Sweat lodge: Wikis


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The sweat lodge (also called purification ceremony, sweat house, medicine lodge, medicine house, or simply sweat) is a ceremonial sauna and is an important event in some North American First Nations or Native American cultures. There are several styles of sweat lodges that include a domed or oblong hut similar to a wickiup, or even a simple hole dug into the ground and covered with planks or tree trunks. Stones are typically heated in an exterior fire[1] and then placed in a central pit in the ground.


World examples

One of the early non-Indian occurrences can be found in the fifth century BC, when Scythians constructed pole and woolen cloth sweat baths.[2]

Native Americans in many regions employed the sweat lodge. For example, Chumash peoples of the central coast of California built sweat lodges in coastal areas[3] in association with habitation sites.


Hupa Indian underground building covered with wood plank roof, surrounded by a wall of large rocks

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 – In Native American lodges 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. Traditional tribes hold a high value of respect to the 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 many traditions, nudity is forbidden, as are mixed sex sweats. Many lodge leaders do not allow menstruating women. Perhaps the most important piece of etiquette is gratitude. It is important to be thankful to the people joining you in the lodge, and those helping to support the lodge.


Wearing metal jewelry can be dangerous: metal objects may become hot enough to burn the wearer. Contact lenses and synthetic clothing should not be worn in sweat lodges as the heat can cause the materials to melt and adhere to eyes, skin, or whatever they might be touching. Cotton clothing is recommended for lodges.

There have been reports of lodge-related deaths resulting from overexposure to heat, dehydration, smoke inhalation, or improper lodge construction leading to suffocation.[4][5] In October 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.[6] Ray was arrested in connection with the deaths on February 3, 2010, and bond was set at $5 million. [7] 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![8]

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. It is recommended that a physician check people intending to have a sweat-lodge experience, and that people only attend lodges with reputable people.

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 will likely crack and possibly explode in the fire or when hit by water. This can result in razor-sharp fragments and splinters striking participants with sufficient force to effect injury. Even rocks used before may absorb humidity or moisture leading to cracks or shattering.

There is also a risk posed by modern chemical pesticides, or inappropriate woods, herbs, or building materials being used in the lodge.

Lawsuit filed by the Lakota Nation

On November 2, 2009, the Lakota Nation filed a lawsuit against the United States, Arizona State, 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.”[citation needed]

The Lakota Nation holds that James Arthur Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center have “violated the peace between the United States and the Lakota Nation” and have caused the “desecration of our Sacred Oinikiga (purification ceremony) by causing the death of Liz Neuman, Kirby Brown and James Shore”. As well, the Lakota claim that James Arthur Ray and the Angel Valley Retreat Center fraudulently impersonated Indians and must be held responsible for causing the deaths and injuries, and for evidence destruction through dismantling of the sweat lodge. The lawsuit seeks to have the treaty enforced and does not seek monetary compensation.[9]

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[citation needed] and not a religion, as white men see it. It is Native American property protected by U.S. law and United Nation declaration. 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.[10] 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.[9][11][12][13][14][15]

See also


  1. ^ Ella E. Clark, Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, illustrated by Robert Bruce Inverarity, 2003, University of California Press, 225 pages ISBN 0520239261
  2. ^ Joseph Bruchac, The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends, 1993, The Crossing Press, 145 pages ISBN 089594636X
  3. ^ C. Michael Hogan, Los Osos Back Bay, Megalithic Portal, editor A. Burnham
  4. ^ Herel, Suzanne (2002-06-27). "2 seeking spiritual enlightenment die in new-age sweat lodge". San Francisco Chronicle (Hearst Communications). http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/06/27/BA212763.DTL. Retrieved 2006-09-26. 
  5. ^ John Dougherty, New York Times, "Deaths at Sweat Lodge Bring Soul-Searching
  6. ^ Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press "Motivational speaker charged in sweat lodge deaths"
  7. ^ Concerning the deaths in Sedona By Arvol Looking Horse. Published: Oct 16, 2009
  8. ^ a b Nina Rehfeld, "Lakota Nation files lawsuit against parties in sweat lodge incident", www.sedona.biz, 11/12/2009 [1]
  9. ^ Bob Goulais,"Dying to experience native ceremonies",North Bay Nugget, 10/24/2009 [2]
  10. ^ Cheif Chemito, Comments reported on Phoenix Fox 10 by Miriam Garcia, 10/10/2009 [3]
  11. ^ Valerie Taliman, "Taliman: Selling the sacred", Indian Country Today, 10/13/2009 [4]
  12. ^ Lindsay Hocker, "Sweat lodge incident 'not our Indian way", Quad-Cities Online, 10/14/2009 [5]
  13. ^ Chief Arvol Looking Horse, "Concerning the deaths in Sedona", Indian Country Today, 10/16/2009 [6]
  14. ^ All Nations Indigenous Native American Indian Cultural Center, "Native Elder Addresses Deaths In Sweat Lodge", BlackHillsToday, 10/17/2009 [7]


  • Bucko, Raymond A. (1998). The Lakota Ritual Of The Sweat Lodge. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-1272-0. 

External links



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