Marie was seven years old today, and the sweat was for her. She arrived at the sweat lodge clutching a baby doll and a bottle of Mountain Dew. Gayle Niyah-Hughes, her mother, had brought along a Care Bear birthday cake for afterward and some prayer ties that she had made herself.
“There’s one for me and one for her,” she explained, fingering the little pouches filled with tobacco and sweet grass that would be burned in the fire pit so that the smoke would rise like a tangible prayer. “I don’t make the best ones, but it probably doesn’t matter if they’re not perfect. I just wanted to have this for my daughter. It’ll mean more to her than having a birthday party at Pizza Hut.”
Seven men had gathered to do the sweat and pray for Marie. One of them-judging from the sharpness of his features and the moustache that grew only in two small tufts at the sides of his mouth—was close to being a full-blood Apache. Most of the others were, in varying degrees of heritage, the people I had come to Oklahoma to find: Comanches.
Like many other modern Texans—heirs to the conquest—I could not help regarding Comanches with a romantic cast of mind, as some long-ago blood enemy, as the personification of the frontier itself. The Comanches were the greatest horse Indians who ever lived; they were the wildest people—wild in both the savage and glorious meanings of the word—the plains had ever produced. The Comanches dominated much of Texas from the Edwards Plateau to the High Plains. Though in the end they lost it all, the intensity of their defiance is commemorated in the pitiless and self-reliant Texan character.
In my imagination the Comanches belonged to history, and it was easy to think of them as extinct. They were an emblem of barbaric splendor, and as such it was tempting to believe they had not been subdued but had merely vanished like a prairie wind. But the Comanches did not vanish. They are still around, though much of their old plains culture has long since been destroyed or mislaid. They are a people haunted by the richness and vigor of their past, haunted all the more as each new generation devolves farther away—in language, in blood, in logic—from the ancestral ideal. In that sense, they are like everyone else on earth: a people struggling to recall who they were and to understand who they have become.
When the sun was a little lower, Kenneth Coosewoon, the sweat leader, began taking his ceremonial instruments out of a lacquered-wood carrying case the size of a small toolbox. There were bundles of braided sweet grass, an eagle feather, a gourd, and a deerskin pouch containing sticks of wood that he had found glowing one night on a creek band. Coosewoon wore a black jogging suit and glasses. His grayish hair was long and tied in back, and a beaded medicine bundle hung around his neck.
In the old days the sweat lodge was an important fixture in a Comanche camp. It was a center for prayer and purification. Before a young man undertook a vision quest or a group of warriors embarked on a raid they would prepare themselves spiritually in the sweat lodge. No one knew any longer exactly what the Comanche sweat ritual had been, so Coosewoon more or less had to improvise. Like many other facets of contemporary Comanche culture, the sweat ceremony was a pastiche of half-remembered lore, gleanings from other tribes, and bits and pieces of Christian dogma.
“I never even dreamed I’d run a sweat,” Coosewoon told me as he gathered his things together. He was the director of the alcoholism center in Lawton, and several years ago he had gotten interested in the sweat ritual as a kind of therapeutic extension of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. He advertised in the paper for someone who knew the old ways and could run a sweat, but no one answered the ad. Then one day he was praying at the creek band when he saw the glowing wood. The wood was hot to the touch, and at the moment he picked it up he heard a bird shriek and a big oak tree shake in the wind, and then a spirit spoke to him.
“The spirit said, ‘You don’t need nobody. You go ahead and run the sweat. Just be yourself. I’ll be with you all the time to help you.’
“He said everything would come to me, and everything has come to me. I was given stuff little by little. An eagle feather. A gourd. I was given a pipe, but I ain’t never fired it up yet. A Sioux medicine man named Black Elk told me to pray with it and respect it and it will tell me when it’s all right to fire it up. In the old days we would have had a pipe carrier to work with me on it, but we don’t have any of those guys anymore.”
The sweat lodge was made of heavy canvas draped over a cured willow frame. It was a low, hemispherical structure whose entrance faced east, the source of wisdom and knowledge. When it was nearly dusk we stripped down to gym shorts or bathing suits and crawled inside. There was a deep pit in the center, and the bare earth surrounding the pit was covered with strips of old carpet. Dried sage hung from the bent willow poles, and Gail fixed the medicine ties for her and Marie onto the frame above their heads. One by one, seven heated rocks from a bonfire outside were brought into the lodge on two forked branches and lowered into the pit. Coosewoon blessed the glowing stones, brushing them with the braided sweet grass, and then sprinkled cedar over the pit, filling the lodge with its harsh and aromatic smell.
“Grandfather,” he prayed, “thank you for the lives of the people in this lodge.