James Giago Davies: Sweat brings out a person's true nature

The following opinion by James Giago Davies appears in the latest issue of the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

An example of a sweat lodge. Photo from Stewart Mineral Springs

Learning the hard lessons about life
The sweat lodge (inipi) brings out a person’s true nature
By James Giago Davies

Makeshift sweat lodges dot the North American landscape. Modern Indians make due with what’s available. They cover their lodge with blankets and tarps, use plastic buckets, burn whatever wood they can find to heat up whatever rocks are available.

The flap on most of these sweat lodges faces west, and people say—Mitakuye Oyasin! (All my relations!) — When entering and exiting, and most of these people are not Lakota, and many of them are not even Indian.

One Lakota ex-con is responsible for the widespread use of the Lakota inipi, Archie Fire, who made himself known to the world as Lame Deer. Archie lived part of his later years just a few blocks from where I type. His Sturgis neighbors remember him as just a friendly guy with a great sense of humor. Archie fought the bottle, and that landed him in the state pen, and it was there he exercised his religious freedom and introduced the inipi to other inmates.

It spread like wildfire, first through the prison system, and then once inmates re-entered society, through the world at large. When my brother and I were living in Arizona some decades back, we were shocked to find all the Indians we met sweated the Lakota inipi.

My brother introduced me to the inipi, and the Tewa pipe carrier, Aaron Yava, a noted kachina doll carver. Aaron lived with his girlfriend, Circe, in a Tempe apartment with several large Dobermans, but he had his own home blocks away, circled by a privacy fence, and in the backyard was a sweat lodge.

I met lots of interesting people through that sweat lodge, and because the house was empty, just some leftovers turned science project in the fridge, Aaron would occasionally allow a person to flop there, if they were just visiting town, or were temporarily down on their luck.

I sweated with an extremely bright Diné college kid, who was majoring in journalism, and we bonded over all things Indian, and it was through these talks I realized there were no limits to what mongrel breeds like me could accomplish in the world at large—every profession, every scrap of knowledge, was open to us, and belonged to us, as much as any Wasicu, and I will always be grateful to my Diné friend for that.

Many people sweating at Aaron’s didn’t get it, try as he might to enlighten their minds, and heal their hurts. During the sweat there comes a time when each person must talk about something important, something personal, and what many never figure out is you have to give something up, some ugly truth, so you can face it, and beat it.

Guys would bail with crap like, “I hope my Aunt Edna whips her cancer.” Of course you hope that, but come clean, focus on you, and say something like, “I got tanked up last week and knocked out my wife’s front teeth.”

Too many Indian guys couldn’t get that, but a blonde haired Ken Doll handsome squeaky clean white guy did. Bobby got the inipi right from the get, and Aaron let him stay at the house with his dog, because Bobby’s girlfriend had kicked him out.

Bobby came from money, and he was expecting a big check from his sister, but until then Bobby was hurting, even his dog got the mange, and looked a shoe in to win the world’s ugliest dog contest. I didn’t have much money myself, but I had more than Bobby, had enough to take him out to eat several times, loan him some pocket money.

It was just a short walk from Aaron’s place to my brother’s place and one day as I was taking that walk, a guy hailed me with a big grin on his face, and it was my Diné friend, seemingly happy to see me, and as Lame Deer wrote in his books, “drunk as a boiled owl.”

Despite his slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, the conversation was going same as usual and then he suddenly turned nasty, defensive, said things like, “Why do you think you’re so much better than me, huh?”

That was also the first time I recognized the worst enemy any Indian guy can ever have—himself.

Disheartened by the ugly behavior of my friend, I continued on to Aaron’s place, where Bobby was ecstatic to see me. He had gotten his big check from his sister, and we walked to the bank, where he paid me back, and treated me to lunch at a gourmet hamburger place.

I confided in Bobby what had happened with my Diné buddy, and Bobby wondered why these guys didn’t learn from the inipi, because what was the point of sweating if you were going to keep walking around drunk all day?

As we walked from the burger place to my brother’s, I thought to myself Bobby just gets it and he’s not even Indian, and right then a scruffy young man with a sandy beard, his arm in a cast, flags us down and asks for any change we can spare.

One time my brother and I were at a Phoenix stoplight, and there was a pitiful looking Vietnam vet on the street corner with a cardboard sign that read, “Please help.” The driver side door on my brother’s rattle trap wasn’t working so he crawled out the window and gave the guy all the dollar bills he had in his pocket. He tried to run back to the car, but the guy snatched his arm and said, “God bless you!!!”

By the time my brother is scrambling back through the window the light turns green, and those nice people start honking and cursing at him, so he stops, head and shoulders still above the car roof, and gives them all both middle fingers.

After I gave that guy with the broken arm all of my spare change, I caught up with Bobby, who had walked on.

“Why did you give him money?” Bobby said, shaking his head. “I never give worthless bum money.”

So I learned another hard lesson, my friend Bobby was the one who had really learned nothing from the inipi. My drunken Diné buddy would have given any bum his last bent penny.

(James Giago Davies can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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