The sweat lodge ceremonies offered at South Indian Mountain Ceremony Grounds in Longmont are rooted in the history of the First Nations tribes; it is one of the Seven Sacred Rites of the Lakota tribe, of which the founder of South Indian Mountain, Marty Chase Alone, is a member. The program itself was initially created for Native American veterans, and sought to integrate the ceremonies with mental health care for those suffering from PTSD. Chase Alone, a veteran himself, began the program four years ago by merging the Native American Veterans’ Group and the South Indian Mountain Nonprofit; it has since evolved to welcome non-veterans as well.
“[The sweat lodge] is first and foremost a ceremony for purification, rejuvenation and healing,” says Osvaldo Cabral, a Veteran Group leader. “Trauma can’t always be healed by talking about it because it is stored in the body, but here you don’t have to talk about the trauma, or enter the narrative. This ceremony is pure experience, pure prayer, pure healing.”
Many who have experienced the positive effects of the sweat lodge now attend them regularly and have become important parts of the community. Participants may be suffering from addiction, depression or other physical illness, have lost a loved one, or simply want to make a spiritual connection. Big Mike, who has been involved in the project since its inception, explains how returning to “the old ways” helped him maintain his sobriety.
“I tried all the different religions and they didn’t fill that hole inside of me,” he says. “This does. It pretty much saved my life, once I gave myself over to it, because this here is a direct connection. In so many other religions you have to talk to God through a priest, but this here is just between you and the creator, God, however you see him.”
Everyone has their own understanding of spirituality, and that’s perhaps part of the magic of the sweat lodges. There, in the dark and in the heat, everyone seems to be equal. Everyone is holding space for one another and engaging in an ancient rite that teaches about the spirit; our own as humans, as well as those of the animals and the earth. That connectedness—an integral part of the First Nations’ way of life—has proven a powerful tool for healing.
The experience itself is hard to put into words. Women dress modestly, in floor-length skirts and loose fitting tops, while the men enter bare-chested in shorts or swimming trunks. Those who run the ceremonies meet several hours before at the site to start the fire and set up the Inipi, the small, dome-like lodge where the ceremony takes place. Its foundation is hand-made from willow branches and covered in blankets for insulation; we enter on our hands and knees to show respect. Some participants kiss the ground as they enter.
A pit is dug in the center, and fire-heated stones are carried and deposited in with a pair of deer antlers with suede “handles” wrapped around their bases. Lori Chase Alone, Marty’s wife, sprinkles sprigs of cedar branchlets over the stones, which release an incense into the lodge. Slowly, intentionally, we enter into a ceremony that will last up to three hours.
Once the entrance has been closed and sealed, Chase Alone, who is leading our ceremony, ladles cedar and willow bark tea onto the hot stones, sending steam and smoke into the small space. From somewhere to my right in the darkness I hear a drum, slow at first but with growing intensity, as its player begins to chant. Some of the others join in until guttural, beautiful, disjointed song reverberates throughout the lodge. After several rounds and an indeterminable amount of time, the entrance flap is opened and light and fresh air meets our flushed, sweaty faces. Chase Alone tells us stories about his grandfather, a renowned medicine man, and about his own path from being an alcoholic to finding his way back to “the old ways.” Cold water is passed around the circle, and after a long moment of breath and story, the tent flap is closed and we are once again in darkness. Each of these rounds begins and ends with chanting; in between, participants speak their prayers out to the stones.
“I let go of all the things that don’t help me and give it to the stones, who are the Grandfather, the oldest things on earth,” Chase Alone says. “You leave it to them because they’re strong enough to take it.”
I experienced the sweat lodge as a deep dive into the inner landscape, an unspoken connection to those around me, and to the earth and God. When my heart began to pound, it prompted me to turn my thoughts inward, paying close attention to my breath and presence. The outer world seemed to fade when I was in the lodge, and I found myself sustaining a meditative state.
Big plans are in the works for the South Mountain Ceremony Grounds; Chase Alone and the board are working to bring schools, organizations and young Native Americans to the land for seminars on cultural preservation, educating them on things like the meaning of the tipi, Native history and ceremonies, and how to make a drum. Their hope is to keep their way of life alive, and to educate anyone who is interested in “the old ways.”
“We’re all equal here, and everyone is welcome,” says Wesley Black Elk, spiritual advisor and Veterans’ Group board member. “We’re only here for one reason: to pray. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, if you’re Christian, or Jewish, whatever or whoever you pray to; as long as you pray with good intentions, you’re welcome here.”
Contact info: South Indian Mountain Ceremony Grounds, 4709 Highland Drive, Longmont, 720-249-8264, email@example.com