This story was picked up by the Associated Press.
---By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
For many moons, the Native American sweat lodge has held great power.
'It puts you in touch with the Creator,' said Rafael 'Tall Bear' Montez of Belton, president of the Tribal American Network. 'You suffer the heat, you sweat and your spirit is cleansed. When it's done, negative thoughts are gone.'
The ritual works magic on the body too.
'You sweat the impurities out of your skin,' said Jane Lee of Moffat, who's married to Marcus, a member of the Tarahumara tribe. 'Your skin gets so soft, and if there's anything wrong with you, like an aching back or sore knee, you'll be over it by the time you get out of the lodge. The heat is so intense that your body releases all tension.'
A night of deep and easy sleep is a gift of the sweat lodge as well.
'Your soul is renewed,' Tall Bear said. 'Your spirit is purified, and you are at peace.'
That's why the Apache tribesman hosts monthly sweat lodges for area Native Americans and soldiers returning from war.
'The soldiers coming home, they have so much stress and pain,' Tall Bear said. 'This helps them to get rid of it and move on.'
For soldiers needing immediate spiritual relief, Tall Bear is on-call. He will conduct sweat ceremonies for them any time, day or night.
'Those lodges are private and personal,' Tall Bear said.
People who suffer from arthritis are also welcome to attend the sweat lodges.
'It helps,' Mrs. Lee said. 'They're often able to move around more easily after it's over.'
There will be no sweat lodge in July because Tall Bear and his friends will be attending a U.S. tribal reunion. But starting in August, the sweats will take place the first Saturday of the month on Tall Bear's property in Belton. For details, call 254-624-7206.
The June 12 sweat ceremony was not yet underway, but sweat poured from Marcus' face nonetheless. He was chopping the firewood.
When his work was finished, he lit a fire in a U-shaped pit of stone and brick. More than 30 melon-sized rocks started to sizzle in the flames.
The opening of the fire pit faced the inipi - the dome-shaped structure where the ceremony would take place. With a foundation of willow wood, it was covered with a hundred blankets.
'The covers are tucked underneath the wooden frame,' said the firekeeper, 15-year-old Nathan Nance of Belton. 'That way the air from the outside can't come in.'
At sunset, Tall Bear came outside dressed in a pair of swim trunks.
As leader of the sweat ceremony, his first task was to bless the fire, the inipi and the altar - a tall pole adorned with eagle feathers, the skull of a buffalo and the pelt of a bear. As he prayed, he spoke in his native Apache tongue.
'The feathers are there to pay tribute to the mighty spirit of the eagle,' Tall Bear explained later. 'And the buffalo is an honored animal. Many years ago our ancestors lived off the buffalo. They used the meat for food, the bones for tools and the skin for warmth.'
The bear skin on the altar was for Tall Bear.
'The bear is my spirit,' he said. 'It gives me my guidance and strength.'
An invisible line goes from the fire to the door of the inipi.
'Once it's blessed, you cannot break the line,' Tall Bear said. 'You must go around the inipi clockwise to enter or exit.'
After saying the initial prayers, Tall Bear called for the people waiting for the sweat ceremony. They formed a single-file line. They too had to be blessed.
All of them were prepared for the intense heat they were about to endure. Marcus had removed his shirt and put a bandanna on his brow. The women (Mrs. Lee, Linda Ellis of Moody, and Lorraine 'Standing Seals' Sark Therrien of Nolanville, an Indian of the Canadian MicMac tribe) wore loose cotton gowns.
To bless his guests, Tall Bear prayed to the Creator and used an eagle feather to sprinkle sage on them.
'The sage wards off bad spirits,' Tall Bear said. 'You've got to have a clear mind when you enter the inipi. All negative energy must be left behind.'
'And if you're ticked off, you've got to leave that behind too,' Mrs. Lee said.
So with the blessing, each person knelt to enter the inipi. They crawled to their seats.
When Tall Bear joined them, the ceremony began.
Marcus beat a drum, and Tall Bear chanted. Everyone else was silent; a few bowed their heads.
Then Tall Bear called for seven rocks from the firekeeper. Nance brought them over one by one on a pitchfork.
'There shall be seven rocks this round,' Tall Bear said. 'One for the Creator, one for Mother Earth, one for humanity and one for each of the spirits of the four directions that guide us.'
Marcus was the rock receiver. He used a pair of deer antlers to take each rock and place it in the center pit of the inipi.
As is custom, Tall Bear blessed the rocks by touching them with the chanupa, saying 'Ho' and sprinkling them with the kopal powder.
Kopal is a mixture of lavender, dried tree sap, bay leaf, basil and mint that Tall Bear crushed with his teeth. For the first few seconds it touched the rocks' surface, the kopal sparkled in a gold prism.
Once the seven stones were in place, the firekeeper closed the door to the inipi. Darkness came and Tall Bear spoke, 'This not about endurance; this is about prayer. There's no shame if you can't stand the heat. If you choose to leave, the rest of us will endure the heat for you.'
As the leader, it is Tall Bear's duty to stay in the inipi for the entirety of the sweat ceremony, regardless of how many people leave.
'So let us begin,' Tall Bear said. 'Creator, we thank you for life, living things and family. We pray for health and wellness. Thank you for bringing us together.'
He shouted, 'Mini,' and the firekeeper opened the front flap and presented a bucket of water and ladle.
Tall Bear poured a ladle-full of water over the smoldering rocks, and a hot, heavy blanket of humidity took control of the air.
Some covered their noses with towels to prevent the inhalation of dust. But that didn't sully the effect. The sweet scents of the kopal filled the inipi, sinuses were cleared, bodies went limp and sweat came from every pore of every body.
There were several minutes of silence, and then Tall Bear called for the start of the second of prayer - the 'Round of Suffering.'
'Firekeeper,' he hollered, 'Five more rocks.'
There was a brief break from the heat, for a light breeze blew when the door opened. But it was short-lived.
The extra rocks seemed to double the heat, and Mrs. Lee had reached her limit.
'All my relations,' she said as she crawled over Tall Bear into the world of fresh air. The phrase is customary for people to say upon exiting. It's a farewell and an offering of thanks to those who remain.
After she left, Tall Bear called for water and doused the rocks again. The hot fog returned.
'Now we pray for those at war, we pray for those who are ill, those stuck in comas,' he said. 'We ask that you give us their pain, so that we may suffer it for them. We ask Creator to give them understanding of peace.'
He then said a similar prayer for his guests and their families, emphasizing the plights of stress and depression.
And that segued into the third round of prayer with the command for more rocks, four this time. The participants - only half-jokingly - were begging for less, but Tall Bear showed no lenience.
In this round, each person was welcome to say a prayer, aloud or in silence. Those who spoke prayed for relaxation, health and help with burdens. The phrase, 'All my relations,' ended each person's prayer.
'This round is the most personal,' Tall Bear said. 'There is no discussion, before or after the sweat lodge, about what is prayed for. It stays in the inipi.'
In some ways, that makes the third round the most beneficial.
'Because that's when the heart can let go,' Tall Bear said. 'It is a time of release, solidarity and freedom. It is sacred.'
Toward the end of the third round, Ms. Ellis had to leave. She was panting as she exited, but she was grateful to have been able to participate.
That left five people to complete the ceremony. Four rocks from the fire were brought in to launch the fourth and final round of prayer. And this time, to the relief of the group, Tall Bear called for small rocks.
'We have guests here today who are doing very well,' Tall Bear said. 'But as it is their first time, we will not have full heat. The rocks shall be small, and the door will be left open.'
(Warrior sweats, by contrast, know no such kindness. More than 30 fire-seared rocks are used in those ceremonies, and the relief of fresh air comes only at the end.)
The rocks were doused with water, the sweat poured fourth and Tall Bear said the final prayer.
'Thank you Grandfather Creator for the energy that connects all living things together,' he said. 'We cannot live without it, and we thank the spirits for all their guidance and strength.'
Night well on its way, the ceremony was complete. Tall Bear splashed everyone with water as they rose to leave. It was a surprise burst of cool.
Traditional sweat ceremonies conclude with the the passing of the ceremonial chanupa, or peace.
'It contains the kopal and a nicotine-free tobacco,' Tall Bear said.
Sitting in a circle, everyone smokes from the pipe, even those who had to leave the inipi early.
'The pipe goes clockwise,' Tall Bear said.
To the guests who experienced the sweat ceremony for the first time, Tall Bear said they were now a part of his family.
'You are one of us now,' Tall Bear said. 'You are strangers no longer, and you are welcome to join us in the ceremonial feast where we will eat and laugh as a family.'
A long sip of ice water started the feast of chicken and fruit.
'A bite of everything we eat goes to the fire,' Marcus said. 'It's a sacrifice to the great spirits.'
And it's a show of faith.
'The Creator has a way for everything,' Tall Bear said 'You only have to ask.'