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The Sweat Lodge On Lake Sakakawea

In July, 1994, Tom wrote this article for the North Dakota Trial Laywers. His client was a Native American who was accused of rape. The incident was alleged to have occurred on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The City of New Town, North Dakota and Lake Sakakawea are both located on the reservation.

It was Saturday afternoon and I had traveled 200 miles to New Town to interview a witness in a federal rape case.  I had been on the case for two weeks and the trial was starting on Tuesday.

The mother answered the door.  She was neither friendly nor unfriendly.  She was indifferent; another white guy wanting something was at the door.

“Is your son home?”

“No.”

“Do you know where he is?” 

“Yes.” 

“Can you tell me where he is?” 

“Yes.” 

“Where is he?” 

“He’s at my grandfather’s.” 

“Can you tell me where that is?” 

“Yes.” 

“Where is it?” 

“My son will take you out there.” 

“I thought he was at your grandfather’s.” 

“My other son.” 

“Thank you.” 

“You can’t talk to him until it’s over.” 

“Until what’s over?” 

“The Ceremony.” 

“The Ceremony?” 

“The Sweat.  You can’t talk to him until after its over.  He must prepare himself and talking about this will only distract him.” 

“I just have a few questions.” 

“No.” 

“How long will it take?” 

“An hour.” 

“Do you mind if I go out there and wait?” 

“No.” 

“Thank you.” 

“Maybe you should do one, too.” 

“I beg your pardon.” 

“Maybe you should do the Sweat.  You need to prepare yourself, too.” 

“I don’t think so.” 

“You need to prepare yourself.  You have a long battle ahead of you.” 

“Look lady, what I really need is to win the suppression motion.” 

“Don’t be so sure.” 

Later, as I stood on the banks of Lake Sakakawea, I couldn’t help but wonder what a good Presbyterian was doing in a place like this.  John Calvin would never understand.  We spent the first few hours chopping down wooden fence posts to build a bonfire.  The bonfire was used to heat the sandstones which had been brought in from the Black Hills.  We were going to do a Sweat; a religious ceremony of prayer and purification.

The temperature that day was 20 below zero as we stoked the fire.  It took four hours to properly heat the sandstones.  Four hours of no drink, no food, no tobacco, no alcohol, no nothing.  Just standing in the cold wondering what would happen if I handed him the subpoena and ran.

The sweat lodge was built and anointed by a Holy Man, a man who had been given the right to build.  After the sandstones were properly heated, they were carried into the sweat lodge, where they were placed into the pit.  We then disrobed and crawled through the snow into the lodge, where the ceremony began.  

The only warning I received was that if I went in, I could not leave until it was over.  An early exit would ruin the ceremony and was not permitted.  Water, which had been carried from a nearby spring, was poured on the sandstones in a certain manner which had religious significance and meaning.  So began the pours.  A certain number of pours are placed over the rocks to begin the ceremony.

This was a Crow ceremony, and my friends were from the Coyote Clan.  As the ceremony began, the first sound was of a coyote howling in the distance.  Then we prayed.  It was a time of prayer and of feeling the healing touch of steam.  It was also total darkness.  It was small.  It was dark.  It was hot.

I suffer from a little claustrophobia and, in the beginning, I mostly prayed that I would not embarrass myself by running, kicking, and screaming from the lodge.

There is beauty and purpose in all religions.  None more nor less than the other.  Someone once said that to truly know a person you must visit them in their home.  But to truly know a person, you must visit them in their place of worship.

We lost the suppression motion.  We won the trial.