Images by Lila Lee

“What happens if it gets too hot?” I asked the intercessor. Though I was eager to participate in my first inipi, or sweat lodge, I was anxious about the heat. “You pray,” he replied. With a nervous chuckle, I fine-tuned my inquiry. “Let’s say it gets really hot,” I pressed. “Like, unbearably hot. What happens then?” His face shone kind and sincere. “Then we will pray for you.”

Stretching back thousands of years, the inipi is a Native American prayer and purification ceremony that remains a vital spiritual tradition among tribes today. In the Lakota language, inipi means to “live again,” and for those taking part, the sacred ceremony offers a spiritual rebirth. “We try to walk the Red Road,” the intercessor said. The intercessor would be guiding the inipi, hewing to the traditional Lakota Sioux teachings he credited to elder Sidney Keith, who led the sun dance at the Cheyenne River Reservation. Symbolizing humility, generosity, respect, and kindness, the Red Road represents the path of our best selves and the goodness of the world, explained the intercessor, who is so named because he intercedes on behalf of participants to realign them with the Great Spirit. Remaining on this road, however, is challenging, he continues. We fall or stall or choose to walk in another direction and so our world suffers. By offering communion with ourselves, our ancestors, and the Great Spirit, the inipi helps to realign participants with their true and rightful paths. Seekers pray for guidance, assurance, and clarity. Gratitude is given. It is when we give of ourselves, we can help others, said the intercessor. The world suffers less.

The morning of the inipi, the sky shone a brilliant blue. As I walked to the ceremonial grounds ensconced in the Ko‘olau mountains, I gave myself a pep talk. Remain open; you are braver than you think. I wasn’t sure what drove my nervousness. Perhaps it was the experience’s physical demands. When asked how hot the lodge would be, the intercessor answered, “hot enough.” (Internet sleuthing revealed temperatures could rise well into 140-degree-Fahrenheit territory.) Or perhaps it was the navigation of an unknown spiritual landscape. Would the Great Spirit view me as a mere interloper? Or worse, someone misappropriating the tradition as some sort of spiritual vanity project?

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At the site, a young man pivoted heavy logs upright into a fire pit, while a woman placed flowers and sage bundles onto a sun-bleached buffalo skull. People moved about in ceremony preparations with a serene purposefulness. Nearby stood the lodge, a low-domed structure crafted from strawberry-guava wood branches and bound together with strong twine. At its top, the boughs created a star-shaped window open to the wide sky above.

A few feet away, a small group of men and women placed pinches of tobacco into small squares of colored cloth and tied them closed with sinew. These were their prayer ties, to be hung inside the lodge. The colors of the cloth held meaning, I learned: black for the west, and courage and faith; red for the north, and strength and fortitude; yellow for the east, and wisdom and knowledge; white for the south, and compassion and forgiveness. Father Sky, the giver of clarity and discernment, was represented by scraps of blue. Mother Earth, for nurturing and healing, was green. Each person’s prayer tie was different, the colors chosen for their specific prayers.

In the shade of a low tree, the intercessor, who would be guiding the ritual, prepared his ceremonial implements with methodical reverence. He passed a long stem pipe and a rawhide drum from hand to hand through sweetly scented smoke. “Sage,” a woman in her mid-30s explained to me, pointing to some dried material smoldering in a small metal pot. Tall and graceful, Jen had been attending this inipi for five years. Sage is often used in Native American cultures as a purifier, she said. We watched as the intercessor coaxed tendrils of smoke around a staff adorned with eagle feather ties. He closed his eyes, and softly chanted a prayer to the Creator.

Nearby, a fire blazed in the midday sun. Inside the flames, obstructed from sight, were the chosen stones that carried the “medicine” for our hurts and messages from the spirits. They would be brought into the lodge via the Spirit Line, a trail of loose tobacco placed on the grass, connecting the fire to the lodge. Tobacco, like sage, is a central ceremonial plant for the inipi. “Spirits are especially attracted to tobacco,” Jen said. “Burning it lifts our prayers up.”

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As a group, we worked to enclose the lodge, layering on heavy canvases clockwise, until light could no longer penetrate its interior. We gathered around the entrance, each of us “smudged” by aromatic sage smoke to rid of any negative energy clinging to us. Jen passed me a sprig of sage. “Tuck it behind your ear,” she whispered. “It encourages the spirits to talk to you.” The intercessor instructed the women to enter first and the men to follow. When it was my turn, he placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “You will be fine. There are good people here to take care of you.”

I drew in a shaky breath and knelt. On my hands and knees, I crawled across the threshold. Inside, the lodge was dark and already warm. The ceremony would go four rounds, or “doors,” the length of each round determined by the intercessor. After each round, the entry flap of the lodge would be opened for a brief interval. Inside, we sat cross-legged and watched as six stones—representing the four cardinal directions and Father Sky and Mother Earth—were placed into the lodge’s rock-lined pit. They emanated invisible waves of heat. Beads of moisture formed on my chest and forehead. “Close the door,” the intercessor ordered.

Suddenly, we were sheathed in total darkness. Fighting a rising tide of panic, I tried to get my bearings. I was in a lodge with 15 other people, but could see no one. I could only hear and feel. I focused on the intercessor’s steady voice. A whip of wind passed over the lodge, and suddenly two pricks of light appeared on the ceiling, like little glowing eyes peering in. “Ahh, it’s Coyote,” the intercessor remarked. Coyote is a trickster in Lakota mythology. He laughs during serious times and scoffs at the reverent. Had he come to mock us? Me?

The intercessor sprinkled dried wild celery root onto the stones, producing a momentary flash of glittering red. He began to sing a welcome, and others joined in, their voices ebbing and flowing in the lilt of the Lakota song. The beating of a drum reverberated against the walls. As the intercessor poured water onto the stones, they sizzled and hissed. Billowing clouds of steam swelled. The change of temperature was instant and meteoric. I was immediately drenched in sweat. Worse, I couldn’t breathe—the rapid rise of heat and steam choked my airways. My heart raced. My mind raced faster. The intercessor and others seemed far away, their song like a distant echo. I concentrated on sucking in quick breaths of air. I began to cry silently, a torrent of tears streaming down my face. It was like a rock had been dislodged from a spring, releasing a flood of emotion. Helpless and feeling every second as an eternity, I began to pray.

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“Open the door,” the intercessor finally called out. Relief and light swept into the lodge on a breeze. I could see again. Everyone glistened with sweat. Jen, seated next to me, asked if I was OK. “I don’t think I can do this,” I said. This was harder than I imagined. Would it be bad if I left the lodge and came back the next round? Jen studied my tear-streaked cheeks. “Do you really need to leave?” she asked. I knew she wasn’t waiting for an answer. It was a question I needed to ask of myself. I dropped my head. Why was I crying? “That’s Grandmother’s presence,” Jen said. “The lodge is like a return to the womb, and for many women, it is a reconnection with that lost feminine power. Women often cry during the inipi. Allow that energy in and release your suffering.”

“Close the door,” the intercessor commanded anew. I looked at Jen and the intercessor, and nodded. Gathering my strength, I prepared myself for the following three rounds.

Hours, days, years—what seemed like lifetimes later, I emerged from the inipi and into golden light of the late afternoon. Soaked in sweat and exhaustion, I had lasted through the entire four doors. You will be a different person from the one you had been prior to the inipi, the intercessor had told me. He was right. I felt cleansed. A spiritual chord had been struck, its power resonating from the depths of something I didn’t understand, but could only feel. “O Mitakue O’yasin, all my relations!”
I am told the Lakota say. “We are all connected.”

I turned my face skyward and felt the wind pass over me, wondering if it was the breath of the ancestors having traveled across the plains and oceans to where I now stood. Inhaling deeply, I turned to face the Red Road, feeling blessed.