Sweat House

Eleven, that’s the age Sandy Sanderson invited me to partake in a ‘sweat-house ceremony.’ At first, I wasn’t going to do it, fearful that I was about find myself in a position to have to endure more teasing than I was already going through at the time.

But unlike other times when I felt frightened and uncertain, I asked Sandy, “Why me?”

He smiled, “Because you’re a good kid, on your way to being a good man. And you need this.”

Admittedly, I didn’t fully understand what he was saying, but I heard the compliment, so I was willing to go and see what this ceremony was all about. Saturday morning couldn’t arrive soon enough.

Up at 3:30, I met Sandy out front of our house. I’d never been up that early before; five in the morning to go fishing – yes — but never that early.

Initially, I figured we’d go to the sweat-house overlooking the Klamath River and sit inside it until we began sweating. Wrong; I learned quickly that we sat near a fire, that once it died down, water was poured on the rocks buried among the embers, creating a steam that engulfed us so completely that we couldn’t see each other.

Once the steam evaporated, more wood was added to the fire, to heat the rocks and we’d rush out and jump in the river to cool off. Then the entire process would be repeated.

This is where I first met Merkey Oliver. He wasn’t real happy having a ‘white Man’s child’ on ‘sacred ground.’ Sandy was able to calm his ‘anger’ reminding him that I was an invited guest and that he ought to treat me as such.

It was like ‘day’ from ‘night’ as Merkey agreed, even taking me under his wing encouraging me to hang in long as I could after I started to feel sick from the heat, the humidity and the sweating. “That’s all that white-man’s poison coming out of you, boy,” he stated in his most serious tone.

That was about the time the south bank of the Klamath became visible. By then, the men were chanting and singing and I had no idea what was being said.

When I asked, Sandy told me not to worry about the singing and chanting as they were speaking with ‘their God.’ He told me to make a mental picture of ‘your God,’ in my head and think on that.

I did.

We wrapped up about seven that morning with one more lengthy dip in the Klamath. I swore I would never do it again, but twice more Sandy invited me and twice more I went and enjoyed the sweat-lodge.

Sandy left us in my 13th year, shortly after basketball season started. One of the last things I recall him saying, “Basketball isn’t your thing. Stick to running. It has more meaning.”

(I knew Sandy was right about basketball, I couldn’t even hit the back board with the ball. Running, especially sprinting, on the other hand…)

After his passing, I would learn from Merkey (I had to ask him of course, he would never have volunteered it) why Sandy would think running had meaning. “Someone who runs is usually enlisted as a messenger and can be trusted to deliver the message and to keep it secret.”

How I wish I could return one last time to the place of my youth. I’d walk the old trails, wade in the creek, lay in the grasses of the pasture and the field across from my childhood home and I’d want to visit the sweat house on the Klamath.


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