Just outside Bozeman, a dirt road leads to a different kind of church.
The small shelter sits atop a hill and next to a stand of aspen trees. Stacks of wood and brush, piles of blankets and gallon jugs of water surround it.
The structure is made of bent willows, blankets and tarps. A flap lifts up and serves as the entrance, and inside pieces of red cloth tied to the frame are reminders of the prayers said when each was fastened. The rich herbal odor of bear root hangs in the air, and a pit for fire-hot lava rocks is dug in the corner.
Many men have sat here, breathing in the steam and scent of roots and herbs as beads of sweat drench them, praying in the heat and feeling what it means to be part of this tradition.
Once forbidden by the U.S. government, this ceremony is sacred.
Sweat lodges are deeply rooted in Native American culture, and many tribes today still practice the rituals. The Indian community in Bozeman maintains about a half dozen lodges in the area, places where they can pray, ground themselves and feel a connection with ancestors.
Shane Doyle is a member of the Crow tribe and an adjunct instructor of Native American Studies at Montana State University. He grew up on the Crow Reservation, and in Bozeman he helps maintain the sweat lodge off the dirt road.
He runs sweat ceremonies there for himself and small groups of friends.
Not everyone can do so — the ceremony had to be passed down to Doyle from another person who had it passed down to him, and so on.
There are many ways to conduct the ceremonies, and they vary from tribe to tribe and person to person. Because they are handed down, they are run the same way today as they were centuries ago, in the time when millions of buffalo still roamed the country.
This is the oral tradition, the passing along of culture, ceremonies and histories without ever physically recording them.
“These traditions are not going to go away if they’re not written,” Doyle said.
He added that one could learn how to do a sweat from a book or the Internet, but it’s not authentic unless passed down.
As the Crow story goes, the tradition of sweat lodges originally came from bighorn sheep. Long ago, a boy’s stepfather tried to kill him by pushing him off a cliff. A band of sheep rescued the boy, and he lived with them for many years before returning to his people.
When he came back, he said the sheep told him many things, including about the sweat lodge. The boy also said the people would be safe if they named the mountains after the sheep.
That’s how the Bighorn Mountains were named and how this sacred ceremony began for the Crow people. Today, it’s still very much intact.
Running a sweat
Today when Doyle runs a sweat, the process takes at least half a day.
He has to have plenty of wood and brush gathered to build a fire, and he also needs a pile of the right kind of rocks. The best are lava rocks, which have holes in them and can expand and contract with the heat without exploding.
First Doyle will start a fire outside the sweat lodge to heat the rocks. After about an hour and a half, the rocks are hot enough.
For Crow ceremonies, men and women take part separately. The men go in naked, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the ground. A pit is dug in one corner, and that’s where the rocks will go once they’re heated.
Four is a special number in Indian culture — it symbolizes the four directions and four seasons. When the first four rocks are brought in, everyone must be quiet. As more are added, participants can relax.
There are four rounds in the sweat with breaks in between. In the first, water is poured on the rocks four times. In the second, water is poured seven times, to represent the big dipper and seven buffalo that once helped the tribe. On the third round, 10 pours represent the number of moons between conception and birth. On the last round, there can be an infinite number of pours to represent that life goes on forever.
Occasionally, there will be a fifth or bonus round, but it’s casual and not as ceremonial, Doyle said.
“It puts you in a sacred frame of mind because it’s always been done that way,” Doyle said of the ceremony.
Herbs and medicines like cedar, sweetgrass and sage are also used during the sweat. In the Crow tradition, bear root, also known as osha root, is most commonly used. Recently at the sweat lodge, Doyle held an orange chunk of it in his hand.
When the door is closed and it is thrown on the rocks, it lights up like little stars. It gives a soothing, peppery smell, and Doyle knows he’s breathing it in much like his ancestors once did.
“Sweat lodges are important and significant,” Doyle said. “They connect us to people who prayed for us before we were born. They’re part of something special and bigger than us.”
Not safe, not comfortable, but spiritual
The sweat ceremony, like other traditional tribal ceremonies, is not necessarily safe or comfortable. It gets so hot you might feel like your skin is burning. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and is physically demanding.
“The spirit and body are two different things, and people need to understand that,” Doyle said. “The body is temporary, weak. It gets old; it breaks; it gets tired. The spirit is infinite; it goes on and it never ends. It’s always the same, like water.”
But, a person can leave a sweat at anytime if they want to.
“It’s a self-discovery process,” Doyle said. “Learning about yourself is at the heart of the matter. You find that out from God.”
The ceremonies are about celebrating life and living it the best you can.
“Traditions are still very much practiced under our noses, but we don’t know or hear about it,” he said. “We continue to provide people with a high quality of life by exercising spirituality and trying to come to terms with what it means to be an Indian in the modern world.”
A person can be a full-blood Indian, but it means nothing if they don’t know about their culture or language, Doyle said. Sweats help them know who they are.
“We’re always entering into undiscovered country, which is the future,” Doyle said. ‘There are so many options. We need to figure out what to value, and we need to draw on something that’s ancient.”
Jason Baldes is a graduate student at Montana State University and a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He was raised on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
His parents grew up when the sweat lodge and sun dance were illegal. His grandparents were punished for speaking their native language. They were taught to forsake and abandon their own culture.
He is part of a new generation that is again able to practice traditional ceremonies, to speak their native language and to retain a culture that missionaries once tried to force out of people.
“It’s up to us as young people to learn to revitalize that,” Baldes said. “It’s still slipping away from us.”
He said he used to sweat in a lodge several times a week when he was on the reservation.
“To have that way of life, the ability to pray that way was critical,” Baldes said. “It gives meaning to who we are as an Indian people. I’ve seen miracles happen in that lodge. Collective prayers are answered. It’s a really sacred place.”
Baldes said he doesn’t take part in any modern organized religions and is bitter about the way religion was used in the past against his people. Instead, he follows his Indian ways, and is grateful that he is not persecuted for that.
In a recent interview, Baldes noted how an elder with the best knowledge of his native language recently died. He talked about how few genetically pure bison are left. As some parts of his culture slip away, ceremonies like the sweat lodge are even more important.
“It provides an identity that was once taken away from us and frowned upon,” he said.
When he breathes in that sacred steam again, when the beads of sweat form and the heat burns against his skin, he will pray, he will be grounded, and he will remember who he is.
This tradition will never be lost.