“Looking Back” is the name of my Native American comrade I met when I first arrived at North Dakota state penitentiary a few months ago. He’s about 5’8″, bronze complexion, with a traditional Indian ponytail-braid hanging down to his lower back.
A former Crip gang banger, he occasionally wears corn-rows. He plays baseball on a semi-pro level, and works at a rodeo chasing 2000 lb bulls into their pins. An urban cowboy, with the swagger and all.
When we were cellies back in the orientation unit, L.B. — as I call him — would tell me a lot how he couldn’t wait until we could get a good “sweat” in at the sweat lodge and he wanted me to go with him. The sweat lodge is a Native American religious service held here at the prison yard every Wednesday. Non-natives can only attend if a Native invites them. Nevertheless I was hesitant to attend, not only due to my own religious boundaries, but also out of respect for the sanctity of his. Yet he persisted. I realized that more than anything else, this was a way of bonding and sharing his culture with me, as I’d shared Islam with him. To complicate my decision further, prison politics came into play as it does most of the time in prison. Just two weeks before we left orientation, the Blacks and Natives got into a huge fight and wounds were still sore. But, despite my own trepidations and prison politics, I threw caution to the wind and accepted my friend’s invitation.
When Wednesday finally came around, most of my Black brothers had heard of my plans and while none of them opposed me, they did warn me that “some” of the Natives hated Blacks. I simply brushed it off as “a few bad apples in every barrel”. One close friend of mine who is half Native, half-black, jokingly warned: “if the Natives tomahawk your black ass up in there, that gate is too tall for us to save you in time. Good luck.” On a serious note he advised me that if I was asthmatic or claustrophobic, don’t go because it was like “a Sauna X10”. L.B had coached me on all the dos and don’ts and most of all the greetings, and by the time the guards called the 2 pm rec. yard call, I was a bit nervous to say the least. L.B was standing outside my cell’s door to ensure I kept my word.
The traffic in the main hallway bustled with convicts rushing mostly to the prison yard to work out, play sports, sit, walk or run the yard under the watchful eyes of trigger-happy guards up in towers. At the far end of the hallway – which is about a quarter mile – other convicts headed to the education department and took a left, while about 30 to 40 Natives and myself took a right turn through a tunnel, then out a side door to a secluded area of the outside recreation yard. The grounds of the Native American sweat lodge were about a hundred yards away, and as we all strolled over, L.B. and a few Natives stripped their t-shirts off, and I followed suit. We looked more like a bunch of wild warriors entering a Colosseum instead of a sanctuary, and that suited me just fine. I can’t stand anything – religious or otherwise – that diminishes the warrior propensity in men.
The bright sun was giving our bodies 95° kisses. The closer we got toward the sweat lodge grounds, the hotter it got. The grounds were of sand, with a pit fire a few yards in front of the sweat lodge. The custodians had been there hours prior, burning large stones in the pit fire. The Natives referred to these stones as “Grandfathers”. The energy these stones absorbed was felt by us all as we passed by them, headed over two benches mounted against a wall. There the Natives began to disrobe down to everything except briefs or boxer underwear. Only a tall fence separated us from all the convicts out on the main rec. yard. I noticed some Black brothers gambling at a card table, staring over at me. I’m sure they might’ve even been taking bets that I wouldn’t go through with it or that the heat would chase me out the sweat lodge–convicts gamble on just about anything! Others stared as if I was about to commit some act of racial betrayal, and that was burning me more than the heat. The phrasal question “which side of the fence you on?” came to my mind and made me laugh at how absurd the whole scene was. Here were two of the most historically damaged and oppressed people in America, arguably in modern history, and here we were at each others’ throats instead of bonding together as oppressed people of color to slice the throat of White Supremacy. How dare we betray our ancestors’ legacy of resistance by copping out like this?
I felt extremely awkward, but I disrobed down to my boxer shorts. We were all given brown, half torn sheets to wrap around our lower body like a sarong. Meanwhile, the custodians were using a wide-blade shovel to carry or often drag those white-hot stones inside the sweat lodge.
“Holy shit! That’s a big grandfather right there, bro,” one Native commented as a stone well over 100 lbs was dragged by us. Some had already gone inside the sweat lodge, but most were still trying to breathe as much fresh air they could before it started.
“Lets go in now. I want to get us a nice spot,” said L.B motioning for me to follow.
The Native American sweat lodge was a hut, dome-shaped and made with all-natural materials. Its interior was willow tree poles bent to form a dome, and was covered entirely with a thick burlap-like canvas. You either duck-walked or crawled to get inside its small opening, which is supposed to represent a mother’s womb.
“Mi taku Mase,” I greeted as everyone must upon entering, meaning: “All my relatives.”
The inside was dark and intensely hot. The light coming through the door allowed us to vaguely see each other still. The place could squeeze inside about 45 to 50 people. A pit of these raging hot grandfather stones was center, and people sat in circle of rows around the pit of stones.
L.B politely stepping between and over people led me to an area known as the “east”, which was opposite to the door. We sat all the way in the rear with two rows of people in front of us. All the rest of the people outside were now piling in as the proceedings were about to begin. Soon we were packed in knee-to-knee tight.
“Zulu, what’s up, dude. This is your first sweat?” A Native cat named Juice squeezed himself into a space on my left. He was a real cool guy I’d met through L.B. Juice was a Native from the Crow nation and he was in enemy territory. His people and the tribes of North Dakota were historical enemies and warred with each other like Bloods and Crips still to this day.
“Yeah, Juice, this is my first sweat.”
“Oh shit, L.B should have gotten you a seat near the door. I heard they brought in 60 grandfathers this sweat–it’s going to be a hot one, baby”
I know that L.B. most likely chose the east area for me because he knows I’m always searching for the east to pray to Allah, but I wanted to kick him for not making it as easy as possible for me. The custodians outside of the hut closed the cloth door shut, and they quickly made sure all sides of the bottom of the lodge were tucked tightly in. Total darkness! I could not even see my own hands.
Silence. Everyone got quiet. Then I heard a sizzling sound. One of the elder natives conducting the service started to dip a buffalo horn into a bucket of water and splashed it on those hot stones. The “grandfathers” raged, breathing out a burst of steam so fierce its vibration touched me like a blow-drier in my face!
Drumming. Someone started beating a drum, and led off with a Lakota song and—BAM! The place went savage wild with Indians shouting, screaming, and ululating just like in those absurd western movies I used to watch with my grandfather as a kid, every Saturday morning. They all, then, sung in harmony. Wow! I nearly panicked for a second there. I sort of foolishly thought the steam was smoke, and was taking short breaths.
Soon I relaxed and inhaled the pure steam. But the heat waves were very intense and my body poured with sweat. My friend L.B I could hear to my right sing the Lakota songs at the top of his lungs. It wasn’t until that moment I fully appreciated how much of a traditional Indian my urban cowboy comrade really was inside. After a while, I decided to make “Dhikr” (an Islamic form of devotion in which the worshipper is absorbed in rhythmic repetition of glorifying Allah) and soon fell into a blissful trance. The drum stopped beating and the singing ceased. A custodian on the outside flipped back the burlap cloth door. This was only the first round of four. A few people who had trouble breathing crawled out to catch their breath before the next round started. The elder leading the service admonished us to remain strong and if possible not to step outside, because it breaks the spiritual union or circle. He told us to remember we were suffering so that we could purify ourselves and our prayers be answered.
The door was closed shut and the darkness consumed us, water was tossed from the bull horn, the grandfathers raged and the place went wild again. This time the heat and the people were even more intensified. I had to control my instincts more so. I could barely stand the heat and I thought I’d drown in my own sweat. Suddenly some water splashed in my face. The guy with the bull horn was tossing water all over us, now trying to cool us off. It was just what I needed at the right time. I began doing more “Dhikr” and found myself being ecstatic. This ritual of spiritual purification of the Native Americans is very warrior based and I love it.
When the final fourth round was over, the famous peace pipe was passed around. When L.B’s turn came he took hold of the two-foot long sculptured wooden pipe and drew four strong pulls, fanned the tobacco smoke back towards his own face as he exhaled. He passed it to me and I followed suit, then passed it to Juice and it went around. A sort of testimonial was held in which people randomly spoke up asking people to pray for sick or unfortunate family members, or they would say a few words of praise to the Great Spirit or One God they called Takinsila. L.B spoke up, and praised Takinsila, then thanked me for joining him at the event and also congratulated me for never once breaking the circle. Clockwise we all exited the hut. Each man gave a hug to those who stepped out ahead of him, then stood in line to greet the next man coming out.
By the time I emerged, there was a long line of men waiting to embrace me, many of whom I’d never spoken to out on the prison yard were now smiling at me, hugging me, and calling me “brother”. They thanked me for coming. I felt welcomed and none of the hostility that had poisoned their people and mine was present that day.
Drenched in sweat and exhausted yet refreshed, it was quite a bonding experience for my friend and me. Getting dressed we accidentally put on the other’s khaki pants. I was the first to realize it: “You’ve got your sweaty nuts in my pants, you fool.” I told Looking Back. Smiling, he said: “We true brothers, now, bro.”
“Fuck you, you wild Indian.” He laughed, and told all his Native brothers. I’m not sure if or when the relations between these groups will improve, but there is no way I’ll ever let our true enemy off the hook, by hating on another oppressed people.