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Sweat Lodge

Native American Priactices and Rituals

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Traditional Sweat Lodge
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

The sweat lodge is one of the most basic spiritual practices of the Native Americans known to non-Natives. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most exploited, with non-Native sweat lodge hosts often charging significant amounts of money and running them in manners at odds with traditional native beliefs.

In Native cultures, those leading sweat lodges are respected spiritual members of the community trained to oversee the tribe's rituals.

Build

The sweat lodge is commonly built of supple tree branches. The stronger ends are planted in the ground, and then the more slender and bendable ends are pulled together to build a domed frame. Traditionally, buffalo hides were thrown over the frame to block out light and keep in heat and moisture. However, today blankets, canvas and other man-made items are often used.

Alternatively, a pit can be dug and then covered with wood planks.

The entrance generally faces east. Several feet away from the entrance a fire is built. A stick, often crowned with the skull of a buffalo, may be erected between the entrance and the fire. This is a warning to participants exiting the lodge who may be somewhat disorientated so that they do not stumble into the fire.

A pit is dug at the center of of the lodge, one or two feet deep. This is where the heat and steam will originate.

There is no set size for a lodge, but they are commonly about ten feet across. This allows for a number of people to sit single file around the edge of the lodge a safe distance from heat source, without creating an overly large space that would be difficult to adequately heat.

Preparation

Participants often go through purification rituals in the day before a lodge. This often includes fasting, and generally at least involves abstaining from alcohol and narcotics. Upon entering the lodge, participants might be “smudged” with sage, meaning they are exposed to the smoke of burning sage. This is a spiritual purification.

Participants are expect to dress is simple, modest clothes. Modern conveniences (watches, cellphones, etc.) are generally banned, as often is jewelry.

After entering, participants circle the lodge clockwise and take a seat near the wall of the lodge.

Participants

The sweat lodge is traditionally a ritual for men. However, in modern times, women have often been allowed to participate as well. A common limit is that they are not menstruating. The sweat lodge is a ritual of spiritual and physical purification, and menstruation is considered a pollutant (as it is in many cultures around the world).

Heating the Stones

The fire outside is used to heat several stones. When ready, they are brought inside and placed within the central pit. The first four stones are dedicated to the four winds. The next three may be dedicated to earth, sky, and the center of all, depending on the tradition. After that, additional stones may be added, until a sufficient quantity has been placed. A flap over the entrance is closed, darkening the lodge and trapping in heat.

The leader of the ritual then pours water over the stones, creating steam. Multiple pours may be again dedicated to the four winds, earth, sky and the center of all. At this point, any number of different things may happen. Prayers and chants may be started. Tobacco may be ritually smoked. Participants may engage in meditation. Specific concerns and goals may be addressed. Some sweat rituals are done in silence.

A sweat lodge ceremony often goes through four rounds of heating the stones and pouring on water, each lasting 30 to 45 minutes. In between rounds, while the stones are being reheated, participants may exit the lodge in order to cool off, or they may remain inside the lodge. Someone sickened by the heat is welcome to exit at any time.

Purpose

The sweat lodge is a purification ritual, often employed before the practice of additional rituals. It is a purging of negative influences and a return to the primal earth and her spirits. It may be used to help get past unpleasant experiences, overcome obstacles such as addiction, and gain healing for afflictions.

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