“Just follow their lead, this is a traditional weekly practice many Navajos observe,” Alex our intern commented. Sauntering along the well packed dirt roads in Crystal, NM, we walked towards the tacheii (Navajo for sweat lodge). The sun was beginning to disappear over the flat horizon, leaving beautiful purple and orange colors in its wake. After passing a few houses and horse corrals, I spotted a large bonfire. There were three Navajo males standing around the fire, staring pensively into the blaze. Their names were Richard, Robert, and Chris. Robert was our main host, who put us to work vaccinating thirty sheep and tearing down an old corral earlier that day. He was a Dartmouth alumnus, with a hardened attitude. Alex, Cody, Ty, Josh and I approached the bonfire and greeted the men.
What happened next will remain with me forever. We loaded up the tacheii with smoldering rocks that we heated in the fire, stripped down to au natural, and crawled one by one into this mud hut. Instantly I felt the heat, and knew it would only grow hotter in this unique area. We crammed eight people (five of our group and three Navajos) into this three foot high and six feet long area. After we were all in, the last man in covered the entrance with thick rugs to keep the heat from escaping. The rugs also kept all light from entering, so I sat in complete darkness, alone with my thoughts. Richard told us stories of Navajo members, and the keystone elements of Navajo culture. Chris then treated us to a traditional Navajo song, in his old and deep melodic voice. His voice faded into the darkness of the tacheii as his last note was projected. Lost in his song, I didn’t pay attention to the amount of sweat that was pouring out of me. It was cleansing, purifying, and very therapeutic at the same time. Images of ancient Navajo leaders sweating and singing in these huts filled my mind.
About 20 minutes in, I felt like I was cooking alive and all the moisture was sucked out of my body. Opening my eyes, my sweat stung them strongly as I was greeted by the thick darkness. The phrase, “What doesn’t kill makes you stronger” then popped into my head as the tacheii continued to get progressively hotter.
As we exited, Richard commented upon how leaving this hut represents rebirth, just like when the Navajo tribe entered the first, second, third, and fourth worlds. Symbolically speaking, it was like exiting the womb covered in sweat, when we were born into our world. To cool down we rubbed dirt over our naked bodies and stared into the fire, astounded by our individual experiences and thoughts that were fostered in the tacheii.