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Articles    H3'ed 3/15/11

More Indigenous Similarities Despite Differences -- Day 6 of the Australian Journey

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The sun rose to reveal a clear blue sky.   The Australian aboriginal flag cracked in a crisp wind across the lake.   We were surprised at how cold the morning was.   Naturally we had to wait until the sun rose and warmed the land, since our friends were from the Northwest Territories, and did not like much cold.

When most of the morning's coolness had disappeared, people began to meander off the veranda into the area just south of the camp house that had been designated for ceremony.   Uncle Albert's fire, our sweat lodge fire pit, and Lily's fire made a perfect triangle.   Lily assembled her mob, as groups of people are called in Australia.   Her husband, a nephew, and two grandchildren were helping her, along with her friend Mavis.   Her nephew, David, lit the fire.   It was carefully contained from the moment of combustion.    I was directed to sit on a blanket next to Mavis.   Lily took the trunks from two small palm trees out of the fire.   She shaved off the ashes and then set them before her.   She took a sledge hammer and began to pound them.   "She's softening them," Mavis said.   Through repetitive pounding, Lily succeeded in flattening the palm trunks to the extent that she could take her machete and cut them open, turning them into flat compresses.   She placed them on the fire to warm.   When they were warm enough, she brought them to me and placed them on my neck with my t-shirt between my skin and them.   It was hot but not unbearably so!   I grinned and accepted it.   When the heat died away, Lily put the palm trunk back on the fire.  

My problem was neck stiffness, which I sometimes have.   In the mornings I stretch and do yoga to make it go away.   I hadn't had time for my morning routine, so I was feeling the stiffness and rubbing it out.   Seeing my doing this had made Mavis point at me, and tell me to sit beside her on a blanket next to the fire. I had no idea what to expect but was game to try.  

The women from the Northern Territories are experts at controlled burning.   They deftly stoked the fire to be exactly as hot and extensive as they wanted it to be.   Each time she needed to burn someone, Lily would take the opened palm bark and put it on the fire.   She would let it warm to her satisfaction, put some water on it, explaining that they usually harvested the palm fresh and used it immediately, but that these had dried some in the drive from the Northern Territories, and put it back on the fire.   When it was warm to her satisfaction, she would take it off the fire and placed it on my neck.   Clearly her goal was hot, but not unbearable.

When Lily "burned" me, I felt the heat seeping into my neck and relaxing the stiffness.   Lily repeated this procedure several times.   Then she and Mavis used their hands on my neck.   They declared that the problem was in the muscles, and they asked me to rotate my shoulders forward and backwards.   People ten meters away heard the popping!   I had just had Australian indigenous physiotherapy, clearly aided by the spirits that work with Lily.   It had been a marvelous combination of heat, massage, movement, stretching, and prayer.   Mavis pronounced me "done" and shooed me off the blanket.   She called out, "Next."   We laughed about the "waiting room" and the "treatment room" being the same in most of the world.   Everyone gets to watch everyone else being "doctored".

Lily is a strikingly thin woman with large grey hair.   Mavis is shortly and larger.   Together they are quite the pair.   They never charge for their healings, though people often give gifts afterwards.   Mavis told us a story about "burning" a woman who wanted to conceive another child, but couldn't.   After the "burning", she did.   She wanted to name her child after Mavis, but it has been a boy. We heard other stories of healing consistent with what we have heard from healers in North America.   After me, people were treated for back pain, knee pain, and hip pain.   The sensation of heat lasted for hours.

The next ceremony we observed was demonstrated for a group of local elders who were brought by boat for lunch and then assembled around the fire area.   Lunch for me consisted of the last of the curried kangaroo, but actually the pasta dishes were more popular.   With the elders congregated, Lily explained the ceremony in which small children progress to older children.   This ceremony is done when the child is about 5 years old, she told us, and teaches them to listen carefully to their elders.  

Lily and her helpers proceeded to wrap the feet of Shadow's two children in wet seaweed and then to bind the flexible bark of the paper tree around that seaweed.   This binding went up to their knees.   Then they were asked to step onto the fire.   A blanket was placed over them, water was tossed onto the fire, and the steam rose to envelop them under the blanket.   After a couple minutes, the blanket was thrown off, and they walked out of the fire.   It looked like a 2 minute steam.   Earth from termite and ant hills, still teeming with insects, had been placed in the fire the night before and gave the steam a particular healing quality.   Then the boys were painted with brown mud paste and were expected to walk with large strides and throw a spear at a tree.   They did and both hit their mark.   Cheers rose with each correct strike.

The final part of that demonstration was a quick steaming of adults.   More wetted paper bark was placed over the fire and a group of men came to stand upon it. They were covered with two blankets and a bucket of water was thrown onto the fire to permit steam to rise up around them.   After one to two minutes, the blankets were pulled off, and they stepped off the fire.

In my presentation to the local elders, I mentioned how we are more similar than different, continuing the theme introduced by Nicky the day previously.   I showed the elders the sweat lodge structure that we had constructed and explained the ceremony -- how we heat the rocks in the fire pit, the four rounds in which new rocks are brought inside, how we sit around the central pit and sing and pray and are purified.   I joked with them that what can be done in two minutes in the Northern Territories takes three hours or more in North America, because we're slower.   Also, I said, it's a lot colder outside.   I had confirmed that the temperate that day in Vermont was -7, so I could tell them it was still below freezing at my home.   I explained the sequence of the sweat lodge ceremony as we do it, starting with honoring the West, and moving clockwise around the compass for each of the four doors.   I explained how a "door" is the time from stone entry to opening again, and that the first door was for purification and letting go, the second door for prayer, the third door for guidance and direction, and the fourth door for celebration.   I explained that we drank medicine after the second door, smoked the sacred pipe after the third door, and feasted after the fourth door.   I linked the similar ideas of cleansing with smoke and with steam.

Following this, the elders made their way back to the boat to return to the mainland, and we lit our sweat lodge fire.   Once the platform was burning sufficiently, we ceremonially placed the rocks on the fire, covered them with wood, and then covered the sweat lodge structure with blankets and tarps, installing the door last.   A few people made prayer ties.   Our leader went inside the covered lodge for a smoke with the spirits and to receive further instructions.   (He had already been guided to choose 28 stones for this ceremony.)   He did receive the message that the locals had done a similar sweating ceremony to ours in which they had dug canoe-shaped holes in the ground, placed rocks on the bottom, covered them with wetted fiber mats and then placed the people on top of the mats with a mat covering above their heads.   He mentioned this to some locals who remembered seeing a drawing of something like this at a museum in Melbourne.   We had met a Maori elder named James who did sweats locally for Maori people, especially those in prison in Australia, who confirmed that Maori sweats were much like Lakota sweats, though the structures were covered with woven fiber mats rather than animal skins (which made sense since New Zealand didn't have any large animals).   We speculated that the Gunnai-Kurnai people could have had a sweat ceremony, more similar to Maori than to Northern Territories because of the climate being more like New Zealand than the North.   Our leader had also received the message that, if they had lost their own ceremonies, if they started doing other peoples' ceremonies and were open to the visions and dreams coming from their ancestors, that they would recover their own ceremonies within 20 to 40 years and would be doing what they do instead of what they learned to do from outsiders.

I recognized this theme from Saskatchewan.   A friend of mine had written a Ph.D. thesis about a Shoshone man named Harris who had come to the Canadian Prairies in the 1970s and had taught locals how to do ceremony in his style.   They had forgotten how they used to do it.   Harris told them to do it his way until the dreams and visions came, and slowly but surely, that happened.   By 2011, in Saskatchewan, the knowledge of the Cree version of the ceremony has largely returned.   Harris brought a template for the people to follow and invited them to elaborate on it as their visions came.   I have heard many elders say that knowledge is never lost.   It's always available in the spirit world and it's just a matter of asking for the knowledge and being open to receiving it.

Finally our stones were hot and we were ready for the sweat lodge ceremony.   We were privileged to have a local elder, Auntie Marion, join us, along with other members of the local mob.   The sweat was a powerful sharing experience as it always is.   Afterwards, we ate fresh mussels harvested from the lake, but no more kangaroo.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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