I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of the Indian sweat lodges and some such things. Though I’ve never had any first hand accounts of the experience of anything like that, I’ve always wanted to. Last year one of the elders, Roger, invited me to maqii. A maqii is a small wooden building with 2 rooms. The larger room is the changing room, where you peel off your clothes and don your birthday suit.
The changing room also serves as a place to go if you need to escape the intense heat of the smaller room. A small wooden door will lead you into the room where you steam, where the stove is.
The first time I took a maqii, I could see the barrel stove glowing a faint dull red between the rocks and the bottom 3rd of the stove pipe also glowing that same color. As I sat cross-legged and naked on the plywood floor in this little room that is scarcely tall enough to sit up straight in, I began to rethink my decision as I watched a large pool of sweat growing in the floor around me. There were several of us taking maqii and as I reached my breaking point, Roger’s son John reached over and splashed a ladle of water over the rocks on the stove to create steam and 2-3 seconds later, the temperature of the room rose what felt like another 15-20 degrees. After John did that, everyone (except the white boy on fire in the corner) enjoyed it so much that he splashed again. And again. And again. It hurt to breathe, the heat singeing the back of my throat and the inside of my nostrils. I remember thinking to myself “They’re TRYING to make you leave. They wanna see how hot you can take it.” So I stayed. But after awhile, as thoughts of being dragged out unconscious, bare-ass naked and tossed in the snow outside while the village kids laughed and took pictures to post on FaceBook filled my imagination, I decided to go out and cool off.
I learned that this is the process; you stay as long as you can, sweating all the junk out of your body, then go out into the changing room and cool off. Once you’re cooled off and ready for more you go back and get your sweat on again, and keep doing this until the fire starts to die down. Then you go into the hot room with your washcloth, bodywash, shampoo, and get you a pan of water, then wash up. Once you’re all scrubbed up, just ladle water from your pan over yourself to rinse off. Go out and put on the fresh clothes you brought with you and that’s it, your done.
Traditionally the maqii is a social event. A time for people to gather together, visit, and tell stories. This was a way for a lot of people to bathe without using much firewood, as this isn’t easily available in the tundra. And since running water wasn’t available when everything was frozen, they could gather snow and ice in metal pans and bring it in the maqii to thaw while they took their steam. Also traditionally, the men and older boys would maqii together first. When the fire began to die down a bit, the women and girls would maqii together with the smaller children.
Now I have to say, that was the cleanest I ever remember feeling and I don’t remember a time that I slept as good. I woke up in the same spot I laid down in, blankets still straight; I don’t think I ever moved.
I hated that maqii so much that I’ve been back several times since and I’ve just gotten permission from the tribe and the native corporation to build my own maqii on the tundra behind our house. I told Essie that when I get it built, I’ll never shower again…..
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