FARGO — Gathering around glowing red-hot rocks in a circle side by side is a loving grandmother, an adolescent searching for their identity, a tired construction worker, a respected spiritual leader and a girl asking God to rid her mother of cancer.
Tears mix with steam in the intense heat of the sweat lodge where ceremonies cleanse the body, mind and renew the spirit.
The warm embrace of this sacred site draws many from across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Canada for spiritual purification. It’s nestled between apartments and an industrial park on the corner of 39th Street South and 37th Avenue South.
At the Fargo community sweat lodge, people of all different backgrounds and walks of life participate. But differences disappear in the darkness of the lodge.
Interconnectedness is acknowledged and honored by saying “Mitakuye Oyasin,” translating to “all my relations,” or “all are related.”
Everyone inside is connected by prayer and a desire to live life in a good way. Any personal struggle or fear is shared with the circle to heal. The pain of one is felt by all. The same is true of gratitude as each person gives thanks for this life, Mother Earth and her gifts.
They all crawl inside the dome structure made of willow saplings, canvas and blankets on their hands and knees, humbling themselves for the ancient ceremony in this urban setting.
Women wear long dresses or skirts and men wear shorts. Everyone abandons their cellphones and sense of time to fully absorb the healing experience and be present.
Delvin Rogers, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation whose traditional name is RedHawk, is one of the leaders of the lodge. He helped build it a decade ago at different locations in the area, but in recent years it’s remained at this south Fargo site.
Each leader runs ceremonies differently depending on the tribe, location and spiritual teaching.
“We follow the traditional ways, but some of it is contemporary at the same time,” he said.
Rogers, 45, first had to earn the honor of creating the lodge by helping other leaders and through sun dancing, a ceremony of great sacrifice marked by days of fasting and prayer.
When he first started, Rogers limited ceremonies to indigenous people, but after some spiritual enlightenment, he decided to welcome anyone on their spiritual journey.
“We come from a mixed nation now. There’s Anishinaabe, Lakota, Arikara and Crow. We have a gathering of all nations, so we've got to make it accessible,” Rogers said. “Inside that circle, we are all equal.”
Rabbits and children roam in harmony around the crackling flames that heat stones to be carried on a pitchfork into the center of the lodge. The stones are stacked in an earthen pit throughout four rounds or "doors."
After each round, the door facing the fire is opened to welcome a wave of cool air and refresh everyone inside before more rocks are brought in.
The length of rounds and number of rocks varies — more rocks equals more heat.
Rogers often tailors the temperature to the crowd or type of ceremony. If there are several newcomers, he will take it easy, but he said the experience is all about going beyond your comfort zone.
“Sitting beside the fire… that’s relaxing. I could do this all day,” he said. “Now, climb in there and sit in there for a half hour. Keep doing it day after day, week after week — you’re going to be strong; you're going to be sober. I've got 23 years of sobriety right here, all because of this.”
Medicines are tossed on each stone and spark upon contact. A small flame occasionally and briefly illuminates the lodge, offering a glimpse of other relatives inside.
Aromas of lavender, wild bear root and palo santo are inhaled with the steam that rises from the center and drifts along the edges to enclose everyone sitting on small mats and carpet.
Clothes quickly dampen from sweat and steam. Some use towels to shield their face if it gets too hot or crouch closer to the ground where it’s cooler.
Deer antlers serve as a tool to situate the sources of heat. Steam rolls with each pour of water from a buffalo horn onto the stones, referred to as "grandfathers."
“They’re called the grandfathers because they are the oldest thing on earth. They’re here before us and they’ll be here after,” said Alroy St. Claire as he tended the fire.
St. Claire, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, has been coming to this lodge for three years and first started sweating about 15 years ago.
The ceremonies help St. Claire live a clean, sober life — an intention shared by many at the lodge — and he brings that powerful healing to others. He picks up some residents at Fargo rehabilitation facility Centre Inc. to sweat, and he visits elders in assisted living facilities to smoke tobacco, sing and burn sage, known as smudging.
“It’s something to keep their spirit going,” he said.
The 47-year-old brings his drums inside the lodge and sings, traditions he’s taught his 2-year-old grandson. The extreme heat makes breathing — let alone singing — a challenge, but that only makes St. Claire sing louder and pray harder.
“If you think about how hot it is, you’re not focused on what you’re here for,” he said. “It’s all about prayer. Prayer is real powerful.”
Stevie Akason, a white 32-year-old single mother of three, believes in this power.
She said her path of healing led her to the lodge after she was diagnosed in March with stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma cancer in her throat. The cancer has spread to her tongue, jaw, lymph nodes and neck. She’s not doing chemotherapy or radiation, and doctors told her without such treatment she would have a year to live. But she is far more optimistic than her prognosis.
“This is the first time I’m around the right people, and I’m on the right path in my healing journey,” she said. “It's just really touching how strangers can care about you so much when they don’t even know you.”
Laidman Fox Jr., a medicine man from Spirit Lake Tribe and founder of Thunder Medicine Lodge, brought Akason to Idaho a few weeks ago for a sun dance. She said she’s never experienced anything quite like it.
“All the things I’ve done up to now have been necessary in my healing,” she said, adding that she’s also traveled to Arizona for Gerson therapy and Peru for an ayahuasca retreat.
She sweats as often as she can because “it's the only time I’m pain free.” Recently, she started bringing her 8-year-old daughter, Zevia, to the lodge to pray.
Coming to the sweat lodge provides a deeper understanding of life, said Amanda Vivier, 36, of Turtle Mountain. She helps lead the Fargo-Moorhead Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force.
“When you get out, you’ll feel the pureness in your heart and spirit. It will be a very euphoric feeling,” she said.
“The way that I like to look at it is this: We live in a world right now where there’s a lot of suffering and a lot of that suffering is in our minds, so it makes you a prisoner to depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, trapped in abusive relationships, aggressiveness," Vivier said. "So when you come in here and the spirits start doctoring you, they start taking those sicknesses away. It’s not only doctoring your spirit, but it’s doctoring your body so you’re detoxing in a spiritual aspect.”
Keith Melroe, 67, attends ceremonies with his wife Olivia Melroe, and they typically bring a meal for everyone to share together after the sweat. He’s Norweigan and has dabbled in different beliefs, including Lutheranism, living with the Amish and exploring the Hare Krishna movement.
“There’s no one religion that has the answer. The answer is within yourself,” he said. “Here, we accept everybody. Having the opportunity to experience a number of things, this is where I would rather pray than in the traditional church because it’s real and it’s more spiritual.”
Because of this sacredness, photos or videos cannot capture its true essence as recording is not permitted of sweat lodge ceremonies. But even words cannot fully describe the experience.
“It’s something really visceral. It’s hard to explain,” said Ian Anderson. “It awakens something up in you and you almost crave it when you haven’t had it in a while. Your spirit is called back to it.”
Anderson, 25, is affiliated with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, but grew up outside the reservation in New Ulm, Minn. After attending Minnesota State University Moorhead, where there is a sweat lodge on campus that he frequented, he started coming to Fargo’s lodge.
“The community here has been so supportive. A lot of people feel like I’m not Native enough for that or I’m too this or I’m not traditional enough, or they feel like there are all these qualifiers,” he said. “Some communities can be that way, but this community isn’t that way at all. It’s multicultural, multitribal, multiracial, very welcoming. As long as you’re carrying yourself in a good way and you’re humble, people are going to guide you on the right path.”
Toward the end of the ceremony, tobacco pipes are passed around the circle, followed by smoked salmon and a basket of fresh berries.
It’s simple yet replenishing after enduring hours of sweating. The sunlight is replaced with shining stars. Everyone forms a line as they crawl out of the lodge, shaking hands or hugging each person they pass. Smiles abound as the fire still smolders.
There is a saying about sweat lodge ceremonies — “Everybody can, but not everybody does” — according to Guy Fox, a member of the MHA Nation and Fargo Native American Commission also serving as director of the FM Crossroads Powwow.
Fox, 40, said the sweat lodge is sacred and a special aspect of his tradition that makes him immensely proud to be indigenous.
“What we don't have in riches or status, we have in spirit,” he said. “Being spiritually rich is a true way to inner peace and happiness.”