The Sweat Lodge is probably one of the most important Native Rituals.
The sweat lodge has to do with self awareness, healing - body, mind and soul. It can be an initiation of higher
One can heal themselves or the Earth Mother (This represents the womb).
There are three basic forms of the sweat bath are indigenous to North America:
1... the hot rock method, used by the Navajos and Sioux
2... the direct fire chamber, heated by blazing logs
3... a more sophisticated type relying on a heating duct system believed to be of Mayan origin - like a sauna.
( The Swedish peoples have another version of the sweats which involves extreme hot and cold immersions )
The "Sweat Lodge" ceremony or ritual usually occurs before and after every other major rituals like the 'Sundance' and Vision Quest.
It is also a "stand alone" ritual meaning that it occurs whenever it is needed. ( Private sweats are common among most indigenous peoples worldwide )
It is a form of healing.
It's origional purpose was to cleanse or purify individuals.
Mother sweat lodge essentially translates into returning to the womb.
This ceremony was initially given to the men by the women because women already had their 'moon time' each month and
thus had the ability to cleanse themselves.
It was initially a symbolic purification ritual, but has evolved into a healing process .
These days women sweat also, but according to the views of the elder running the ceremony they may have to sweat
separately from the men.
Rarely, Women are sweat lodge keepers, and host women-only healing sweats.( It is however, becoming more common )
The traditionals want men to sweat separately from the woman.( this is based on male-dominated societies)
The reason for this is that there are separate views within the community going back to the old ways.
Everything is done in the exact same way as in the old days, but veries from tribe to tribe..
Typical Sioux Sweat Lodge ceremony: ( * note * The Sioux use different colors for the directions, and their ceremony differs from many other tribes .)
Opening prayers are done outside the lodge and the the elder or spiritual guide enters. In our case, as with most ancient cultures, the lodge door faces East as this is where everything new begins.
The elder/ spiritual guide enters and sits in the Western door.
( In mixed Sweats) The Woman enter next and move clockwise around the pit in the center of the lodge and sit in the North facing the South.
The men then enter and sit in the South facing the North.
We all sit on flat cedar bows that are cut fresh every week, or, in modern times, on a carpet or rug, or even animal hide..
When the elder/ Guide is ready - the grandfathers then enter.( They are asked to enter)
The first five stones must be brought in on the pitchfork one at a time.
As each enters medicines are put on them like cedar, sage, sweetgrass, etc. each having a very different healing property.
The lodge begins to heat up and fill with beautiful smells.
The first grandfather (Hot-Stone representing the ancient spirits) that enters is placed in the center to represent the Creator.
The first stone is placed as the center stone.
The second is placed in the East and touches the center stone. The Eastern direction is the Eagle.
The color is yellow and the season is Spring.
The East is the spiritual direction and the Eagle is strong carrying our prayers to "Great Spirit."
The third rock is placed in the South folowing the same protocol.
The season is summer.
The color is Red.
The spirit keeper is the Coyote or Wolf.
The jumping mouse also sits in the south.
This direction is the one of love, emotion, community and introspection.
The forth stone is placed in the West.
The season is Fall.
The color is Black.
The Medicine Bear sits here and represents both the phyiscal strength and healing.
The bear brings the healing to the people and is very powerful.
The fifth stone is placed in the North.
The color is White.
The season is winter.
The Great White Buffalo sits here as does the Salmon.
This is the direction of Wisdom and of sacrifice.
This is where the elders sit.
The buffalo and the salmon sacrificed themselves so the people could live and will always be greatly respected for that.
In the end all we can offer that is truly ours is our flesh which is why we pierce at the sundance but that is an entirely different story.
After the first 5 rocks have entered the next 7 are brought to make a total of 12.
The number 12 is very significant.
There are 12 moons, 12 tail feathers on the eagle, 12 months and so on.
Next the water bucket is brought in and passed to the elder.
The door is then closed and the prayers begin.
A pipe is passed around.
The Pipe holder asks the Spirits to come and join in the smoking of the Pipe.
Only men smoke the pipe.
Instead, women are touched upon the brow, and this is how they send their messages to the creator.
Medicine Women may smoke their own pipes and often have thier own rituals that men cannot perform.
The two main parts of the pipe that hold special symbolic value as do the materials used in their construction,
Pipe-stone (bowl) and the wooden portion of the Pipe (stem).
The joining of the two is considered a metaphorical
marriage of Mother Earth and the creatures that inhabit the Earth.
This is the main ideology behind the two materials joining and becoming one.
The male portion is symbolized as the wood used in the stem.
The wood symbolizes the connection between all the living things that inhabit the Earth.
The wooden portion joins the stone portion similar to a male joining with the female.
The Pipes themselves are adorned with elaborately shaped bowls resembling the Pipe holders Totem and Spirit
They are painted with colors depicting special meanings and feathers, adding an animal presence.
Beads are mainly used for decoration but the colors have symbolic value.
Each round twelve rock are added so by the end 48 have come in and two are left in the fire to represent Mother
Earth and Father Sky.
Each of the 4 round has a different meaning.
In the first round they honor and pray for the female aspect of life.
In the second round we honor the male aspect.
The third round is the healing round and the forth round is the one for ourselves.
At the end of each round the door is opened and the next set of 12 are brought in.
There are songs, stories, teachings and prayers in each round as well as opening and closing songs.
When everything is over the people exit the lodge.
It is very important to note that it is a great honor to be invited to a sweat and that this ceremony was given to the First Nations People.
Many Native People have now come to a point where thay are willing to included non-natives because the Creator sees no color.
The 4 directions are also the four faces of man ie: Yellow, red, Black and White.
If you are invited to a sweat it is important to know why you are personally going.
You need to take the Elder an offering as an act of repsect - Medicines, Tobacco, food, anything that has meaning and
hand it to them while you are shaking their hand.
The tobacco used in the Pipe is brought by the people who asked for the ceremony.
It is their gift for the Spirits to come and guide the Medicine Man throughout the ceremony.
Exactly four pinches of tobacco are used and must fill up the bowl at the end of the fourth pinch.
These pinches of the tobacco are held out to the Four Directions to call forth the Spirits to accept the offering and hear their plea for guidance.
You tell them why you have come.
These Elders do this work without charging a fee.
No one will every turn away anyone who does not bring an offering.
If you go to a sweat go early and offer to help. Watch what is being done and do it.
The firekeeper will let you know if they don't want your help but most will be glad to see you maing an effort and
completing the circle.
When you come out of the sweat drink lots of water and cool off in the river or ocean depending on where you are.
- Raining Thunder Wolf Lodge
History of the Sweat Lodge
Use of the sweat lodge was chronicled by the earliest settlers in America. In 1665, David DeVries of New York
observed Indians "entirely clean and more attractive than before" while sweat bathing.
Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote in 1643: "They use sweating for two ends: first to cleanse their skin; secondly
to purge their bodies, which doubtless is a great means of preserving them, especially from the French disease
(probably influenza) which by sweating and some potions, they perfectly and speedily cure."
George Catlin wrote a lengthy description of the Mandan's sweat lodge in 1845, ending with the comment: "Such is
the sudatory or vapour bath of the Mandans, and, as I before observed, it is resorted to both as an everyday luxury
by those who have the time and energy to indulge in it; and also used by the sick as a remedy for nearly all the
diseases which are known amongst them.
The most popular form of sweat bathing among North American Indians was the hot rock method and its variations.
These were used exclusively by tribes in the central plains, the southwest, the Great Basin and the eastern
Whether permanent, temporary or portable, they were smaller than other Indian structures, and usually domed and
sometimes oblong. Nomadic tribes drove pliant boughs, such as willow, into the ground and arched them into a
hemisphere, secured with withes. Stationary tribes used more substantial materials - logs and heavy bark. Temporary
sweat lodges were covered with blankets or skins, while the permanent types were sealed with mud or sod.
In either case, a depression was dug near the door or in the center to cradle the rocks, which were heated outside
and brought in on forked sticks. Steam was produced by sprinkling the rocks from a straw broom or a hollowed
buffalo horn. Although simple to build, every detail was symbolic.
The Sioux, see the interior of the sweat lodge as representing the womb of Mother Earth, its darkness as human
ignorance, the hot stones as the coming of life, and the hissing steam as the creative force of the universe being
activated. The entrance faces east, source of life and power, dawn of wisdom, while the fire heating the rocks is the
undying light of the world, eternity.
Sweat lodges were often connected with gods and creation. In the lore of the Wintu tribe of California it is said that
Olelbis, the creator, built a great and awesome sweat house, its middle support being a huge white oak, with various
kinds of oaks being side supports and flowering plants serving as binding and sides. Then, as the house began to
grow wider and higher, it became wonderful in size and splendor.
Just as daylight was coming, the house was finished and ready. It stood in the morning dawn, a mountain of beautiful
flowers and oak branches; all the colors of the world were on it, inside and out. The center tree had grown far above
the top of the house, filled with acorns; a few of them had fallen on every side. This sweat house was placed there to
last forever, the largest and most beautiful building in the world, above or below. Nothing like it will ever be built
The Maidu's story of Creation begins with a sweat in the dancehouse. The Great Spirit made two dolls of clay and laid
them on the floor. The Great Spirit then lay beside them and sweated so long that the dolls turned into living people.
Long ago, in the days of the Animal People, Sweat Lodge was a man. He foresaw the coming of Human Beings, the
real inhabitants of the Earth. So one day he called all the Animal People together to give each one a name and to tell
him his duties. In the council, the Sweat Lodge stood up and made a speech: "We have lived on Earth for a long
while, but we shall not be in our present condition much longer. A different People are coming to live here. We must
part from each other and go to different places. Each of you must decide whether you wish to belong to the Animal
beings that walk, fly or creep or those that swim. You may now make your choice."
Then Sweat Lodge turned to Elk."You will first come this way, Elk. What do you wish to be?"
"I wish to be what I am--an Elk.
"Let us see you run or gallop," said Sweat Lodge.
So Elk galloped off in a graceful manner, and returned.
"You are right,"; decided Sweat Lodge. "You are an Elk." Elk galloped off, and the rest saw no more of him.
Sweat Lodge called Eagle and asked, "What do you wish to be, Eagle?"
"Just what I am--an Eagle."
"Let us see you fly," replied Sweat Lodge.
Eagle flew, rising higher and higher with hardly a ripple on his outstretched wings.
Sweat Lodge called him back and said, "You are an Eagle. You will be king over all the Birds of the Air. You will soar
in the Sky. You will live on the crags and peaks of the highest Mountains. Human Beings will admire you."
Eagle flew away happy. Everyone watched him disappear in the Sky.
"I wish to be like Eagle"; Bluejay told Sweat Lodge.
Wanting to give everyone a chance, Sweat Lodge said again, "Then let us see you fly."
Bluejay tried to imitate the easy, graceful flight of Eagle, but failed to keep his balance and was soon flapping his
Sweat Lodge called him back. "A Jay is a Jay. You will have to be content as you are."
When Bear came forward, Sweat Lodge said, "You will be known among Human Beings as a very fierce Animal. You
will kill and eat People, and they will fear you."
Bear went off into the woods and has since been known as a fierce animal.
Then to all walking creatures, except Coyote, and to all flying creatures, to all Animals and Birds, all Snakes, Frogs,
Turtles and Fish, Sweat Lodge gave names, and the creatures scattered.
After they were gone, Sweat Lodge called Coyote to him and said, "You have been wise and cunning. You have been
a man to be feared. When this Earth becomes like the air, empty and void, your name shall last forever. The new
Human Beings who come will hear your name and say, 'Yes, Coyote was great in his time.' Now, what do you wish to
"I have long lived as a Coyote," he replied. "I want to be noble like Eagle or Elk or Cougar."
Sweat Lodge let him show what he could do. First, Coyote tried his best to fly like Eagle, but could only jump around,
this way and that. Then he tried to imitate Elk in his graceful gallop. He succeeded for a short distance, but soon fell
into his own gait. He stopped short and looked around.
"You look exactly like yourself, Coyote," laughed Sweat Lodge. "You will be a Coyote."
Poor Coyote ran off, howling, to some unknown place. Before he got out of sight he stopped, turned his head and
stood-just like a coyote.
Sweat Lodge, left alone, spoke to himself: "All now are gone, and the new People will be coming soon. When they
arrive they should find something to give them strength and power.
"I will place myself on the ground, for the use of Human Beings who are to come. Whoever visits me now and then,
to him I will give power. He will become great in war and great in peace. He will have success in fishing and in
hunting. To all who come to me for protection, I will give strength and power."
Sweat Lodge spoke with earnestness. Then he lay down on his hands and knees and waited for the first People. He
has lain that way ever since and has given power to all who sought it from him.
The sweat bath often accompanied other rituals. The Utes of the Southwest, for example, preceded their peyote
ceremony with a fast and a sweat to purify their body, while peyote released evil from their souls. Cherokee priests,
custodians of sacred myths, were allowed to recite them only in the sanctum of the sweat lodge. Their knowledge was
not for everyone to hear. They would meet at night in a sweat lodge and discuss the inner knowledge among
In one of the Omaha Indians' chants, the sweat lodge rock is called 'Grandsire'; or 'Aged One.'; The stones
symbolized the state of being, immovable and steadfast, dwelling place of all. The Fox Indians believed the spirit
Manitou dwelled in the stones of the sweat lodge. An old Fox Indian told this: Often one will cut one's self only
through the skin. It is done to open up many passages for the Manitou to pass into the body. It comes from his abode
in the stone, roused by the heat of the fire, and proceeds out of the stone when water is sprinkled on it. It comes out
in the steam and enters the body wherever it finds entrance. It moves up and down, and all over and inside the body,
driving out everything that inflicts pain. Before the Manitou returns to the stone, it imparts some of its nature to the
body. That is why one feels so well after having been in the sweat lodge
Preparation for the sweat bath and its indulgence followed traditional disciplines, often conducted by a medicine man.
The Kiowa built their sweat lodge with a framework of twelve reeds, other tribes used more. The number of stones
varied, but five or six were common. Some tribes cooled off in snow and sand (as the Navajos) while others plunged
into lakes and streams.
The hot air bath of upper California depecited by Alexander Forbes in the early 1880s.
Alaskan Eskimos, some Pacific Coast tribes and the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest built lodges heated directly by
fire. They were usually large enough to accomodate dozens of men. A small pilot fire was kept burning most of the
day. After hours of talk, gossip and dancing the fire was fed to a noble size, the lodge became torrid and sweating
Although caustic smoke filled the air, these people made no effort to convert to the hot rock method, though they
surely knew of this alternative. Without stoves or chimneys, a blazing central fire was the simplest way to convert a
men's club into a sudatorium. When the smoke became unbearable, the men would simply lie flat on the floor and
breathe fresher air.
The Eskimos used the kashim as their social and religious center. It was a rectangular wooden structure, large
enough to house bachelors and male travelers and as a clubhouse for married men. They were dug partially
underground, insulated with dirt or sod with a single tunnel entrance and a small hole in the roof for smoke to escape.
This style plank house was found along the Pacific Coast as far south as northern California. Central Alaskan
Eskimos, lacking timber, never built sweat lodges. Aleutian Eskimos never built the sweat lodge until it was
introduced by Russian traders in the early 18th century.
The Sweat Lodge and Spirit
Since ancient times, people have understood that their spirits are nourished through religious ceremonies. Sacrifice,
prayer and self-denial have long been rituals through which people have found peace of mind.
American Indians may experience visions or revelations from their Creator through dreams or by performing certain
rituals. Just as Christians pray for guidance during church services, many Indians find that using a sweat lodge
heightens their spiritual and religious awareness.
A sweat lodge, also known as a sauna, is heated by fire or by pouring water over hot stones. Heat and steam cleanse
the body, and they can also purify the spirit or soul.
In addition to visiting a sweat lodge, some Indians meditate and fast in order to receive a vision to guide them. They
may seek answers to a particular question, or look for broad answers which will help them live with dignity and honor
on their journey through life.
Youth use the fasting and meditation ritual in order to understand how to be of service to their People when they
enter the adult world. It helps prepare them for a time when they might have to go without food by helping them
understand their own bodies and the value of sharing. Ojibwe children are encouraged to find their own
understanding of life. They may go alone into the woods or wilderness and fast as a way to receive their own guardian
Meditation, fasting and cleansing can enhance the spiritual lives of all people, whether they are Indian or not.