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Native American: Spirituality still strong (Part II) - Dreams and sweat lodges, gateways to enlightenment

Published:Sunday | September 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM
A tent erected in the wilderness with a fire blazing outside as part of the Sweat Lodge ceremony. - Contributed
James 'Flaming Eagle' Mooney holds his bag of sacred pipes. - Contributed
A Native Americans ceremonial ground where a Sweat Lodge ceremony is being held. - Contributed

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

James 'Flaming Eagle' Mooney speaks of dreams as a compass, a prophetic medium to understand life, to conquer trials, and to realise one's potential.

According to Mooney, dreams are not a bundle of disjointed thoughts deeply embedded in our subconscious mind that compete to emerge during sleep. They are neither cryptic nor incomprehensible. They may seem allegorical, but are real, alive, if only we discern their meaning. Mooney argues that dreams compel one to act.

Mooney relates one such occasion. From sleep, he arose, ready to fulfil a mission for the day. What that was, he knew not, but was certain that the Great Spirit would lead him. With a coloured medicine blanket symbolising protection and a pipe bag with colours that contained a prayer pipe, tobacco and fire-making material, he made his way to the foothills of a mountain.

As he prayed, the elements spoke to him and the guidance of his elders was ever present. He spoke of soaring birds and nature's magnificence. Continuing his journey and venturing into untamed environs, little did know that in a few moments he would bring comfort and deliverance to two individuals, trapped and desperate. Mooney charged that despite his assistance, the two were ungrateful, even hostile.

The medicine man remained poised, assured that he was protected by the Great Spirit. He had the insightful strength of the Eagle and the balance of the Crow. His spiritual eminence transformed the hardest of hearts. This is Native American philosophy. It has always been that way. But how does one become a medicine man, versed in the mystical, able to connect to the Great Spirit?

Immeasurable benefits

Maybe dreams are more lucid when one undergoes the immeasurable benefits of the Sweat Lodge ceremony. Mooney agrees. He has been guiding aspirants to enlightenment. This road is arduous, even perilous if taught by unscrupulous, questionable instructors.

One case in Arizona in 2012 proved that much. The Sweat Lodge, used by Native Americans as a means of spiritual rebirth had been hijacked, commercialised and touted to the unsuspecting as a path to material success in a world steeped in competition.

Two cooperate executives died, 29 were injured, critically. A self-styled guru was indicted. A native tradition was bent, distorted and presented as authentic. Native American fury was palpable. Native Americans never accept compensation for spiritual knowledge. Mooney recounts the incident. It was never supposed to happen. The Sweat Lodge ceremony is one of the five most notable ceremonial traditions. Of comparable significance are the Pipe, Peyote and Sacrificial ceremonies.

But it is the Sweat Lodge that has emerged as the sine qua non of all spiritual experiences. A tent is erected in the wilderness. Streams and woods surround the structure that is draped in multi-coloured willow branches. It is no more than five feet high and eight feet in width. Logs are stacked outside to make a fire. Volcanic stones are heated in the fire and brought to the centre of the lodge where a hole is dug. Coloured cloths are hung on trees that surround the lodge to ward off evil.

This creates the right atmospheric temperature. It is boiling hot, and sage is burnt and inhaled when breathing becomes laborious. Mooney would sit in the lodge, praying and smoking a pipe. The smoke from the tobacco swirl upward, cleansing and fumigating, his benedictions believed to be following the upward spiral of the smoke.

Sweat Lodge symbolism

Mooney explained the symbolism and esoteric meaning of the Sweat Lodge. "It represents the Mother's womb." The red hot stones, he explained, symbolises the sperm. Intermittently leaving the searing heat inside the lodge, the seeker goes to the stream, submerging three times and screams, before returning. The exercise can be likened to primal therapy aimed at expelling internal blockages that retard personal development. The action is repeated four times engendering self awareness, ancestral honour, wisdom and spiritual insights.

Prayers and chanting accompany the rituals.

Mooney would caution that no one should pass through the entrance of the lodge without intoning the word, "Meh-tah-ki-ahssen." It means, "All my relations" and reflects the interconnectedness of all life. Overall, it is a gruelling undertaking requiring maturity and steadfastness.

Many have vouched for the spiritual benefits of the Sweat Lodge, especially its therapeutic value.

For sure, the path to wisdom cannot be bought or sold. Many stand at the entrance of a portal that few are allowed access. Like the Druids of the Celtic tradition and the animists of Africa's indigenous peoples, the medicine man is the fruit of a tree that is rooted deep; a connection to an ancestral lineage that will never be broken.

Dr Glenville Ashby is the president of Global Interfaith Council Corp.Feedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby