Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Rules of the Steam

Behind our home stands a nondescript little building. It’s unpainted, has no siding and sports a tar-paper roof. Although entirely unimpressive, it was, I believe, my husband’s deciding factor in the purchase of our home. In its former life it was a woodshop. But now - drum roll please - now it is The Steam!
Taking a Yupik steam bath is not just about getting clean, and yes my father-in-law does prefer it to a shower, it is a lesson in culture. In this nearly unbearable heat you are literally stripped of all which protects you and come face to face with the intricacies of Yupik culture. Problems are solved, wisdom shared, alliances hatched, relationships strengthened; all in the heat and intimacy of the steam.
I was introduced during my first visit to Dillingham. My mother-in-law invited me to steam with the women and, as any fiancé worth her salt would, I agreed. In true Yupik tradition, the stories began as we waited to head out.
They told of a time long ago when missionaries arrived in Southwest Alaska. Luckily for them - and for me I might add - the Yupik are a very patient people. So, as the story goes, the locals listened to the missionaries and welcomed them into their villages. It was during a particularly impassioned sermon about the fires of hell that the steam bath made its first appearance in theology. As the missionary described how the fire would lick at the sinner’s feet, one elder turned to another and summarized his interpretation with a steam bath analogy.
“It’s probably just a matter of getting used to it,” he said.
You can imagine this did not instill confidence as I waited for my first steam. Many more stories followed with topics ranging from men trying outlast each other as the temperature rose well past 200 degrees and even people dying in the steam.
Gary assured me I would live, I wasn’t sure I believed him. Soon though, it was time.
Donning my swimsuit in spite of my fear, I headed out to the little low-lying building behind the house. I trailed slowly behind the other ladies in avoidance of the inevitable. When I finally entered the steam I was hit with a wall of heat and nakedness!
The intensity of the heat shocked me only slightly less than seeing those sweet women disrobed. I suddenly understood the reason as my swimsuit felt like it would spontaneously combust! Furthermore, it was clear that we were not there to just sit and soak up the heat. I was in the center of a flurry of water  splashing, washcloths slapping and soapsuds floating around the room as all around me began to bathe.
Once past my shock, I was aware that the women before me had been transformed. While quiet and retiring indoors, they had become animated, even giggly, in the steam. Not that I had a clue what they were saying, seeing as they were speaking Yupik. Well that’s not entirely true, I did pick my name out more than once. I tried to ignore that on each mention it was followed by excessive laughter.
In and out we went; hot, cold, hot, cold. Each time they said, “Wash, rinse!” Then, what seemed both like an eternity and an instant later, we were done.
I wish I could say I’ve now fully embraced this tradition - but I’d be lying. I do, however, have an appreciation for the steam and all steam related things. My forays into the sad little building behind our home are few, I admit. But periodically I venture forth in the spirit of cultural cooperation.
It became easier when I realized I could develop a list of rules, recommendations really, that I suggest when steaming with ladies at our home. They are more for the sake of those experiencing the steam their first time - really. How grateful I would have been…well, you get the idea.
First, clothing is optional. I know what it feels like to prefer that my swimsuit spontaneously combust than to uncover all that it graciously hides! Who knew you could love a swimsuit so much? I, however, have found a Yupik compromise. I call it the “naked but covered with a washcloth” technique. Some prefer a bath towel. That’s fine too.
Secondly, please attempt to not pass gas in the steam. I believe that rules is self explanatory. But just in case...the heat, the close quarters, you understand. I learned this one the hard way. Spend an hour opposite a darling, little old Yupik lady farting her way through a steam and you’ll never be the same. Trust me on this.
Finally, any item dropped in the steam shall be considered lost for the duration. This rule I adamantly enforce. No one wants you bending over!
So if you ever happen to find yourself invited to the Chythlook home for a steam, I promise it will be everything you imagine and much, much more. But take my advice, do it! It’s not everyone who gets this honor. We only bathe with the ones we love!


  1. Thanks for the chuckles! That's quite a mental picture.

  2. You must have some Finnish blood in there too--with all that steaming going on!

  3. Thanks for your comments! I'm still getting used to this process so I apologize for the late response!
    Jenn - I'm happy to make you laugh anytime I can! It makes my day to imagine you chuckling while you read! By the way, have you read Scribbit? Check the list of blogs I follow. You'll love it!

    Michelle - I don't know if there's Finnish blood way back! The whole North of 60 world is pretty intertwined I would imagine so it's possible! It would be fun to see how far back we could track. There aren't any records but my in-laws remember alot! Thanks again for your support in this endeavor! By the way, Jenn, who commented above has a great blog: Live Art.Fully. It's one I follow. It's inspiring and deeply emotional. You'll love it!!

  4. seem to remember a cynthia cythlook from my days in dillingham maybe she worked at knackanack hospital

  5. I just came across this post and it brought back fond memories of my first steam in Dillingham as well. My husband and I had just arrived to pastor the then tiny little Baptist Church. One of the ladies graciously invited me to meet some other women from the church and the town at her steam. She sweetly explained all the cultural "rules" to me. I was well prepared, and yet, it was still quite a new experience for me as a brand new post partum mommy and pastor's wife in a new culture!