WESTMINSTER — Fred Wahpepah pulled the blanket over the entrance of the igloolike structure, picked up a drum and began rapping -- echoing, he said, the beating of our hearts and Mother Earth.
So began an American Indian ritual: the sweat lodge.
Some 40 people, primarily Western Maryland College students and religious studies instructors, assembled under gray skies and against a cold wind Friday to take part in a ritual nearly as old as man.
"It's a spiritual event," said Wahpepah, a Kickapoo and Sac and Fox Indian who conducts such ceremonies across the nation. "It's somethingthat's happening all across the U.S. There's a lot of interest in Native American culture and our interaction with Mother Earth."
Wahpepah, who is 61 but looks a decade or two younger, described the sweat lodge as a "physical, mental and spiritual experience" that restores harmony and balance in one's personal life, one's communal life andin the universe.
"All our genes are connected to the Earth," he explained before the ceremony began. "At one time, all ethnic groups conducted similar rituals."
The ritual actually began the day before, when religious studies students cut saplings to construct the sweat lodge and gathered wood for a fire that would be used to heat rocks-- known to the Indians as "the stone people," our oldest ancestors.
Later that day, students used some three dozen blankets to cover the lodge frame and covered the earthen floor with mats. Meanwhile, several women, including the Rev. Rosemary Maxey, a religious studies instructor, gathered at her Westminster home to prepare food for the ritual.
On Friday, they came to Harvey Stone Park to cleanse themselves.
To accommodate the crowd, Wahpepah held two sweat sessions.Twenty people were allowed in each one, which lasted about 90 minutes.
"To see this enthusiasm reminds me again that everything is going to be all right with this generation," said Wahpepah, eyeing the crowd, bundled in winter coats and scarves that soon would be shed to enter the lodge.
Wahpepah made it clear that the lodge was a church -- the womb of the Mother Earth -- a spiritual place that "came up yesterday, will come down tomorrow," when the spot will be returned to its original state.
Participants were encouraged to enter the lodge with an open mind. Inside, Wahpepah predicted they would lose their fears and their apprehensions and be reborn after sweating and praying in a very humble way.
"You have nothing to fear," he said.
Once inside, gathered in the dark against the walls of the lodge, each person took three puffs from a pipe containing natural herbs. The pipe, Wahpepah said, would carry the prayers with the smoke to the creator.
"I encourage all of you to pray," he said. "Pray how you feel. Let the spirit in. You should feel at home and not feel uncomfortable."
Individual prayers followed. Prayers of generosity. Of appreciation. Humbling prayers. Of concern for mankind, peace and the Mother Earth.
After each prayer, either Wahpepah or assistant Jeane Blue Crow, a non-Indian, poured water on the stones, causing steam to fill the lodge.
Pat Blackman, a WMC religious studies graduate, decided to participate because of a fascination with different cultures.
"It was powerful," the 23-year-old said. "It was opening, transforming. I would describe it as spiritual, but not like anything that is in Western civilization culture."
Blackman, who works full timeat WMC's bookstore, said he was so moved by the ritual that he was thinking about sponsoring a ceremony at his home.
The ceremony was Maxey's second.
"It's a positive experience," she said. "It's cleansing, renewing and balancing. For me as a teacher, it becomes meaningful to see my students experience those things."
A Muskogee Indian, Maxey said she grew up hearing of sweat lodges but never had an opportunity to participate in a ceremony until last year.