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Hidden Religions: Native Americans Practice Ancient Rituals In Modern Backyards

A recent study shows that the Pacific Northwest is no longer the least-religious region in the United States. That title now belongs to Northern New England.

In the Northwest, many religions thrive without attracting much attention. In fact, in many modern-day backyards people still practice the ancient Native American ritual of stepping inside sweat lodges.

If longhouses are cathedrals, then sweat lodges are chapels – they are places to pray and renew oneself.

Armand Minthorn is the spiritual leader of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Oregon.

Armand Minthorn:  “It’s a tradition that was shown to our people a long, long time ago. And it’s still the same purposes of praying and discipline and to clean ourselves. So it’s going to be here for a very long time.”

Correspondent Anna King is producing an occasional series on hidden religions in the Northwest. For her second installment in that series, she visited the Umatilla Reservation and stepped into the heat with native women.

Three middle-aged Native American women shuffle across a well manicured lawn outside of Pendleton. They lead me through a squeaking gate into an area surrounded by a tall wooden fence. There’s a roaring fire inside.

Here, the men heat river rocks for the ladies’ sweat almost every Wednesday night. They’ve gone back in the house now. So, outside in the dim light of oil lamps and candles, we women undress and throw our clothes over folding lawn chairs.

The first step is an ice-cold bath. One-by-one each woman gets into an antique clawfoot tub. Then it’s my turn.

Anna King: “OK I am about to douse myself with a bucket of cold water. Whoa! Yeah that’s cold!”

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The sweat house is like a low-domed camping tent. Its frame is made of young saplings. It’s covered in gunnysacks and heavy blankets to keep in the heat. The women hold back the door flap and I crawl in on my hands and knees.

Anna King: “It smells really good in here. It smells like medicine. It’s piney kind of.”

We sit knee-to-knee in the pitch dark. It’s hot. And at first I think, ‘This is bearable.’ I’m wrong. Linda Jones, the woman who brought me here, pours water on the hot rocks.

The steam rolls over us in blasting waves. It feels like two hands are pressing hard on my chest. I feel claustrophobic. While I talk myself down, the other women calmly exfoliate themselves with little scratchy pads.

Steaming in this hot, wet air that smells of herbs and earth is more than a religious ritual – its medicine to Native Americans. They come here when their bodies hurt. They come here when their souls hurt.

Like when Linda Jones’s mother died ten years ago. Following tradition, Jones and her siblings sweated together for seven mornings in a row. First the brothers and then the sisters. Jones says as adults that easy rapport they had as little children had grown thin.

Linda Jones: “We were able to sit around and visit and laugh, even though it was sad, we joked and teased around. It made that transition easier. You didn’t feel alone.”

Some people sing in the sweat lodge. Others pray. These women prefer to talk.

It’s a big effort to build sweat. The rocks are from Hood River, Oregon. The wood was chopped in the Blue Mountains. That piney smell comes from a medicine bag filled with roots. Maureen Minthorn says she had to pester her father to go out and get these roots. He said just drive 23 miles up a mountain gravel road.

Maureen Minthorn: “I said well how will I know? How will I know which one? He says, ‘You’ll know. The minute you put that shovel in the dirt and you turn that shovel over you’ll smell it and you’ll know.’ I was so frustrated, I thought goooowww. But I got in my car and I got on the interstate, and I did just what he told me to do, in 23 miles there was a meadow, I stuck my shovel in the dirt and it was just like he said. The minute I turned that shovel I could smell the medicine.”

Columbia River Native Americans call the sweat lodge poosha, or old man. In fact, you have to call out to the old man when you leave.

These women say they started sweating at a very young age. Back then they didn’t have indoor plumbing. So it was how they bathed.

But today, like everyone else, Indians live a fast-paced life. For many, sweat lodges are no longer important. But others are keeping the tradition alive in the Pacific Northwest. And not just on reservations. Sweat lodges are steaming away even in Portland and Seattle backyards. Other city-dwelling Indians just turn up the heat in their gyms’ saunas.

After more water was thrown on the rocks I needed a break. So I called out to the old man.

Anna King: “OK ummm. I’ll be back, but I need to go out. So old man, whooooooo!”

I step into the cool night air. Steam pours off my body. I feel dizzy, relaxed and calm. Time for some more cold water in the tub. Then back into the heat for another sweat and more stories.