The Lakota Sioux sweat lodge

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

Eighteen years ago, I jumped at the opportunity to chaperone our church youth group to the Crow Creek Reservation in Fort Thompson, South Dakota. Our mission was to tackle several “‘repair, rebuild and paint” projects for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.

At night, we headed 10 miles north to the Crow Creek Tribal School in the village of Stephan. Some students traveled a considerable distance to attend the tribal school. There were dormitories there where the students could live during the school season.

During the summer, the dorms were empty. That’s where we stayed during our work trip.

The adults were there to lead the work groups and supervise each project, but it was expected that the kids would do most of the physical work. Kim, our youth minister, along with Randy Mabry and I each had a team of teenagers to supervise.

Having two Randys on the trip it could get a little confusing. The kids solved that by making Randy Mabry “Randy.” They decided that they would use my first and last name as just a single name – “Randyriley.”

They’re adults now, but some of those young people still call me Randyriley.

It was a fulfilling experience — working with the youth, working with the Sioux tribe members and working with Randy Mabry and his two sons, Luke and Zeb.

We divided our large group into three smaller groups. That way, we could tackle more than one project at a time.

One group worked on renovating a youth center. We also did some painting on a VFW center and some repair and painting of an old country church.

We left our dorms each morning clean, rested and ready to tackle the day. We returned sweaty, dirty, tired and covered with paint.

I was very proud of our youth group. They really demonstrated Christian action.

As a reward to us for our help at the reservation, members of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe offered to host us one evening at a traditional Sioux sweat lodge ceremony. We readily accepted their offer.

That afternoon, we were driven as a group away from the town, away from paved roads and powerlines. We stopped in a very remote spot. There were some scrubby trees and brush, but little else.

We walked a short distance to a large, well-worn circle in the earth. In the center of the circle was a tall, sacred tree that had been cut and erected in the ground for ceremonial purposes. Several smaller posts encircled the ceremonial area.

It reminded me of a large sundial. That area was used for the Sioux Sun Dance ceremony.

The Sun Dance is an emotional, exhausting, painful experience for any young man who participated. It is performed to please the Sioux sun god, Wakantanka.

The young men have the skin on their chest punctured. Leather thongs are attached. The dance ends when their flesh is torn. It is a brutal ceremony.

A short distance from the Sun Dance circle was a low, tent-like structure. It was covered with many layers of thick animal skins. The natives call it an Inipi. It is the ceremonial Sioux sweat lodge.

Just outside the entrance was a large fire. Within the heat and flames of the fire were many large stones. To enter the Inipi, a large animal hide was pulled aside to reveal a small opening. You had to stoop low to enter the Inipi.

The only light entering came in through the door. It was very, very dark inside, but we weren’t there to observe. We were there to participate in the purification ritual that is the Sioux sweat lodge ceremony.

Randy Mabry and I sat with many other people in a large circle around the empty firepit. Zeb sat in front of his Dad. Luke, my godson, sat in front of me.

Unknown to anyone there, Randy was worried. His son had a long history of breathing problems. Randy was concerned about how the steam and heat might affect his son.

Just before the super-heated stones were brought into fire circle of the Inipi, one of the Sioux leaders leaned over to Randy, placed a hand gently on his leg and said, “You have no need to worry. Everything will be fine.”

There was no way he could have known of Randy’s fear.

The opening was closed. There was no light entering the Inipi. The stones glowed faintly red in the darkness.

As water was poured over the hot stones, steam filled the small structure. The heat was immediate. Sweat poured from our bodies. We breathed in through our noses to lessen the impact of the heat, but it was hot.

Near the inside wall of the Inipi, members of the tribe beat on native drums and chanted. The impact of the steam, the heat and the drums were amazing.

The realization that one of the tribe-members knew of Randy’s concerns and could reassure us before the ceremony started was simply overwhelming.

We went to South Dakota to help. We wanted to bring them some help with their projects. We wanted to demonstrate the love of Christ.

In the end, they showed us the joy of helping others and they shared a miracle of faith and love.

It is clear that God loves all his children – regardless of where they come from.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist