Thursday, October 29, 2015

A life-changing sweat lodge experience with Emmett Peters

Emmett Peters died this year. He passed in January, but I just heard about it this week. 

He's on the shortlist of people I've met as a journalist who had a profound impact on my life. In 2009, I did a Road Warrior travel column for the Chronicle Herald. I always wanted to end it by doing a sweat, and after much searching I found Emmett and he offered to be my guide.

He met me at the lodge near a lake on DND property. The sweat is an intimate, family affair, and a journalist stands out. He welcomed me, invited me to sit in a truck with him and talk. I asked him about the sweat, and he asked me why I wanted to do it. 

Because it's such a private, intimate experience, Emmett suggested I write about it just from my own perspective. I'll post the column below. Emmett later told me that he loved the line about "the snot seems beautiful."

I also spoke to Emmett over the years about the Seven Sparks program he co-ran for First Nations people emerging from prison and trying to rebuild. I spoke to him about his battle with addictions, and with being raised in a Nova Scotia that told him to hate the "Indian" in him.

Maybe I'll post that article later. 

I saw him a few times a year since 2009, and always felt he brought a message for me. I asked him if I could write a book about him, but he said no. 

But quietly, always staying out of the limelight, he helped Mi'kmaq people rebuild their culture. He laid the groundwork for a better future for all of us. 

Strangely, I learned about his death the day before I went to a meeting to discuss plans for maybe renaming Cornwallis Park. 

While his friends and family deeply grieve for a great man, let's you and I take a moment to see what light he fought to bring to this world. 

Emmett is the guide and elder I don't name in the article. He requested that, but later changed his mind and let his name be used. 


The Sweat Lodge

The “grandfathers” are brought in one by one, smoking hot with a red translucence in the gloom of the sweat lodge. The grandfathers: stones brought from the earth, heated with the fire of grandmother tree. The deep, round hole in the centre of the low, round lodge fills up with crackling heat.

The door on the birchbark-and-cloth hut is closed. The afternoon sunlight disappears and the darkness is total.

Water is ladled onto the stones as a voice emerges from the darkness. There are no holy people, nor unholy. No devil, either. Those who preach such fear-mongering are seeking followers, not leaders. This is a place for leaders.

The water hits the stones, hissing like snakes, crackling like bullets. The heat hits me like a tidal wave and I can’t breath. Panic rises as I glance in the darkness toward the door; one word and I’m out. Around me, men and women settle in for the first, “warm,” round. I hear them breathing, feel their bodies.

I concentrate on breathing in, breathing out. I put my towel over my face. It cools the air enough to take it in. Out. In. Out.

My heart settles.

The sweat lodge is about humility, about going deep down into the earth to find your roots. My guide, who asks me not to use his name to honour the spirit of humility, told me about his long road to the lodge. 

Raised in day schools, he learned to hate himself. He fell into a bottle and when he emerged, he was surprised to see “an Indian” staring back at him. Everyone else knew he was an Indian, he said. He didn’t. He learned. He had been taught to be ashamed of his Mi’kmaw culture. He thought it was dirty. When he watched cowboy and Indian movies at the cinema, he rooted for the cowboys.

He cleaned himself up. He studied sweat lodges for seven years before he was able to offer them himself. He learned the road the grandfather walks is the road the grandson inherits.

Water smashes against the hot stone; the air is incinerated. My skin is a lake. I find my towel, soaked with snot and sweat. I hesitate for a second, then press it into my face: the air feels so cool filtered through it that for the first time in my life, snot seems beautiful.

Prayers are offered, songs are sung. Grape juice and moose meat is handed around.

Another ladle of water lashes against the stones. It’s like breathing in raw fire. I struggle to stay calm and notice a funny thing: when my mind wanders to how I’m going to set this status on Facebook, or to whether I remembered to lock my car, I lose my breathing and start to panic. When I focus solely on the business of breathing in and breathing out, I can just manage. I’m starting to feel like a Zen master.

Another lash of water on the hot stones and my nose just refuses to pull in any air. I tell it this is a bad idea, but it doesn’t care. I stuff the snotty and sweaty towel to my nose, but it makes no difference.

Another lash.

I turn away from the centre, crawl to the back wall of the lodge. I lower my head to the ground, claw at the canvas until the earth is revealed. I press my nose into the soil, sucking in the dirt-scented air.

My guide told me the sweat lodge is not a spiritual experience, it’s a human experience. It’s mental and physical, he said. That’s all we know. We’ll learn the spiritual side when we get to the spirit world. Don’t bang your brains out worrying about the spiritual now.

Another lash on the rocks breaks me.

“All my relations,” I croak, and the door is opened, flooding the lodge with light. I crawl toward daylight, pressing through a haze of faces travelling deep within themselves, past the smoking pit of stone. My arms and legs tremble as I crawl to the unbelievably blue sky. I collapse in the freshest patch of grass I’ve even felt. The breeze passes blissfully over my skin. It tastes sweeter than sugar.

I’m overwhelmed by the joy of being alive.

Of breathing.

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