“These stones behind the fire are braided with prayers of people who have sweat before you.”
All the girls wore long dresses that covered their knees and shoulders. We were sacred, calling out to the great mother to bless our journey into adulthood. Some of us were afraid, others excited, we were strong nonetheless.
We built a fire around twenty-four lava stones, welcoming the spirits to feed on our prayers. Together we laid blankets over long, curved willow branches, dried by the sun and buried deep in the muddy soil. We poured yellow, white and blue corn mill in a line connecting the fire to the inipi, like an umbilical cord to its womb. We had set foot upon a threshold, an experimental time-line of challenges and temptations that offered revelation and atonement.
We fasted in silence. We fasted for all the daughters whose choices were filled with fear. We fasted for all the mothers whose hearts were filled with anger. We fasted for all the grandmothers whose tears were filled with loneliness. As one, we embodied womanhood and carried its pain. Together, we sacrificed our comfort for women. It was time to sweat.
Each stone was carefully pulled out of the fire with an old, rusted pitch folk. The fire tender dusted off excess ash and embers with long, fanned-out, cedar branches. Carefully, he brought seven sacred stones, one at a time, to the entrance of the inipi for all of us to welcome. Winona (Rises with the Sun), the water poorer, gave a leather pouch brimming with sacred medicine to three of us. One pouch was filled with seeder, the other sage and the last, copal resin. The fire tender came to the entrance of the inipi with a red-hot stone. Winona picked up each one as they came in with a set of antlers. The girls and I placed a small amount of sacred medicine on each sacred stone. We watched as it crackled and popped, turning to ash or fire. “That fire, is for extra blessings.” All of us quickly pulled the smoke over our heads and toward our hearts. Blessed by seven stones. We welcomed in and embarrassed the uncertainty of what was to come.
The flap we had made of blankets and tied to a broken log was draped over the sunlight. We were immersed in heat and darkness. Before we even spoke, we were sweating. We sat, watching the stones glow dim. Our eyes were useless. I could hear Winona plunging her dipper into a bucket of water, graciously set at her side. She began to slowly pour cold water over all of the stones, extinguishing the faint glimmer that remained. I immediately imagined steam rising, like smoke signals familiar to memories forgotten; a fire was ablaze but there was no flame. We listened as the water embraced the timeless surface of each stone. All around us spirits whispered, releasing weighted breath into the shadows endless obscurity. Our senses focused on the converging single exhalation. Winona began to speak. “Aho mitakuye oyasin!” With one yell, the door opened. The sun greeted our eyes and the walls of the inipi could be seen. What, in darkness, looked never-ending, was suddenly finite and firm.
Winona directed the fire tender to bring seven more stones. One by one, each stone was welcomed and blessed with the same three medicines. The girls grew still, aware and prepared to yield. Our circle was changing. We watched in amazement as the water bubbled around the fourteen stones. Patiently, we waited for the door to close. The darkness could not divide us. Our fears leaping from our tongues like silent suicide jumpers, our fingers wove together to catch and comfort, to break the fall. Our heartstrings fully exposed, the water pourer began to sing. All of us were overcome with courage. Our souls washed with song. We cried, sang, yipped and howled. We could feel the extension and power of our emotions enveloping our bodies. Our egos began to crack, some us covered our arms and faces with mud to cool the rage of our skin. We all breathed the same boiling air. Suffering bodies bared witness as our spirits bloomed. We were radiant. With each song, Winona showered the stones. With each shower, the steam grew thick in our lungs. Invaded and outnumbered, together we battled our doubts into submission. With one unanimous yell, we cried out, “ONE BODY! ONE MIND! ONE SPIRIT! ONE HEART! AHO MITAKUYE OYASIN!” The fire tender folded the flap over the inipi. Allowing our bodies and lungs to breathe fresh crisp air. The hot breeze that felt so uninviting and dry felt sweet and cool. Our prayers were ready to be heard.
For the third phase a collection of twenty-one stones overflowed the small pit. Two of the stones stayed in the fire, “old tradition” I was told. Winona let the fire tender know we were ready. A small altar stood in front of the inipi. There rested a white buffalo skull atop a small lush patch of grass. On the skull laid a long wooden stem, attached to a hand-carved stone bowl. Four strings graciously connected two feathers that drifted beside the stem. This was the chanunpa. Winona began to speak, “This chanunpa has been passed down for generations. We smoke the Tobacco to send our prayers to the spirit.” Our eyes moved as one as the first girl received the pipe. The fire tender delicately rotated it clockwise, as if the pipe would break with any sudden breath or glance. Winona attempted collecting english words in order to articulate a sacred tradition, “He will hand it to you four times. You must only accept it the fourth. When you are done with your prayer, touch the mouth of the stem to your right shoulder then your left. Rotate it clockwise and hand it four times to the woman sitting next to you.” We all took part in the chanunpa ceremony, each lighting the fire for the other. I was taught to wash the smoke over my head and heart, and into the sky.
When the ceremony ended, the sun was nearly sleeping. We left our womb and embraced each other as newborn sisters. I smiled, proud of the mud that clung to our skin. I was alive pondering new meanings. I was ready to explore, to map out the new topography of my curves. My spirit was weightless and bright. My roots buried deep into the ground. I was a great willow, fluid with the breeze between my leaves and branches. Only the smell of burning wood tethered me to home. Huddled around the fire to keep warm, our bodies soaked our clothes with sweat, tears and earth. Upon every face, I could recognize the look of a profound stillness. The kind of stillness you see painted on the surface of a timeless canvas. I considered my own reflection; blessed, balanced, content, while at the same times eager. The world laid before me with renewed strength. I was a woman, at the outset of her journey.