throwing everything off the roof and climbing back down to the ground. The wind seemed to be coming from all directions at once and I looked around for a protected place. The silhouette of the sweatlodge bulked serenely against the west fence.
I crawled inside and after arranging foam mats and bedding, lay there in the darkness for a long time. I began to realize I was in a state of expectation. My attention seemed hung on the hook of a spiritual impressionism. I was waiting for something to happen in that strange, basilican silence. What, I don't know.

Despite the fact the rocks had long since cooled, the lodge was still warm and comfortable. I felt a growing gratitude, but didn't know where to address it. My covert waiting slowly converged on a raw-nerve fatigue until, drifting back and forth through the dream door that links the two worlds, I heard the sound of a whispered voice, my own, saying, "Mitayuke oyas'in."

Then I slept.


San Felipe, 1994