“Listening to their songs, I was enamored. I saw a spirit in there. I felt the heartbeat of the Earth. I saw my entire path unfold and I knew that at that moment I was going to follow what they had called the sweat lodge way, which was the way of the Earth Keepers.”
After immigrating from Ireland to the United States during the mid 1800s Irish Potato Famine, Tim Corcoran’s ancestors settled in Ronan Montana, a small town in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Tim (now 65) spent many of his childhood summers there, exploring the forests near his grandfather’s homestead and growing his love for the wilderness.
Because Tim would often go into the woods without any adults (usually only taking one or two dogs with him), he developed independence and self-sufficiency at an early age. He would often practice wilderness survival skills that he learned from his grandfather, cousins, and the Native Americans, such as tracking, hunting, fishing, and fire making.
“Each time I would do a skill, it was like the memory of my past ancestors would
come forth and it would feel like I've done it before,” he said. “I always felt like they were watching me, protecting me.”
Flanked by the majestic Mission Mountains, Tim would wander among the trees, stalking wildlife and listening to the rushing of the year-long creek, which was always full of fish. He learned how to respect the energy of the land and animals, working in a partnership with nature rather than dominating it.
But while Tim had deep connecting moments with nature, he “hadn't put it all together yet.”
“I was craving something more,” Tim said.
On one summer day when he was ten, Tim woke up at first light and ventured out into the woods. As he was walking, he heard the faint sound of drumming intermingled with the early morning chirping of birds and the faint cackling of a fire. Naturally, his curiosity drew him to it. Hiding behind some bushes, he peaked out into a glen, where four Native American elders, about 40 feet away, stood talking and singing beside a small hut. Using deer antlers, they placed rocks into the heart of a fire.
Immediately, Tim felt an instinctive pull toward the gathering, as though he was meant to be there. But out of fear that the elders would scold him for spying, he stayed in his hiding spot.
After about 15 min, one of the Native Americans noticed Tim. Although the elder didn’t say anything, Tim knew that it was ok for him to come out and join the ceremony.
Burning with intrigue and anticipation, Tim walked up to the fire. He didn’t know what to expect, but he knew that he was safe, for he frequently interacted with the Native Americans around his grandfather’s homestead and saw many of them as family.
For a while, Tim sat on the dirt floor, playing with the elders’ dog and helping tend to the fire, while the Native Americans sang and carried glowing rocks into the hut. The elders were preparing for a sweat lodge ceremony — a sacred, spiritual ritual. While they didn’t talk much or explain the process to Tim, they offered a few words of encouragement and confirmed that Tim wanted to participate in it.
“I felt welcomed and I felt a tremendous amount of love and respect, like they knew they had this gentle soul — this kid — in their hands,” Tim said. “They treated me sacred.”
Finally, it was time for the sweat lodge ceremony to begin.
Imitating the Native Americans, Tim got on his hands and knees and crawled past an altar holding bones, beautiful eagle feathers, and a big bear skull. Ducking his head, he entered the sweat lodge, which was about 8 feet in diameter, and sat down on a towel that was spread out over a blanket of pine needles.
A few photographs that Tim has taken.
Left to Right: A cottage in front of Mt. Shasta, "Moon Rise from Dale Creek" and "Lone Tree"
One of the elders closed the animal hide flap over the door and Tim was cast into darkness. He took a deep breath and felt steam mixed with the tangy smell of herbs enter his lungs. The Native Americans began drumming and singing as the sweat lodge got warmer and warmer.
“Listening to their songs, I was enamored,” Tim said. “I saw a spirit in there. I felt the heartbeat of the Earth. I saw my entire path unfold and I knew that at that moment I was going to follow what they had called the sweat lodge way, which was the way of the Earth Keepers.”
The heat and the rhythmic drumming pushed Tim into a deep meditative state of mind. He was in complete awe.
“When it gets really hot, it forces you to be completely in the moment,” Tim said. “You're not in the past or the future; you're just extremely present. That's when you start to transcend other levels of the spirit world.”
Tim said that he saw lights, moving shapes and colors flickering through the darkness and dancing around him. He felt the presence of the elders’ spirit animals and his own (the bear).
Being raised Catholic, Tim had faith in miracles and angels, but the sweat lodge taught him the power of singing and drumming, and introduced him to the ability to enter altered states of consciousness that allow him to connect to his spiritual side on a much deeper level.
Even at 10 years old, Tim knew he was experiencing one of the defining moments of his life. Although he had previously experienced deep connecting moments in nature, the sweat lodge was what tied all of those moments together and laid the foundation to his path as an Earth caretaker.
“You have to be ready for defining moments,” Tim said. “There has to be a build up and then when the moment comes, you receive it so deeply that you can't ignore it. It's about timing, a little bit about luck.”
After about one to two hours, the sweat ended and Tim crawled out of the shelter, sweat dripping off his skinny body. He felt reinvigorated and alive, as though he was beginning his life all over again. Everything seemed brighter, more vibrant. He felt as though he had been cleansed of all the toxins and negativity that had harbored inside of him.
“I look at the sweat lodge as the heart of the Earth, like it's the womb of Mother Nature,” he said, “so when you go into the sweat lodge, you feel the essence, the spiritual side of the Earth and when you come out, it's like the Earth is birthing you.”
That summer, Tim joined the Native Americans for a few more sweats. Later in his life, he began holding sweat lodges in his backyard and even on backpacking trips with friends by throwing tarps over sticks.
Now, he leads his own sweat lodges at his outdoor school in northern California and sees them as foundational to his teachings.
Tim's sweat lodge at his outdoor school
“Sweats allow people to have spiritual experiences without anybody lecturing them about what those are, so it’s very personal.” Tim said, “You also release all the negativity you live with and all the things that hold you back in your life. When you come out, you're reborn and you start your life. You're a new person.”
Sweats also allow Tim to connect to his Irish heritage, as his ancestors, the Celts, would hold sweats in rock lodges covered with bark. Furthermore, sweat lodges play significant cultural and spiritual roles in countries such as Ireland, Russia, China, Mongolia, and Poland.
Tim said that sweat lodge ceremonies can unite communities in a powerful, beautiful way, while at the same time, allowing people to reclaim their individual “birthright to be children of the Earth” — a right that often becomes extinguished by modern lifestyles. He sees sweats as an incomparable rite that helps satisfy the innate human need to explore and continuously search for answers to the unknown — a search that in turn leads to self discovery and growth.
“Human beings naturally want to experience more than what we just see or feel in front of us,” Tim said. “We all feel there's something more.”