In the center of the circle is a well-used fire pit where the ancient spiritual songs are remembered and the purification rituals relived. The leader asks if anyone is here for the first time. He says the medicine circle has no beginning, no end; he speaks of unity and the importance of the Four Directions; of Grandfather, creator God and the earth, our Grandmother. He continues speaking quietly about the lodge as a womb: the darkness, the heat; a ritual of purification going back to connect us with Grandfather and Grandmother. He tells of the stones that will be brought in; the stone people our ancestors.
The ceremonial pipe is lit and passed; the stone tender brings hot stones to place in the pit, the leader scatters Sweet grass on the stones and the scent and wisps of smoke fill the lodge. The door of the lodge is closed now, the blankets pulled down over the entrance. Darkness surrounds us; care is taken that no light is visible during the ceremony. Whether eyes are open or closed will not matter. In the darkness there are sounds of the ladle being dipped into the pail, then water being poured upon the rocks. The heat intense, increasing envelops the body in waves. The hiss of steam fills the senses. There is nowhere to stand up, no place to move. The singing of a spirit song; the steam and heat penetrate the darkness. I hear gasps for breath. Inside, deep within me, I feel the grip of fear with a sudden, desperate urge to escape. I steady myself. More steam. Familiar habits, techniques for dealing with fear of being trapped, don't work now. The senses are bombarded with intensity. My nostrils and eyes, my mouth and ears, are filled with steam and heat. I feel the moisture dripping from my body as the lodge fills with the rhythm of the chant. I hear others around me join in an easy, high-pitched wailing song.
The makeshift door of blankets is thrown open. Cool air and light surround us. No sense of hurry or time here; five minutes pass, ten. More stones are brought in. The fire tender closes the door. Once again, we are surrounded by darkness. The second round begins. "Grandfather, have pity on us top-legged creatures." There is more steam and heat; the boundaries of time and space begin to collapse. I hear petitions of thanksgiving, prayers for family, for the fish of the rivers. The heat becomes more intense. I give up control; I let the chanting of the ancient songs carry what is left of my consciousness.