Sweat Lodge

inipi

The sweat lodge is a ceremonial sauna and is an important event in some Native American cultures. There are several styles of sweat lodges that include a domed or oblong hut similar to a wigwam, or even a simple hole dug into the ground and covered with planks or tree trunks. Stones are typically heated in an exterior fire and then placed in a central pit in the ground. Early occurrences can be found in the fifth century BCE, when Scythians constructed pole and woolen cloth sweat baths.

Vapor baths were in use among the Celtic tribes, and the sweat-house was in general use in Ireland down to the 18th, and even survived into the 19th century. It was of beehive shape and was covered with clay. It was especially resorted to as a cure for rheumatism. Rituals and traditions vary from region to region and from tribe to tribe. They often include prayers, drumming, and offerings to the spirit world. In some cultures a sweat-lodge ceremony may be a part of another, longer ceremony such as a Sun Dance.

Some common practices and key elements associated with sweat lodges include: Orientation – The door usually faces the fire. The cardinal directions usually have distinct symbolism in Native American cultures. The lodge may be oriented within its environment for a specific purpose. Placement and orientation of the lodge within its environment often facilitates the ceremony’s connection with the spirit world. Construction – The lodge is generally built with great care and with respect to the environment and to the materials being used. Many traditions construct the lodge in complete silence, some have a drum playing while they build, other traditions have the builders fast during construction.

Clothing – participants usually wear a simple garment such as shorts or loose dresses. Offerings – Various types of plant medicines are often used to make prayers, give thanks or make other offerings. Prayer ties are sometimes made. Support – In many traditions, one or more persons will remain outside the sweat lodge to protect the ceremony, and assist the participants. Sometimes they will tend the fire and place the hot stones, though usually this is done by a designated firekeeper. In another instance, a person that sits in the lodge, next to the door, is charged with protecting the ceremony, and maintaining lodge etiquette. Darkness – Many traditions consider it important that sweats be done in complete darkness.

The most important part of sweat lodge etiquette is respecting the traditions of the lodge leader. Some lodges take place in complete silence, while others involve singing, chanting, drumming, or other sound. It is important to know what is allowed and expected before entering a lodge. In some cultures, objects, including clothing, without a ceremonial significance are discouraged from being brought into the lodge. Most traditional tribes place a high value on modesty as a respect to the lodge. In clothed lodges, women are usually expected to wear skirts or short-sleeved dresses of a longer length. In some traditions, nudity is forbidden, as are mixed sex sweats, whereas in others nudity is considered to have a greater connection with the spiritual aspect of your sweat. Some lodge leaders do not allow menstruating women. Perhaps the most important piece of etiquette is gratitude. It is important to be thankful to the purpose of the sweat, the people joining you in the lodge, and those helping to support the sweat lodge.

Even people who are experienced with sweats, and attending a ceremony led by a properly trained and authorized Native American ceremonial leader, could suddenly experience problems due to underlying health issues. If rocks are used, it is important not to use river rocks, or other kinds of rocks with air pockets inside them. Rocks must be completely dry before heating. Rocks with air pockets or excessive moisture could crack and possibly explode in the fire or when hit by water. Previously used rocks may absorb humidity or moisture leading to cracks or shattering.

There have been reports of lodge-related deaths resulting from overexposure to heat, dehydration, smoke inhalation, or improper lodge construction leading to suffocation. In 2009, during a New Age retreat organized by James Arthur Ray, three people died and 21 more were sickened from an overcrowded and improperly set up sweat lodge containing some 60 people and located near Sedona, Arizona. Ray was arrested by the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. In response to these deaths, Lakota spiritual leader Arvol Looking Horse issued a statement reading in part:

‘Our First Nations People have to earn the right to pour the mini wic’oni (water of life) upon the inyan oyate (the stone people) in creating Inikag’a – by going on the vision quest for four years and four years Sundance. Then you are put through a ceremony to be painted – to recognize that you have now earned that right to take care of someone’s life through purification. They should also be able to understand our sacred language, to be able to understand the messages from the Grandfathers, because they are ancient, they are our spirit ancestors. They walk and teach the values of our culture; in being humble, wise, caring and compassionate. What has happened in the news with the make shift sauna called the sweat lodge is not our ceremonial way of life!’

In 2009, the Lakota Nation filed a lawsuit against James Arthur Ray and Angel Valley Retreat Center site owners, to have Ray and the site owners arrested and punished under the Sioux Treaty of 1868 between the United States and the Lakota Nation, which states that ‘if bad men among the whites or other people subject to the authority of the United States shall commit any wrong upon the person or the property of the Indians, the United States will (…) proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also reimburse the injured person for the loss sustained.’

The Lakota Nation holds that Ray ‘violated the peace between the United States and the Lakota Nation’ and caused the ‘desecration of our Sacred Oinikiga (purification ceremony) by causing the death of Liz Neuman, Kirby Brown and James Shore.’ The lawsuit seeks to have the treaty enforced and does not seek monetary compensation. Preceding the lawsuit, Native American experts on sweat lodges criticized the reported construction and conduct of the lodge as not meeting traditional ways (‘bastardized,’ ‘mocked,’ and ‘desecrated’). Indian leaders expressed concerns and prayers for the dead and injured. The leaders said the ceremony is their way of life and not a religion, as white men see it.

The ceremony should only be in sanctioned lodge carriers’ hands from legitimate nations. Traditionally, a typical leader has 4 to 8 years of apprenticeship before being allowed to care for people in a lodge, and have been officially named as ceremonial leaders before the community. Participants are instructed to call out whenever they feel uncomfortable, and the ceremony is usually stopped to help them. The lodge was said to be unusually built from non-breathable materials.

Charging for the ceremony was said to be inappropriate. The number of participants was criticized as too high and the ceremony length was said to be too long. Respect to elders’ oversight was said to be important for avoiding unfortunate events. The tragedy was characterized as ‘plain carelessness,’ with a disregard for the participants’ safety and outright negligence. The Native American community actively seeks to prevent abuses of their traditions. Organizers have been discussing ways to formalize guidance and oversight to authentic or independent lodge leaders.

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