December 08, 1991|By GREG TASKER | GREG TASKER,Greg Tasker is a reporter for The Carroll County Sun, a suburban section of The Baltimore Sun.

Stripped of socks and shoes and a button-down shirt, I stood shivering in the November cold near an igloo-like structure, where a Kickapoo and Sac and Fox Indian sat eyeing all prospects about to enter.

"You're going to be awfully warm," said ceremonial leader Fred Wahpepah, noticing I was not dressed in sweats or shorts like the others. "Why don't you take off your pants and wear your underwear. Nobody will mind."

"No, I'll keep them on," I replied with great resolve, and then bent down and entered the sweat lodge, which had been constructed just the day before from saplings harvested from the Carroll County countryside.

Inside, I sat against the lodge wall and found myself huddled among some 20 other participants, mostly students and professors from the religious studies department at Western Maryland College, the sponsor of the event.

Like me, they came to experience a ritual that is nearly as old as man. A ritual they had read about and studied in their religious courses. One I had learned about in passing in books and movies about American Indians.

Mr. Wahpepah, who is 61 but looks at least a decade younger, had explained the significance of the sweat lodge beforehand. It is, he said, a ritual for restoring the harmony and balance in one's personal and communal lives and in the universe. Pretty weighty stuff.

Interest in this ritual, which Mr. Wahpepah said can be connected to most ethnic groups, has grown in recent years with the public's fascination of things Native American and their interaction with the Mother Earth.

Mr. Wahpepah, in fact, travels the country conducting such ceremonies. Not every sweat lodge is the same. The ritual is adapted to the community.

At Western Maryland College, students and professors worked together to construct the lodge, using some three dozen blankets to cover the sapling structure. Mats were placed on the ground floor, around a hole that had been dug to hold the stone people -- whom the Indians refer to as our oldest ancestors -- rocks heated by fire that provide the steam.

Excluded from the ceremony, though, were women who "are on the moon." Menstruating women are believed to be powerful and are most powerful during that special time of the month, Mr. Wahpepah said. Menstruating, he explained, is like having your own cleansing ceremony.

With the beating of a drum, Mr. Wahpepah initiated the ceremony. The rapping, he said, reflected the beating of our hearts and Mother Earth. We then took three puffs from a pipe, which contained not tobacco but natural herbs. The smoke, he said, would help carry our prayers to the creator.

"Pray how you feel," Mr. Wahpepah urged. "Let the spirit in. You can pray in your own language or you can pray silently. I urge all of you to pray aloud and be among the community. You should feel at home and feel comfortable."

The prayers were among the most humble I have ever heard. There were prayers of introspection. Of gratitude. Of forgiveness. Of concern for mankind, peace and the Mother Earth.

As each person prayed, Mr. Wahpepah or his assistant, Jean Blue Crow, a non-Indian, poured water on the stone people. The sweat lodge became just that by the time 20 people had offered prayers to the creator.

Occasionally, between prayers, there were Native American songs. Songs that Mr. Wahpepah began and we would later join in on. I sang along, swept up in the melodious sounds and the mood of the moment.

I surprised myself. I hadn't sang at a religious ceremony in years -- not since a Christmas Eve Mass when I attempted to join in on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and the couple in the pew before me snickered.

But I came that evening with no skepticism -- with no real thoughts on what a sweat lodge should be except that it would be a spiritual ceremony.

Nothing unusual happened in the sweat lodge. There was no painful skin piercing exercises like in "A Man Called Horse." Nothing unusual happened before or after the event. Nobody pulled a tongue out of a buffalo like in "Dances With Wolves" and forced me to partake.

The ceremony was simple and easy to explain in terms of facts. What is not easy to explain is the transformation that occurs as you sweat among the community inside. I have not explained it successfully to anybody.

It's a ceremony that is more cleansing than confession. One that leaves you void of apprehension and fears, just as Mr. Wahpepah predicted. You left filled with a new sense of being and energy, and a greater consciousness of the Mother Earth.

More than a week has passed since the ceremony and I've driven by the spot on the hill where the lodge stood with a sweeping view of the Wakefield Valley. The lodge is not there. It was taken down the day after and the spot was restored to its original state.

I think we were, too.

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