When I was making plans for my Mexican trip, Natris mentioned that her group was interested in having me join them in a temazcal, a traditional Mexican steam bath very similar in some ways to the American Indian sweatlodges, though reportedly emphasizing its curative aspects much more than any spiritual symbolism. I have taken part in a variety of sweatlodge ceremonies over the years, and have led my share of European-style sweats, but had never participated in a traditional Mexican temazcal before, so I gladly took her up on her offer.
I knew a little about it, and was particularly intrigued by certain elements that seemed more similar to European sweating houses than the more familiar North American sweatlodges. Both the Lakota inipi and the pesuponk from the Northeast tribes, for instance, tend to be temporary structures built upon a framework of bent saplings and covered with blankets or animal skins, whereas the temazcal, like the Irish teach-an-alais or the Scottish cloghan, is typically a permanent structure built of dry or mortared stone (or, in México, sometimes made of adobe bricks) with an inner ledge that serves as a bench for the participants to sit upon (we are planning to build a Celtic-style sweat house at Glenwood, so I was particularly interested in examining their methods of construction). And, whereas North American sweatlodges are generally segregated by gender, with separate men’s and women’s sweats, and also traditionally exclude women in their menses altogether (or separate them from non-menstruating women in specially-designated moon lodges), the Mexican ceremonies, like the European, apparently include both genders and some of them allow menstruating women as well.
So this morning, Natris, Sara, Carlos, four women from their group, and Carmen Orellana met at my hotel and from there drove for a little over an hour to a rustic conference center on the outskirts of the city, to partake in the temazcal. The center turned out to be a sprawling compound with a small cottage where the caretaker lives, a larger meeting house that can comfortably fit several dozen people, a couple of small cabins that they rent out for retreats, and a fairly large outhouse with several stalls.
Behind the meeting house were nine small trapezoidal huts – each roughly five feet wide, four feet high, and perhaps another four feet deep – built of mortared brick and covered with peach-colored stucco on the outside. The only openings were a small hinged black wooden door, barely large enough for an adult to crawl through, and a tiny hole on the ceiling through which passed a plastic breathing tube, covered with heavy cloth wrapping on the outside so that the hut would be completely light-proof when the door was closed.
These, we were told, were ‘recapitulation huts’, dedicated to one of the sorceric practices espoused by Carlos Castaneda in his books, and perpetuated since his death by his followers as well as some of the other authors who have jumped on the ‘New Toltec’ bandwagon. Recapitulation involves letting go of the built-up patterns and perceptions surrounding traumatic events in our pasts, in order to retrieve the psychic energy that had been attached to those patterns. According to the people who run the center, those wishing to recapitulate enter the huts and stay in them for nine straight days, fasting and essentially deprived of most sensory stimulation. The little doors open once a day so that fresh water can be provided to the recapitulators, and to exchange the used ‘eliminatory bucket’ for a fresh one.
Finally, we were led to the other end of the center for our ceremony, but upon seeing what awaited us, it was very difficult for me to rein in my disappointment. Instead of a traditional Mexican temazcal, the people at the center had erected a typical Lakota-style sweatlodge, covered with several plastic tarps. A mound of very porous volcanic rocks were ‘cooking’ in the fire pit and Fernanda, the woman who would be leading the sweat, was busy gathering more wood for the fire along with her assistant. We did a round of introductions, and I used the opportunity to ask Fernanda to tell us a little about her background and what she was planning to do. She confirmed that, indeed, the sweatlodge would be a ‘modified’ version of the Lakota ceremony; when I asked her how she had learned that particular approach, she said she’d been taught it by a Mexican friend who had lived in the
This put me in a bit of a quandary. Over the years, I have participated in several sweatlodges similar to the one Fernanda was preparing for us; the quality of the experiences has varied widely, but none approached the fullness or the intensity of the two inipi ceremonies I’ve attended which were led by respected, traditional Lakota ceremonialists. More to the point, however, for the Lakota, the inipi is one of their most sacred rituals – perhaps second only in importance to the sun dance – and a lot of them vehemently resent its appropriation by people outside their culture who have not been duly trained and authorized as ceremonial leaders.
During the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, barely two months after the confederated Lakota, Dakota and Nakota nations had issued a ‘declaration of war’ against all who exploited their spirituality, I vividly remember a Lakota elder making a compelling analogy against the use of the inipi by non-Indians. He said, in effect, that if someone who was not an ordained Roman Catholic priest and did not understand a word of Latin – someone who wasn’t even a Catholic to begin with – grabbed a bunch of makeshift trappings and proposed to say the Latin Mass, there would be a huge outcry about the disrespect and desecration involved in such an act; he added that the very same thing would happen if a non-Jew grabbed a Hanukkah menorah and sang “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” each time he lit a candle. But, he complained, non-Indians think nothing of appropriating a sacred ceremony like the inipi, modifying it and using it in ways that are sacrilegious to his people, and then, when Indians protest such acts publicly, they are accused of being ethnocentric, belligerent and intractable. Of course, given that there’s nothing resembling an official ‘Lakota bureau of certification’ for sweat lodge leaders, it can be very difficult for non-Indians to know who is performing an authentic ceremony or not.
I have been aware of this situation for a long time (and have addressed it publicly many times, and continue to do so, at various pagan and non-pagan events where I have been a speaker), but, since listening to the impassioned pleas for support from Indian elders at the Chicago Parliament, I’ve become even more adamant about not participating in any Indian-style sweatlodge ceremony where I didn’t feel really sure about the authenticity of the person leading it – not an ideal solution, but it’s the most pragmatic one I’ve found.
Hence my dilemma: facing, on the one hand, the prospect of taking part in what clearly was going to be the kind of ‘appropriated’ sweatlodge that angered the Lakota and which I had resolved to avoid; and, on the other, the likelihood of upsetting and embarrassing my hosts who had been so kind and generous toward me, were unaware of the conflicts involved, and had arranged to have the ceremony with nothing but good intentions. In the end I decided to go through with the sweatlodge, out of consideration for my companions. It turned out to be, as I had expected, a very uneven and disappointing ceremony, but as it was the first sweatlodge experience for several of the people in the group, I had the opportunity to be of help when a couple of them had a rough time, so I was glad at least for that.
For a couple of hours, while the stones were heating, I was able to chat at greater length with Carmen Orellana. Our conversation confirmed the sense I’d had when I first met her a couple of nights ago: she’s a very pleasant and open person, intelligent, curious, and clearly very dedicated to bringing pagans together in México. As so often and unfortunately happens throughout the pagan movement, Carmen has come under a great deal of criticism, and even vicious attacks and threats, from other pagans as a result of her public efforts to develop community and to establish paganism as a legitimate religion in her country. We talked at great length about why such things happen, and I shared with her several examples of the similar kinds of situations that we’ve had to deal with over the years in EarthSpirit, as well as some of the ways we’ve found to handle them. She and her group remind me a lot of where we were some thirty years ago, and I look forward to remaining in touch with her, and to the possibility that our two communities might be able to collaborate in some joint projects.