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
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 again.
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
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 be?"
"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 themselves.
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.