When Customs Become Confusing

When Customs Become Confusing

Robert Chanate
1/12/12

When we accepted an invitation to the sweat lodge we had no idea that white people were going to be going in with us.

The directions given to me and a relative were supposed to lead us to the secluded area where the sweat was going to be held. The route was confusing and full of ndn descriptors: look for a red mailbox, turn by a pond, drive over two bridges, watch for a red ribbon tied around an old pole, etc.

We were unfamiliar with the area and almost turned back but we pressed on because we imagined our host might end up waiting for us to show up. Eventually we found the place, walked up a foot path and came around a corner to see some Native people standing around and visiting. We approached, introduced ourselves and shook hands. Another Native man soon appeared and specifically asked each of us if we were going in. With each affirmative answer, he shook our hands.

I was reflecting on how fortunate we were to have found the place when I heard other voices and footsteps coming up the foot path. The voices were loud so I wondered what kind of Natives they were. Only when they came into view did I realize the newcomers were white people.

Their presence was unexpected and their appearance shocking. Their group numbered about a dozen and the leader had a walking stick, a big beard and a sleeveless fur vest. The rest were dressed as if their outfits were cobbled together from the pathetic pelts, dream catchers and dyed feathers one sees hanging in the Native American section of truck stops. They looked like movie extras who got lost while searching for the set of a caveman film.

As they got closer, I looked around to see how the other Natives were reacting to their arrival. I expected the Natives to step forward and declare this area off limits. Instead, about half walked forward and began shaking hands and hugging the newcomers like old friends. The other half of us looked at one another, unsure of what to do.

I had agreed to go in (by the fire no less) and my sense of cultural customs was that I was bound to honor my word. At the same time, another cultural teaching prohibited me from participating in activities that violated my moral sensibilities. Customs had usually served as guideposts in helping me navigate through different cultural terrains and now it seemed they led me to a tough spot I couldn’t reverse from. If I went in, would this be a violation of my own beliefs? If I refused to go in, would this cause a scene and be considered an insult to my hosts?

I chose the less disruptive path and reluctantly went into the sweat lodge. It was crowded so people were shuffled around and I ended up right next to the leader with the fur vest, which he was still wearing. The round started and the white group started triumphantly yelling and hollering. The fur vest leader was growling like an animal and chanting,“The iron house! He sits in the Iron House!”
I tried to focus on the virtue of “endurance” while the fur vest leader kept on with his shouts and howling. “Free Leonard Peltier!” were the last words out of his mouth as the first round ended, and with it, any concern I had about breaking my word and leaving. The door was opened and I was the first person to escape followed by a few other Native people. Those who got out declined an offer to go back in and we all hurriedly grabbed our belongings and left.

As we were leaving, I thought about the choices we make when our sense of right and wrong conflicts with a cultural custom. We sometimes make decisions simply to avoid group discord even when the less popular path sticks closer traditional ways.

Driving back home, we didn’t bother to follow the previous directions, preferring to find our own way back home even if it was inconvenient.

Robert Chanate is a member of the Kiowa Nation and can be reached at rckiowa@gmail.com. He is from Carnegie, OK and currently lives in Denver, CO.

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zelbe1's picture
zelbe1
Submitted by zelbe1 on
You should know that at any time during a sweat, real or fake, if you are uncomfortable, it is not disrespectful to get up and walk out. In this case, you would have been in good reason to even participate, but you did so in order to not disrespect the host. It should not be about your relations with the host, but more of your relations and intent with being in the (sweats) circle. That is your main priority. The wellness and health, both physically and spiritually, of your sweat, not the loyalties and respect of a novice showman. This is what killed those people in AZ. They were so afraid of being disobedient to the host, that they pushed their health beyond the point of what should have been a healthy sweat, to a disasterous end. Use common sense. These were wannabe new agers.

globe's picture
globe
Submitted by globe on
Dear friends, if I may interpret, I think the Iron House that R. Chanate mentions hearing about is the prison where Leonard Peltier sits today. Perhaps the fur vest leader was growling because it was his way of coping with the heat? I confess that I growl sometimes when I'm super cold, like when I have bathed in ice cold streams. Lots of people are praying for Leonard Peltier's release, nothing too unusual about that, hopefully it will happen soon. I know it is fun to make fun of these white folks, but I'm sure they didn't make fun of Chanate & Co. who left, they probably prayed for them too. Is it now our strategy to divide ourselves from our white friends so that we might find greater unity? Here is another approach that finds unity and protects our sanctity. When having a lodge with unfamiliar white people make it a rule that they keep quiet and observe. We made this rule in Tucson one year because we had the experience of having been joined by a young white man who announced that he was in fact God himself. Not someone who carried God's message, but the actual God, the Creator. After that we said that we will make the white people we are unfamiliar with wait, so that they can watch and learn instead of imposing their various forms of loudness upon us. It worked out OK, God heard our prayers.

tommyhawk's picture
tommyhawk
Submitted by tommyhawk on
Hmmmm... while respect is an essential component to any gathering for any reason,people in general have different ways to implement this. I personally have never been to an organized "sweat" and probably never will,unless it so happened upon me and the Spirit that guides me is good with it.I have been guided into many situations that I shouldn't have been in and have found one common denominator that binds them all.This is the so desired and given abillity to have a choice in whether or not we wish to venture into any situation we find ourselves in. Once making the decision of our own accord we have put ourslves at the Mercy of the leaders whom created it and should understand that whatever transpires would have whether we were there, or not.again, we still have the choice of being active or not in the festivities and must accept the outcome of our decisision. Experience has taught me that when I have made a choice to do anything ,I have made this choice and have left the Spirit that guides me on the wayside and will be left alone to fend for myself. In Every instance I have payed heavilly for leaving my Spirit on the Red Road and choose now never to leave it again. To make a short story just a little bit longer,I will close with this conclusion : Tread lightly in any situation you find yourself in and always consult and act only on what Spirit would have you do.

skinu's picture
skinu
Submitted by skinu on
HERE ON THE BLACKFEET WE HAVE THESE SIDE SHOWS WHERE THEY CHARGE TO SWEAT ,SUNDANCE AND GET HELP!THATS NOT THE WAY IT GOES,REMEMBER NO ONE I REPEAT NO ONE HAS MORE OF A DIRECT LINE TO THE CREATOR,WE WERE ALL GIVIN THE RIGHT TO PRAY AND ASK,ITS SAD THAT I'VE SEEN THESE "CEROMONIES" WHERE THE PIPE CARRIERS WERE EUROPEANS AND THEY HAD VERY SACRED THINGS,WHISTLES,RATTLES AND PIPES ECT.THIS TYPE OF STUFF IS FOUND THRU OUT INDIAN COUNTRY,ON A WEB SITE,CROOKED TRAILS,YOU COULD PAY 1200 TO BE PART OF A SUNDANCE.REMEMBER SKINS IF YOUR SHAMAN DOESNT SPEAK THEIR NATIVE TONGUE THEN WALK AWAY OLD PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU THE GRANDFATHERS DONT SPEAK ENGLISH.THE WANNA BE'S ARE NOT ONLY THE WHITE FOLKS ANYMORE THEY ARE SKINS AS WELL AND THEIR ALL ABOUT MONEY NOT HELPING YOU SO DONT BE DUMB,THERES REAL LEADERS OUT THERE LEFT BUT THE ONES YOU'LL FIND EASIEST IS THOSE DESCRIBED ABOVE....

bugaboojr's picture
bugaboojr
Submitted by bugaboojr on
This article just sounds like racist BS to me. Where was the lodge keeper? Why didn't he say anything? This story doesn't make sense. But I'm sure it's popular with everyone who hates whitey. It's an easy cheap shot and a way to make a dime and a name at someone else's expense. The writer is not quite so pure as he imagines.

grass's picture
grass
Submitted by grass on
As I am a descendent of the Blackfoot Nation through my great-great grandmother who married a white, I am considered white. I pray that if I'm ever given the opportunity to join a sweat lodge that I may be modest in my ways and earn the respect on my brothers to join them.

laura's picture
laura
Submitted by laura on
I'd like to know, is the author sure that these 'whites' were not of Native descent? There are many sincere Natives that do not look stereotypically Native American. The CNO enrolls members up to 1/128th and beyond! The Metis and most tribes East of the Mississippi are full of fair-colored Indians. IF they are willing to learn their culture properly and walk the red road humbly, it's worth it to be patient and not disparage them. If someone has the blood and the commitment to their heritage, they are no less Native than you or I, regardless of looks or blood quantum. I know it's hard not to think 'twinkie-alert' automatically, but all Natives have to move beyond looks and blood quantum if we want to thrive. The 7th generation does not look like the 1st and has a lot of heritage to re-learn.

zelbe1's picture
zelbe1
Submitted by zelbe1 on
If you feel that natives are taking, "an easy cheap shot (at whitey)and making a dime and a name at someone else’s expense," then you must know that this story in ICT is not as legally guarded or promoted as your right to put feathers, war paint and buckskin on at your next sports event while doing the hokey pokey chanting "kill the Indians"! That should momentarily quelch your disdain for natives until the next game and then you can do it again to ease your pains of a few uppity Indians?

grace123's picture
grace123
Submitted by grace123 on
As with a previous post, I too wish to express my gratitude for those willing to teach me, willing to open a door to a path that I could never have known without their help. I believe they saved my life, in every way it is possible for another human being to do so. I will walk the rest of my life with these gifts, in service and gratitude.

lsg10's picture
lsg10
Submitted by lsg10 on
My feelings on this subject are mixed and they will always be. I find the term "white people" offensive, just as many might find any other expression of racial profiling offensive. I have witnessed these "New Age Radicals" and I have seen the harm and damage caused by exploiting these sacred traditions. If we are so quick to judge by appearance how will be thrive as a community. I believe a person’s actions and character should be considered before the color of their skin. When I was a child, my mother dreamed of three warriors knocking at our front door. They told her she must find and learn about her ancestors. My mother immediately started her search the next day. She knew she was given this vision for a reason. Throughout her search she has been labeled "Twinkie", "Crazy", or "Witch." Her friends in the WASP community we lived in not understand why she was chasing a "pointless dream" and most Natives assumed she was another Hippie trying to experiment with spiritualism. Even family members accused her of falling off the deep end. Had it not been for the Natives who took time to listen to my mother and took her under their wing, my mother would have lost her mind trying to discover her family’s past. I am proud to say that 5 years after her dream, she did find our Native ancestors. I keep this information closely guarded, because of the label given to individuals like me. We are immediately considered “white people.” I have silently suffered and continue to feel spiritually lost at times. So many of us are too quick to judge and too quick to cast others aside. In the future, I hope that we can overcome the focus on appearances and focus on the inner spirit. I believe this is what the Creator would ask of all of us.
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