LENNOX ISLAND — Twenty-three Rotary International exchange students from Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador gathered in Summerside for some shared cultural experiences over the weekend, including a Mi’kmaq sweat lodge ceremony.
The sweat lodge was a simple affair — blankets and carpet pieces draped over a frame — constructed at the end of a roadway by the edge of the forest, with a small mound in front to serve as an altar for important ceremonial items, a nearby fire to heat the rocks necessary for the process, and a small hut for changing.
Becky Sark served as controller inside the sweat lodge, singing the songs, explaining the process of the ceremony, and commanding when the door should be open or closed by those helping on the outside. The helpers also delivered hot rocks for heating, water for cleansing and steam generation, herbs for spiritual offerings, and engaged other necessary tasks.
Helper John Arsenault noted that there would usually be two to six persons in the sweat lodge for a ceremony. Special occasions might increase that to between eight and 15.
For this experience, a record 17 visitors decided they would try to crowd in. That proved too much for some, but left others with a satisfying infusion of native culture.
A normal ceremony — involving successive rounds of spiritual singing and prayers from each participant punctuated by uncovering the sweat lodge entrance to release some of the generated heat — would usually take about 45 minutes to an hour, Arsenault estimated. The exchange students took nearly two hours to complete their experience.
Well, most of them, anyway.
One student from Brazil exited almost before it got started, just overwhelmed by the cramped situation within.
Allie Boyle, a future outbound exchange student from Cardigan, was next to exit, as the second round concluded.
“It’s really hot!” she exclaimed, but admitted it was also relaxing.
She described it as a bit claustrophobic, with the group as seeming anxious at first, but calmed during the second round.
“If there was, like, six people in there, it would be awesome,” she enthused, lamenting that she, a Canadian, was one to exit early.
Arsenault explained that the ceremony is used to cleanse the body, with the heat causing sweating and drinks of water keeping the process flowing. Each round offers time for contemplation, or prayer, for elders or other influences on life.
A sweat lodge can be used at any time.
Arsenault says there is a ceremony at each new moon that includes a feast — to pray and give thanks to the Creator for what has been received since the last new moon — and New Year’s Eve also usually features a sweat lodge.
Often times, the ill, or others who have particular need for cleansing, engage a doctoring sweat, a helper mentioned.
Tobacco, burned in a pipe, is part of the ceremony, but if a participant does not want to inhale, it is permissible to wash one’s self with the smoke in a manner that represents taking it to heart, revealed helper David Haley. Participants can also request the door be opened if conditions become too intense.
Manu Martin Gonzalez, from the Canary Islands of Spain, exchanging in Truro, N.S., loved the experience.
“It’s really hot inside, but I feel refreshed,” he admitted, while standing near the fire after exiting when the fourth and final round was complete.
Théophile Jourdain de Muizon, from France and attending school in New Minas, N.S., was completely taken with the experience. It touched his love of history and encouraged respect for native spirituality.
“This year was the first time I had learned Canadian history, from the earliest beginnings to Confederation,” he explained.
“It’s interesting to see the form of the sweat lodge. It’s a really good way to pray,” he assessed his experience.
Asked if he thought he might take something of the sweat lodge concept back to Europe with him, he was respectful in doubt.
“This is not to take back. This is religious, not something to play with for fun,” he recognized.