Teaching of the Sweat Lodge, A. Paquette
WOMEN TAKING STEAM
A dog team yelps briefly in the starry night. Our boots squeak in the snow, the temperature hovering at 20 below. Thehairs in my nostrils freeze, my lungs breathe in dry air. Clothes, frozen on a line, hang out to dry; stiff white sheets silent against a violet-black sky. We walk on a narrow path beaten down by pack boots and animal tracks; a path of least resistance through knee-deep snow.
The steam house stands in a small clearing surrounded by birch forest, interrupted by the light of a half moon. It is almost like a dream to me now. I can’t place the village, though the experience is frozen in my mind. It was fourteen, maybe fifteen years past. I am traveling in Western Alaska, and visit many villages in the course of five days as an itinerant therapist. I remember a row of spruce-log cabins facing the airstrip; a modern schoolhouse perched atop a small rise, and oil drums emerging from mounds of deep snow. Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, or as far north as Koliganek. The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory lingers. I am taking a steam with two Eskimo women who are strangers to me.
What is remembered most clearly is a felt-sense of care and belonging imparted
by the women who never even asked my name.
It wasn’t so long ago that schoolchildren in the villages were shy and spoke very little, relying more on facial expressions to meet and greet newcomers. The raising of eyebrows meant “yes” in response toa question. Pause patterns between sentences were comparatively longer than non-native people. It took me several years to fully understand these differences in our conversations. Future tense was not expressed (there was no need when one lives day by day, following the rhythms of weather and seasons).
Value was not placed on being highly verbal as in the Anglo worldview, and people were not accustomed to being barraged with a flurry of questions. Children learned by watching and imitating members of their tribe. The women of the village, too, had a quiet ambiance about them that exuded confidence and a sure-footedness in their daily activity. I am quite sure they never compared themselves to others or complained about their lot in life. The older the woman, the wiser she was regarded, gaining great respect from all members of her community.
The heavy wooden door scrapes the icy ground when opened, and a warm
rush of air billows out. I pull the door tight behind me. In the small entryway, we remove boots and socks, and hang up our clothing on horn hooks. There is no light inside but the kerosene lantern one woman carries to lead our way.
Naked, we step into the heat room. At the far end of the enclosure is a 55-gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove that hovers above a wide bed
of river rocks. One woman nods for me to follow. She is small in stature, with a soft round belly, sturdy, muscled legs and a long black braid falling to the curve in her back. We sit on a long wooden bench against the wall. The woman dips a wooden scoop into a bucket of water and ladles it carefully over the rocks. Hissing steam pours forth and I breathe in deeply the welcomed moisture. The women speak a few words, laugh a little, then quiet. I close my eyes and feel my skin tingling. The heat deepens. Moisture collects along my hairline, in the creases behind my knees, between my breasts. Feels good, yes, she says, chuckling. The woman continues dipping and pouring until the room is filled with relaxing warmth.
In my culture, being chatty is highly valued. We talk about everything: work, family, love, sex, weight gain, weight loss, celebrities, money…and we do so intensely, even with strangers. There are experts on every block. Chat rooms on the Internet. Coffee chats. Over-the-fence neighborly chats. That’s how we solve problems, request advice, or just air what ails us. We become close through reciprocating in conversation and in sharing our stories of triumph and heartache. Or sometimes we talk just to talk. Sometimes we talk to avoid the silence.
Another nod. A smile. I follow as we ease ourselves down to the slatted wood floor and sit cross-legged. One of the women scoops water into the wide metal bowls at our feet. Her face holds no particular expression, just serenity. She breathes deeply. Raises her eyebrows, hands me a bottle of shampoo. Hunched over, the women flip their long black hair into the bowls and begin washing. A deep sigh follows; a letting go. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened glow of the wood stove.
I am entranced by this rich moment, a simple elemental cleansing shared with two strangers. Names, titles, and accomplishments, unimportant. Making money, who’s divorcing who, the plethora of advice, complaints and criticisms…gone. There was a sense of relief in this heavily schooled, career loaded body; a dispelling of everything worrisome, gossipy, and even intellectual from this content-laden mind; and in its place, a simple gesture of an age-old, bare handed experience.
I have remembered these women for a long time, and our shared, quiet intimacy; a cleansing that surpassed the need to use words from my overwrought verbal repertoire.
Someone once said do not speak unless you can improve on the silence. It felt good to share a tender moment with two women who had no need or desire to bare their souls by throwing their minds around.
It felt good to simply be…quiet.