The Swallowing Monster

By John Warren

In 2009, before my first combat deployment to Iraq, I returned to my reservation for a ritual called sweat. Sweat ceremonies connect us with higher frequencies. They purify our minds and bodies and strengthen our spirit​. The following words are my recollection of this deeply personal experience.

The sage bunch ignites, mixing with the tobacco in a primal dance of smoke and ember wafting through the air—elegance born from the earth itself. I stand, enveloped in ritual, feeling its gentle caress as it washes over my naked body.

The atmosphere is thick with the scent of arid lands and sun-soaked plateaus. It is fictile and robust, carrying the knowledge of generations within its tendrils. As it fills my nostrils, I am transported, if only for a moment, to a place where the earthly and the ethereal blur.

The smoke, though intangible, seems to have a taste of its own—a subtle hint of the wild, a whisper of the plain’s harsh beauty. It is not a taste that sits on the tongue. Rather, it lingers in the back of your throat, a reminder of what came before.

As it danced around me, I felt connected to something greater than myself, a sense of peace and grounding that only the natural world provides. It spoke to me silently, whispering tales of my people’s resilience and strength. I listened with every fiber of my being, savoring this profound connection to the present moment.

A low buzz vibrated through my feet up into my head. The medicine was taking hold, accepting me and escorting me on a walk with my ancestors. “It’s almost time,” someone says from the fire. The stones are close, red-hot, and filled with purpose.

The effects of the medicine intensified. Five days of water fasting and mental battles to resist breaking it neared their end. The heavy skins and burlap protecting the entrance of the sweat snapped open. I closed my eyes and focused on my breath. “Be humble. Be honest. Be unafraid.” The words repeated in a voice I didn’t recognize. They resonated.

I was here for a blessing of sorts or maybe a confession. A binding of my spiritual self to my physical before I set off like so many before me to count coup for the first time. I cupped the smoke, washed it over my body, and crawled backward through the opening, a symbol of my reentering the earth’s womb.

The doorman closed the entrance. The inside of the sweat was an impenetrable black, illuminating faint glows of red as sage-infused water pulsed heat from the stone pit. My heart seemed to sync with the drum; every rhythmic thud was another step deeper into myself. “Qe’ ciyew’yew’ hanyaw’a aat,” Thank you, Creator, the doorman chanted, splashing the stonepit. “This young warrior is going to battle. Let us test his resolve in the heat of your creation.” The hotter it got, the deeper I went. Near the end of the third song, I was somewhere else entirely.

A fire’s silhouette danced in the distance, calling me. As I approached, an old woman sat wrapped in a blanket. She turned and looked at a medicine wheel. A single coup stick, beaded and feathered, lay in its center. I stepped into the medicine wheel and an immense heaviness set in. With it, a great sadness welled in my heart. “Be humble. Be honest. Be unafraid,” the old woman said; she sounded like my grandmother. The closer to the center I got, the more I felt the tremendous weight pressing me down. One step was all I could manage; I tried crawling. It forced me to my belly, so I dug my fingers into the earth’s ashy loam pulling myself to the center and reached for the stick.

I awoke in the river; its winter chill reached through my skin and clutched my organs. The medicine had taken me completely two hours into the sweat. The men held me afloat in the water as I came to my senses. “Híitem’yekin,” You were well prepared.

It would take more deployments and more knowledge before I would fully grasp what it was I felt that night. I realized later that weight was the test, the heaviness so many of us feel after the war. The medicine asked me a simple question: will you continue alone in the dark when the swallowing monster comes to consume you? My answer was yes.

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