Jim Esralian, and Karen have been leading Sweat Lodge ceremonies at Sacred Harvest Festival (SHF) for many years. He is so unassuming many don’t know his connection to this ceremony. I interviewed him at SHF. He first off declared proudly he was Armenian, “A conquered people as well”.
You have a pretty deep connection to Native American traditions?
Back home I live in central Michigan, near the Saginaw Chippewa reservation. In addition I have become friends with folks from Turtle Mountain reservation, and other places, that have brought traditions from that area, to Michigan. They are actually mixed traditions themselves. They are combinations of Metis, Cree, Ojibwe, Ashinabe, and Lakota. A lot of the medicine that was passed down was already fairly multi-national. Turtle Mountain is in North Dakota, in an area where several tribes border each other and their cultures inter-mingled. People came from that area bring with them what is called the ‘Thirsty Dance’, very similar to a “Sun Dance”. They also brought some of the Lodge traditions, as well as some of the songs.
On a year around basis you are involved with that culture?
Yes, anyone involved with the Thirsty Dance gathers four times a year for ‘Sings’. We gather and sing, perform Sweat Lodges together. We gather around a drum and sing, the first time of the year we go around the circle and all sing once. The second gathering twice, and so on. The fourth gathering we sing all night long, until dawn, and that is when the Thirsty Dance starts. Year around we gather, do lodges together, doing ‘sings’, and finally the Thirsty Dance together. Listen to Dance Song of Thompson River Indians
Would you say this is not really ‘traditional’ then, more of an amalgamation of Native traditions?
Right, it is. On top of that, once I bring my experience to this space, it is adapted to the Pagan culture. For instance back home there are dress codes for the ladies and the men. Here, at a Pagan festival we honor everyone’s personal dress code. Women on their ‘moon’ are traditionally asked to stay away from the Lodge space and even around the Sun Dance arbor. Here we like women to come on their moon and have a special ceremony when on their moon and ask them to bless the water. The traditions I have are modified when I come here so I don’t bring anything traditional with me. What has been passed down to me is only so much traditional anyway. It is from a mixed culture, from many different traditions.
How does Pagan culture receive what you bring?
Pagan culture is very open to the Sweat Lodge. It is a ceremony that is often cloaked in mystery because not everyone has had a chance to go to a Sweat Lodge. It is not something as common as say a ‘drum circle’ . People who have sweated before are often coming back for the love of the experience. Those who are there for their first time often spend a lot of time, sharing afterward how much joy the ceremony brings them. Really it is a working prayer, as opposed to a gesture we may make to the divine, like lifted hands, when we pray, the sweat lodge is a space were we work our prayer. We offer up our hunger, we offer up our thirst. We offer our sweat and our tears. We do these things in a conscious way to let spirit know that we are serious about our prayers. The Lodge itself is very much a working prayer, which is accepted by the Pagan community.
How many sweats have you done this week?
We have averaged about one a day. We had one day off mid-week. As you know the ‘Thunders’ came in last night, and the lodge was shut down by them. We probably would have had two more, close to 8-9 for the people, but it was not to be. It brings us great joy to offer them, by the way! We are more than rewarded, as our friend Crystal said, “There are blessings received back ten fold from the community’. It is hard to accept sometimes when people want to give their gratitude. We ourselves are in such gratitude, if not more, for the people and to be here. We watched them co-create this week in the Sweat Lodge space and all the other circles here at this festival. The co-created ego-less space was beautiful to experience. We walk away from this with a lot more reward than people may think.
What do you take back with you?
Any of the beautiful energies and blessings that are received here at this festival are taken back home. Typically we utilize those blessings to change things in our personal lives. They inspire us to gather more often, to be closer to our friends and family. To remember how special each day is and how special our friends and family are.
I guess that says it all.