Outside magazine, December 1995
Even though it implies a spiritual linkage that I'm reluctant to acknowledge, any explanation of why I attended a sweat lodge ceremony on the Yavapai Apache reservation and how I was called upon to rescue an artifact sacred to the Crow tribe must begin a little before Christmas a few years ago in Sedona, Arizona, a town whose lunatic center blends seamlessly with America's lunatic fringe.
Sedona is the hub of New Age geomancy and crystal spiritualism. A thriving tourist industry has developed around the belief that the town lies on or near ten major "vortices," which are said to be the focal points of Earth's electromagnetic energies. These vortices attract extraterrestrials who arrive via UFO to refuel on telluric energy as well as spacey terrestrials who come to spend hard cash at the New Age bookstores, crystal fitters, and pyramid palaces.
Nearly every person I met was quick to tell me that he or she was part Indian. I met part Lakotas, part Apaches, part Hopis, nearly all of whom looked like the descendants of Ward and June Cleaver, except for one who looked Italian. That's how I came to be sitting with a man called Pat the Storyteller. Pat could have passed for Indian. He made his living telling indigenous American stories, but he didn't hesitate to tell me that he wasn't Indian--refreshing honesty after a couple of days in Sedona.
"You're skeptical," Pat said.
I thought he was talking about the New Age Indians. "I'd sooner believe in Santa Claus," I said.
"No," he said. "I mean you're skeptical of Sedona."
"You bet. But only because I'm so open-minded."
It was Pat the Storyteller who suggested that I participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. I was reluctant. I had already paid for a "life reading," in which I was told that I had been a medieval monk in a previous life. I had also paid to listen to Swiss vocalists sing the microtonal music of extraterrestrials.
I'd seen the ads for sweat lodge shows--100 to 500 bucks per person--and I was repelled by the notion of tossing anything else down Sedona's metaphysical money hole. I told Pat, "There's a sauna at my hotel. Plenty of seats, no waiting."
Pat said, "I'm not talking about a commercial sweat lodge. There's a man I know. I'll tell him about you. If he says it's OK, will you come?"
I asked how much it would cost. That made Pat wince. He said the only charge would be an offering of tobacco. I held up a can of Copenhagen snuff. "Will this be OK?"
The man's name was Dean Fallsdown, A Crow medicine man from Montana who now lived in a Yavapai Apache housing project in Arizona's Verde Valley, an hour's drive from Sedona. I arrived just before sunset to find Dean and four local men standing behind a concrete-block house, tending a massive fire. Near the fire was a beehive-shaped hut covered with tarps. I approached feeling so out of place that I began to regret imposing. But Dean, a wide-bodied man with onyx eyes, accepted my gift of tobacco gracefully, and he and the others made me feel welcome. Not that anyone said much. We sat and watched the fire--there were logs in there the size of railroad ties--and, when the sun was gone, Dean said, "We'll begin now."
He dug glowing rocks, 44 of them, from the fire pit and transferred them to the lodge. Then we stripped our clothes off and crawled in, moving counterclockwise on our knees beneath the low tarp ceiling. Dean was the last to enter. When he pulled the flap closed, the rocks provided an eerie, molten candescence. Five gilded faces, disembodied by darkness, were suspended in the weak light. Dean had a bucket of water and a dipper. He filled the dipper and emptied it onto the rocks four times, and an astonishing heat filled that tiny place.
I didn't know it at the time, but this was the beginning of what Fallsdown called a "doctoring" sweat. This doctoring sweat was conducted in response to an individual's request for spiritual help, and it had several distinctive elements--the most important, to a nonbeliever, being that it was the hottest of all the sweat lodge ceremonies and seemed to go on forever.
I sat cross-legged in my space, struggling to breathe, while the others participated. I will not relate what was said--it was private and personal. I will relate that just before Dean spoke a final prayer and threw open the door, I felt a real possibility that I might faint. I crawled with the others into the cool night and collapsed on my back beneath an Arizona starscape as bright as December snow. Dean sat nearby, smiling.
"Pretty hot in there, huh?" he said.
"I feel soft as an eggplant."
"The next few rounds," he said, "you'll get used to it."
I sat up. The next few rounds? Lord, did he mean we had to go back in?
The second round was longer--and hotter. Dean poured seven dippers of water onto the stones. For the third round, he poured ten. I didn't get used to the heat, but I did discover that by hunkering low I could find pockets of breathable air close to the floor. We had been given branches of sage to whip impurities from our skin. I began to lash myself enthusiastically--anything to divert my attention from the sensation of being parboiled.
During the break before the final round, Dean surprised me by announcing, "Randy will say the last prayer." This torpedoed all the careful excuses I had devised for leaving early ("Sorry boys, I've got a date with a Swiss soprano in Sedona. Gotta run!") and obligated me not only to endure the hottest of the four sweats but also to find the strength to speak coherently at the end.
I would later learn that every element of the sweat lodge is symbolic, from the number of stones in the pit to the flow of conversation to the number of dippers poured. Dean began by saying that he would now pour four dippers--"Like the first round, because our prayers are endless"--but then invited every man in the lodge to request additional dippers. One man requested three, another five. I'm not sure what the final total was, but I remember thinking that Dean could have saved some time by just dumping the whole bucket.
I flattened myself on the skin floor, one hand over my mouth in an attempt to filter out the steam. I marveled at the endurance of the other men. Their words reassured me, in the way the song of canaries once reassured miners. I tracked the course of voices as they moved toward me. Soon it would be my turn. I had been taking tiny bites of air, just enough to remain conscious. Experimentally, I took a deeper breath--and began to cough. I whacked my chest into submission with a sage branch.
It seemed as if a slow hour passed, and then there was silence. The other men, I realized, were awaiting my first words. I opened my mouth to speak...choked... tried to speak again, and finally a desperate sentence exited in a whispery rush: "God-bless-all-the-children-and-please-make-Dean-open-the-door."
It was not eloquent, but it was heartfelt, and God granted half of my request immediately. I went charging out into the darkness and threw myself onto the ground. When I was able, I apologized to Dean for the brevity of my prayer. "I just couldn't take it anymore," I told him. "I was close to passing out."
Dean told me, "That's OK. Somebody had to say open the darn door."
My sweat lodge experience did not seem to be transcendent; there was nothing mystical about it, or so I believed. Yet it was a gratifying experience beyond all expectation. Everything said within the lodge was touchingly honest. Dean Fallsdown and the other men involved were without pretense. They had problems, as we all do, and the sweat lodge provided a format of confidentiality in which those problems could be discussed. There was no hint of ponderous spirituality, no taint of starved egos, the catalyst of all that is sanctimonious. Afterward we lay around, gulping water, talking. I remember that we laughed a lot. Before leaving, we made the promise that all newly met people make: We'd stay in touch.
Surprisingly, Dean Fallsdown did stay in touch. A couple of times a year, I'd pick up the phone to hear, "Hey, Randy, it's Dean," a greeting that would cause me a few seconds of confusion as I tried to decipher who Dean was. Once, coincidentally, he called when I was struggling to decide what to do with some prehistoric Indian artifacts that had come into my possession. He offered advice, a portion of which seemed peculiar--"You need to wrap them in a red cloth"--but I followed his recommendations. Another time he called and invited me to attend a sun dance in Montana: four days without food or water, seeking visions. "You're asking me to write about it?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I'm asking if you want to participate."
The offer was made so casually that he might have been asking me to go on a hike. I wanted to accept, but as a beverage-loving pragmatist I let my common sense rule. I declined. Even so, I wondered why Dean would offer to include me in what clearly was an important tribal ceremony.
He seemed as mystified by my question as I was by his invitation. "For the same reason you came to the sweat lodge," he said, as if it were obvious.
Slightly more than a year ago, Dean called again--this time with a favor to ask. Something had been taken from his tribe, he said, and he had reason to believe that it was in Florida, my home state. "It's one of the Little People," he said, and went on to explain that the Little People lived in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana.
"You mean it's a statue?" I asked.
"No. They're people. My grandfather had one in his possession, but he passed it along to another family member, and it disappeared. They're very rare and very powerful, these Little People."
My questions became more delicate. Dean was a believer; I didn't want to risk offending him. But to help, I needed to know what the thing looked like.
"It's hard to describe on the phone," Dean said. "It's made of flesh. It's about 18 inches tall, with a face and a body, and it weighs 12 to 15 pounds."
Then it was made of stone, I suggested.
"No, no," Dean said. "It's human. But it might appear to be made of stone. We're pretty sure that somebody in Florida has it. One thing, Randy--if you find it, don't make eye contact with the Little Person, and don't have any conversations with it. That would be bad for you."
I asked when the Little Person had disappeared. Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, Dean said. I asked if he had any specific information about its location. He didn't. I reminded Dean that a lot can happen in 30 or 40 years and that there were now 14 million people living in Florida. Even so, I promised to find out what I could.
Over the next few weeks, I made a dozen or so calls. I spoke with archaeologists, members of historical societies, and several people rumored to be artifact collectors. I did not mention Little People who lived in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana. I described a stone or clay statue that had once belonged to the Crow tribe. No one with whom I spoke admitted they had ever heard of such an artifact.
I wasn't surprised. With so little information and so many years after its disappearance, no rational person could expect to find what Dean wanted me to find. I telephoned him with the bad news. Dean seemed surprised. "I felt like you were going to find it," he said.
Nearly six more months had passed when I answered the phone to hear, "Hey, Randy, it's Dean." I thought he might be calling to wish me season's greetings--could picture him sitting in his little house with the sweat lodge out back, not far from Sedona, where merchants were probably decorating their pyramids with tinsel and preparing to roast their holiday tofu. Dean said, "I'm calling to thank you."
"Thank me? For what?"
Dean explained that one of the artifact collectors I'd contacted--he mentioned the man's name and the town in which he lived--had telephoned Sonny Pretty on Top, the Crow tribe's director of cultural affairs, and offered to return the Little Person.
"I think the man got scared," Dean said. "The Little People are very powerful. I think this Little Person wanted his freedom. One of our medicine men met the man at the Denver airport, and now the Little Person is home again."
Dean was right; I had contacted the artifact collector in question. But how did Dean know? I hadn't told him the names of the people I had spoken with, nor had I mentioned Sonny Pretty on Top to any of them. Why had the collector called precisely the right person to make his offer?
This wasn't the first time I'd asked Dean Fallsdown, Crow medicine man, to explain. His response was the same.