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Guest post by writer and professor Lyn Fuchs: The Prayer-Hogging Shaman

May 24, 2011


by Lyn Fuchs

The Haida people live on a group of islands off the Alaska coast. This is the story of my experience with a shaman there. It comes from my book Sacred Ground & Holy Water: Travel Tales of Enlightenment, which is available from

I sat with a group of elders as a longhaired shaman mixed tobacco, cedar, fungi, and leaves in an abalone shell bowl. He then lit the concoction. As it smoldered, aromatic wisps rose in phantasmal helixes. Waving an eagle feather over each of us in turn, this “skaggy” administered a baptism by smoke.

Shallow buckskin drums took up a fast, thunder-like rhythm. Whistles and chants burst from otherwise stoical faces. Frenzied dancers emerged, wearing masks that transformed them into mythic beings from killer whales to cannibals. Physical and spiritual dimensions were merged in ways I couldn’t fully understand. What I did see clearly was that my culture has abandoned both superstition of and connection with nature. In embracing a scientific worldview, we’ve lost our instinctual mystic vision.

As a pipe passed around, prayers were offered to the Creator. They acknowledged four directions: North, South, East, and West, with four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water, then four colors: red, yellow, black, and white, symbolizing four peoples: Americans, Asians, Africans, and Europeans. The circle concluded with the pronouncement: “Everything is related.”

We feasted to celebrate the fall equinox then retired to a sweat lodge. The elders told me that a pipe stem represents man, a pipe bowl represents woman, and a sweat lodge represents the womb of life. (So, I wondered, what the hell were we doin’ suckin’ on the pipe stem?)

The sweat lodge seemed more tomb than womb. Searing hot rocks were piled in the center using antler tongs. Then the door closed, trapping us in crypt-like darkness. Even after focusing, my eyes saw nothing but the faint glow of these “grandfather stones.” The shaman sprinkled them with herbs, emitting sparks, pops, and a scent palette ranging from wild celery to marijuana. Finally he doused them with water, flooding the air with suffocating heat.

For an unbearable two hours, I sat, struggling against drowning, fainting, and an ever-rising heart rate. It was crazy, but we all have our cherished quasi-virtues and “death before dishonor” is mine. When the door opened at last, it was only to insert more rocks. Yet, for a brief moment, I was a prisoner allowed a window, a diver reaching the surface, just until light, air, and hope were again mercilessly snuffed.

For another two hours, we gasped, howled, drummed, and prayed. On the last round, I deliriously tallied the number of voices yet to supplicate. I concluded I could make it without passing out, if the skaggy didn’t go again at the end. He did. Damn that prayer hog!

Final conscious reflections: ancient man slept in dark caves, my ancestors homesteaded dark forests, I can barely survive this dark super-sauna, most of my peers can’t stand a dark evening without TV. Yet, all of us, alike, are herded into that ultimate dark hole, from which there is no escape, which humanity’s earliest writings call “sheol”—the grave.

Praying ceased. The door opened. I prepared to dive for that shining portal, but had to wait my turn, like the last varmint out of a hole. My turn never came.

I came to, five feet outside the door with everyone standing over me. Slimy grime covered my skin. Grimy slime came from my nose—a swollen, blood-trickling nose. Must have fallen on my face (literally and figuratively). All dignity abandoned, I searched my arm for less-muddy places to wipe pinkish snot in front of near strangers.

Someone handed me a half-peeled orange, in which I buried my face and my pride. Someone else told me that those who endure the sweat lodge till blacking out are considered heroic. I wasn’t buying it. My body had refused to support my pretensions to immortality. In the game of Haida-and-seek, I was the first man out.

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