"Sweatlodge is a person, a great person" Going Native by Tom Harmer story told by Margaret Sisencha


" A story, auntie."

" Our church is older than time," she said in a high, deep voice. The children fell silent. Margaret glanced to see that the adults were listening. Elaine said, "Aaaa."

"We call that Kwilsten. Sweatlodge. Sweatlodge is a person, a great person."

"Aaaa."

K'saaaa'pi, long, long ago, what we call Sweatlodge, way back. He was Xa'xa Iyilmehum, chief of the spirits. This is the way it happened.

Spirit chief called all the Animal People together, they had a big council, and he says to them, A change is coming. A new kind of people is coming."

The Animal People were the original people of this land. People like us, but they were the spirits of all the animals and plants and nature powers we see now. And some that are gone. You can see they were people like us, but also like animals. And they've been sensing this change coming for a long time. This council is called by the Oldest One ,that chief. They are called together to decide what their names will be and how they will behave in the time that's coming. He says, " Come back here at first light."

Some people there were angry. They didn't want this change that was coming. They didn't want to help these weak humans that were going to people the earth. The went away, didn't want to have no part in it. Said, "They will be our food! We'll hunt and eat those new people." That's why we call then en'ahlna'skeluxtin, people eaters.

To those who stayed, he said, "Come at first light and choose your names. The first to show up may choose any name. The next and the next, any name you want until all are taken. And each one will have a power."

So they all went to where they are camping around the home of the Chief. Talking about what he said. Coyote, that Imitator, Sin'kalip, he says, "I'm gonna be he first! I'm gonna get there first, before anybody. And choose first."

Coyote wants a powerful name. "I will be Grizzly Bear! or Eagle! or Salmon!" Everybody gets tired of hum strutting around, bragging what name he will be.

Pretty soon he's the last one still awake, he's talkin' to himself. He's still awake, sitting at his fire, but he's getting drowsy. It's late and he plans to stay awake all night, so he can be sure to show up first. His wife is asleep, his kids are asleep and he's talking to himself, trying to stay awake. Pretty soon he's falling to sleep any way, he can't stay awake. Doesn't even know it.

Jerk's awake! "Oh my! I'm gonna fall asleep if I don't do something about it." So he feels around in his firewood, he finds two sticks just the size to prop open his eyelids. He sticks them in, they fit just fine to hold his eyes open. He's staring at the fire now.

"Now. I won't all asleep!" he says. But you know , soon he is sound asleep with his eyes still open. Propped open by those toothpicks! Snoring with his eyes wide open!

(We were all laughing as Margaret paused to sip from her glass of water. Even Larry and his youngest daughter, who had been drifting off like Coyote. The two older girls, twins with matching Minnie Mouse T-shirts and blue yarn ties on the end of their braids, had been listening in silent wonder. and I could see the growing curiosity and understanding in the wide gaze of their eyes.)

Well, so---morning came. The sun's already high in the sky. It's late morning and Coyote finally wakes up.

He leaps up and runs to the Chief's camp. Nobody is there but the Spirit Chief, sitting there all alone.

And Coyote is so groggy, his eyes dried out, like sandpaper, from being held open all night with sticks. He blinks. Nobody else is there, so he laughs. He steps inside.

"I will be Grizzley Bear!" he says, "I will be the strongest of all the animals!" And Spirit Chief says," That name is taken." "I will be Eagle. The new people to come will want my feathers to pray with." "That name is also taken." Coyote, he's faltering now. Knees buckling. He's beginning to see he's late. So, in a quieter voice, " I will be Salmon, the greatest of all of the swimmers." "All the names are taken, all but one. There is only one left. Nobody wanted your name, Coyote." He drops down by the Chief's fire, just pitiful. His eyes so dry, he can't even cry. "Coyote, you keep your name. That's the way it's supposed to be. I wanted you to be the last one here, so you slept late. Imitator is a good name for the work I have for you to do. You will have a special job to prepare the world for the new people coming, and they will remember you as a chief for what you do. Iyilmehum put something in Coyote's eyes, make them heal up so he can see real good again. But they are still slant eyes from those sticks, like they are today. Slant eyes, knowing he's got a big job to do. "Your job, to stop those people-eaters killing the new people and make the world a good place for them to live in." And he gave him a power, like he gave all the Animal People who came before him. A medicine power. When all those Animal People came for their names at first light, he pointed at their heart and put in them their power, what they got, what they can do and be. What they're going to help the new people with. And some of them, like Bear and Deer and Salmon, offered their bodies as food in return for respectful treatment. He pointed to Coyote's heart, but Coyote thinks he's pointing to his guts. He thinks his power is in his guts! He'll have to grunt and poop out his power to make his medicine, to talk to his medicine power lying on the ground. That Coyote, he got it wrong, but that is how he had to do it after that. So, this special power he got, nobody klse got. Just him. Chief tells him." This is to make your work go easy. If you need help, you can't figure out what to do, call on your power. You can change into just anything you want, be any shape. This is so you can rid the world of those monsters, and so you can make things good for the new people." So that Chief he's done. He tells all those Animal People, those Chip'cchaptik'xwul, "These new people, they're pretty weak. They don't know anything, how to live. Can't hardly live. So now, when they send their kids out alone, send them into the bush, to the lonely places, you wait for them. You be there and talk to them. Maybe on a mountain top or on the shore of a lake, you be waiting when they come. Tell them what they're going to do when they grow up. Be ready for them so you can give them your power, give them your help in life. " Tell them how they can find things easy. Like to be a good hunter, good fisherman, good gambler. The good root digger, good basket maker, good seamstress. Tell them how when thy have trouble in life, they can call on you. That you will help them all their life." He said all this to the Animal People. And it's still like that today. And he says, "When the new time comes, I will take pity on the new people. I will turn myself into Sweatlodge. I will exist for the benefit of the new people. I'll have no body, no head, no hands or feet. I'll be who they set up with willow and covers, Sweatlodge. They can make me so they can sweat and purify. Clean off real good. Pray for what they want, what they need. When they build me and go in to pray, I'll take pity on them, whoever sets me up to do that. I'll give them what they ask. "This is how they can come to me in the world to come. Say maybe they're sick, or hurt bad, or things are going bad. they can come to me and I'll know it, I'll give them what they ask for. Maybe they're going to die and they make me to help for what's going to happen. I'll help them. Show them what's coming, the next world. Maybe they'll be starting off to do something, go hunt for meat, or go off to war, or take a long trip, or take final exams. So they can make me and I will help them. "That's what I'll be. Sweatlodge. Kwilsten, they'll call me. In the new time I'll be there for the good of the human people." So that's how it came to be. Coyote, because he changed things to the way they are, he said how people had to sweat. He made the rules. And to this day we make him, build him. And go inside to pray. Sing special songs to Sweatlodge, because he is Xa'xa Iyilmehum who did that for us. We know he hears us and he helps us. That's how we know how to live. This was done for us. And so we have this good way to live. I went so far away telling this story. Now I come back.

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