Fear and Renewal in A Western Shoshone Sweat
With The Longest Walk 2 bringing attention to environmental protection and indigenous rights, I've been thinking back to when I unexpectedly overcame my greatest fears in a Western Shoshone sweat lodge during a protest against the Nevada Nuclear Test Site on their sacred lands. The situation hasn't improved since that transformative journey to the desert back in 1997. As Enei Begaye, director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, states, "Right now 80 percent of the natural resources held underneath Indignenous people's lands are being threatened. There is an ongoing war being waged with these resources. We agree that we need to stop the war in Iraq and end the occupation of other territories around the world. However it is important to remember that the U.S. is also occupying sovereign nations here in this country."
After thirteen hours of driving through the desert, my friends and I made it into camp just before dusk. We pitched our tents quickly in the fading light, then joined dozens of people gathered around a large bonfire. Two Western Shoshone tribesmen stood center-stage, sharing traditional stories. Corbin, the tribal elder, had ancient leathery skin, crew-cut hair, and big cheeks that puffed out when he talked. Next to him was Felipe, a middle-aged man with a kind-hearted chuckle that accompanied his slight Mexican accent. There was only a sliver of moon showing in the sky. I gazed out across the dark, silvery landscape, trying to imagine the impossible history of this place. With over a thousand nuclear devices detonated above and below this Western Shoshone land, I was standing in the heart of the most bombed nation in the world.
The next day I woke up early to the sound beating drums just above my tent. Old Corbin was banging an elk skin drum while waving an eagle feather in the air. He was greeting the sunrise and dozens of people appeared from their tents to join in a slow dancing around the fire. They formed a circle and the circle grew as the sun came up. I thought about joining them but I felt tired and lazy after the trip. Besides, who was I, a white American, to participate in one of their traditional rituals? Come to think of it, what was I doing there at all? That trip was during my senior year of college and back then I just wanted a fun last spring break, camping in the desert. But I guess my friends were changing. They were getting political, and perhaps I was too.
Our numbers grew to a couple of hundred that day and by afternoon, speakers from across the world were addressing the crowd of activists under the main tent. I soon learned why the Western Shoshone Reservation were protesting the “subcritical” testing that went on at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. In 1948, the U.S. government violated the Treaty of Ruby Valley, seizing their land and displacing over one hundred families without any compensation. The government then began bombing away at the land, leaving “downwinders” with extremely high rates of cancer, leukemia, and birth defects. I had mistakenly thought the war against the Native Americans was over, but apparently it went right into the nuclear age with the government arbitrarily taking back its word, and violating even more treaties up to today.
After the speeches, we split into groups to receive nonviolent civil disobedience training. The organizers taught us about our legal rights, maintaining solidarity, ways to stay calm, and how to deal with security and the cops. They then told us the game plan. We’d march over to the test site entrance, which was managed by the Bechtel Corporation. If we crossed the line with the rest of the marchers, we’d find ourselves arrested in nylon handcuffs. My stomach and intestines immediately started rumbling and knotting up. What was I doing out here in the middle of nowhere? I had to get back for my honors thesis defense, which was scheduled for the day when I got back. If we were hauled in overnight, I’d miss the defense committee. I wasn’t going to risk my entire academic career for a spring break trip. So I marched right out of the tent, crossing my arms in my chest, and stared off towards a large brown lump of rock in the distance.
“Do you know what’s out that way?” a slight Mexican accent came up to me from behind. I turned around to see Felipe. “Yucca Mountain,” he said. “It’s a sacred place for us. All this land is a sacred place. We’ve lived on it for 10,000 years, always in harmony with our Mother. But the government’s considering storing nuclear waste in the mountain – 77,000 metric tons of hazardous waste from across the country. There are over thirty faults under that site,” he whistled ominously, “On that sacred land.”
“I’m sorry,” I said as if I were to blame. He picked up on my white guilt and ruffled my hair.
“What's your name?"
"Have you done the sweat lodge yet?”
“I’ll be doing one tomorrow before sunset. You should join us.”
“Thanks, I’ll think about it.”
I had heard about the sweats from other campers. The accounts said they were cleansing and purifying, but also a hot, grueling test of endurance, something I wasn’t sure I was really up to during my last college road trip.
At night, I visited the fire early. Corbin and Felipe were there alone, listening to the howls of a coyote in the distance.
“He’s looking for a lady,” Corbin said with a smile.
“I told him about Yucca Mountain,” Felipe said.
Corbin looked in that direction with calm severity.
“I had a vision a few years ago,” he said. “I was praying to the water, that it would run pure and clear, and that it would take care of us for generations. The water spoke to me. It said, “In a few years I’m going to look like water, but you’re not going to be able to use me anymore. You’re going to have to come out from behind the bush and give us a hand here.” He turned to me with gentle, elderly eyes. “Have you come out from behind the bush?” he asked.
I stuttered, searching for a quick answer.
“Jonathan’s joining the sweat tomorrow,” Felipe said, pointing to a small canvas-covered mound on the hill.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wasn’t sure on that. That night the coyote went on yelping in the distance as I lay down in my tent. I listened to his cries, thinking of Corbin’s conversation with the water. Who was I to say? Maybe the air, the water, our whole Mother Earth really had a voice. I thought of the Western Shoshone’s sacred relationship with this land over the last 10,000 years and how, in just under fifty years, the U.S. government was willing to dump waste that would remain hazardous for thousands of generations to come. These two worlds played against each other like night and day, the sacred and the profane. That little canvas covered sweat lodge on the hill suddenly grew bigger in my mind, both in size and in its meaning to my life.
I followed Felipe’s directions the next day, fasting throughout the morning and afternoon. Just before sunset, a group of us met around the small covered dome on the hill. They separated the men and women for the sessions. Corbin was tending the fire and Felipe asked us to strip to our skivvys so we could enter the sweat lodge in almost the same manner we entered the world. Felipe explained how the sweat lodge symbolized a cleansing of our minds, bodies, and souls until we came out of the womb, reborn. He lit some sage, smudged the lodge and then had us breathe in its aroma to purify ourselves. He sang prayers as we seated ourselves inside. Corbin came by with a shovel full of hot rocks. He placed the rocks in a small hole in the middle of the lodge and Felipe closed the flap to the outside world, welcoming "our ancestors." At first, all you could see were those glowing red rocks in the darkness. Felipe made a prayer “To all my relations,” then poured water on top of them. Steam hissed and floated up, making the dome hot and muggy.
Felipe said another prayer, thanked the Creator and then took us through the first of four rounds. The first round was reserved for prayers concerning the world. We went around stating our name, giving thanks to the Creator of our choice, and then offered up a prayer for the world. Many of them wished for the end of nuclear energy, to find sustainable alternatives for the future. Others talked about the loss of soul through our consumer society, how they wished for a culture that revered life on the planet and acted as mindful caretakers of our world. Others demonstrated a concern for the mental and physical pollution all around us -- that they hoped for a quieter, humbler existence. These kinds of conversation were somewhat new to me back then, and I was inspired by them all.
The air was boiling hot and I had to take shallow breaths just to make it through. Felipe opened the flap and Corbin came in with five more rocks. By now the tent was scorching with steam and sweat and it only got worse when Felipe poured hissing water on the stones. “To all my relations,” he said and then followed with another prayer. He told us this round was reserved for individuals; that we should orient our prayers to them. One of my friends had joined me for this sweat lodge and for the first time in his life, he opened up about his father abandoning his family, how much it hurt him, and how he really wished his father the best. I gave a prayer for my grandfather who was dying from emphysema at the time and almost felt as if his fading presence was with me in the lodge.
We completed our round of prayers and when I didn’t think it could get any hotter, Corbin came in with five more rocks. “To all my relations,” Felipe said, giving another prayer to the creator. This round was about the protest scheduled to happen that weekend. People prayed for a safe, successful demonstration, they prayed that we’d stay healthy with all the radiation around us, they prayed for the future of the Western Shoshone and their land, and then we prayed for those on the other side of the fence -- the guards, the policemen, even the corporate heads of Bechtel, who profited from their deadly business.
By now, I was wheezing, gasping for air. I was completely dehydrated. My skin felt like it was melting off the bone. Felipe had told us to dig our hands in the earth to stay cool, but my whole body was already on the ground, and I still felt I was on the verge of passing out.
Felipe opened the flap and a blast of cool air brought me momentary relief before Corbin brought in five more rocks. There was more hissing water and a prayer to “all my relations,” and then my insides felt as if they were burning up. This round was a silent one. I was praying for the general well-being of the biosphere when my thoughts cut off and all I could think of was the heat, dehydration, and pain. I was sweating buckets, and so was everyone in the room. You could hear the drops hitting the ground and they picked up like rain. I was getting lost in that rain, my mind losing its grip and I hit this point where I wasn’t sure my body was going to make it through the heat. I was thinking of death. I could hear it, smell it in my salty sweat.
Fear gripped my bones and I was shaking and trembling, sweating out my life-force, fighting off what was coming. Then I realized the water was calling to me, whispering for me to lose myself right into it. I followed its soothing voice and lost myself in its eternal sounds, my body breaking into all that rain. I felt myself going beyond fear to a centered, focused plateau inside myself. Suddenly the heat and steam no longer bothered me. They were a part of me. My head and hands were in the dirt. I breathed in the air, the water, and was one with them all. I had fallen back into the original womb, Mother Earth, that magical, sacred place.
The fourth round ended and I walked out into the dusk, renewed, refreshed, and reborn in some way. I ate a light dinner and went to bed, feeling grounded into a more essential part of myself. The next morning, I woke early to join Corbin’s dancing circle around the fire as he welcomed the sun with his drumming. Then we all gathered on the hot asphalt road. People were wearing festive costumes and carrying banners, gigantic puppets and the Western Shoshone flag. Corbin and Felipe led the way to the site. They read the history of the land and the verdict of the International Court of Justice pronouncing the development and use of atomic bombs as contrary to international law. The group presented a peace offering of prayer ties to the senior police official, then demanded a cessation of testing and a return of the test site to its legal owners, The Western Shoshone Nation.
Without surprise, this demand was denied.
The senior officer warned us if we crossed the cattle guard, we’d be immediately detained. The front rows of marchers pushed forward as the guards seized individuals, placing nylon handcuffs on their wrists, throwing them in wire pens. I walked forward, calm, focused, centered in my own being. For the first time in my life, I was listening to my inner spirit and it was telling me to come out from behind the bush.Tweet