NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
A Guest at an Oglala Sun Dance Ceremony
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
Sioux sweat lodge frame and sacrificial pole ca. 1900.--Smithsonian
Institution, National Anthropological Archives. From Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland.
A few months after my experience with the Navaho sweat lodge, I drove through the misty farmlands of northern
California to the D-Q Native American and Chicano University,
quite a contrast to the barren buttes of Navajo territory.
A newsletter had announced: "D-Q University will co-sponsor the
Sacred Sun Dance Ceremony, one of the most scared of all religious
events to be held on the West Coast for the first time in the
History of Man. Conducted by Crow Dog, Medicine Man of the Sioux,
this year's Ceremony will be in the oldest ways--eight days of
Offering, Fasting and Pipe Ceremonies ..."
I knew the sweat bath was an integral event in the Sun Dance Ceremony
and doubted the Sioux permitted outsiders to participate. I expected
only to be a spectator. A long-haired Indian stopped me at the
gate to make sure I carried no cameras, firearms, drugs or alcohol.
I signed in and he waved me through with a welcoming smile.
I found the Sun Dance grounds just as the rain gave way to a heavy
mist veiling teepees in a grassy field. A large circle loomed
in front of me, about 25 meters in diameter, created by a series
of H-shaped supports. They were crowned by a thatched roof, two
meters off the ground. It resembled the circular foyer of a theatre.
A lone cottonwood tree stood in the center, planted especially
for the Sun Dance Ceremony.
The sweat lodges were clustered together in the near background.
Although I had arrived late on the seventh day, rain had delayed
the Ceremony and the dancers had not yet left their teepees. That
gave me time to talk with some non-dancers huddled around a pit
fire outside the roped-off Ceremony area. "When the dancing begins,"
a young man told me, "you'll file around the right side of the
ceremonial grounds along with others who haven't gone through
the purification ritual." His long hair held mist in a million
droplets. "Those of us who have gone through the ritual will move
to the left where the drummer and singers stand." I asked if he
was a Sioux and he shook his head. I knew from Black Elk's The
Sacred Pipe that the dancers used the sweat lodges for Inipi (rites
of purification) and didn't until now realize non-Sioux were allowed
to participate. "Observers are allowed to go through the purification
sweat at night after the dancers have finished their sweats,"
my friend told me. "Next day you can be a spectator alongside
the drummer and singers."
A voice called that the dancers were ready and rhythmic pounding
began on a buffalo hide drum. I removed my shoes and joined the
uninitiated. We filed in a circle along the north side of the
perimeter. A buffalo skull lay near the cottonwood tree in the
center of the ring. Dancers, blowing on eagle bone whistles, danced
single file into the arena.
To those not familiar with Sioux culture, the Sun Dance may seem
brutal. It was outlawed by the federal government in l9O4 and
only recently has its practice been permitted under special circumstances.
The controversial part of the ceremony is known as piercing. After
an hour of dancing and singing around the cottonwood tree, a dancer
lays down on his back. The medicine man cuts two slits in the
skin of his chest above each nipple. He then pulls up the skin,
opening the wounds wide enough to slip a peg through each pair
of slits. He wraps a rawhide thong around the exposed ends of
the pegs and ties on a single rope, much like the Y-shaped tow
line of a water skier, the top of the Y tied to the tree. The
dancer rises and resumes dancing and blowing on his whistle. He
dances backwards until the rope is taut, his skin stretching against
the tug of the rope. Other dancers encourage him in a fury of
dancing, whooping and whistling. Finally, by leaning back, dancing
and screeching on his whistle, he rips the pegs from his flesh.
Soon another dancer takes his turn.
The Sioux believe flesh represents ignorance, encapsulating the
spirit. Breaking the skin is meant to release the individual spirit
for submission to the Great Spirit, Wakan-Tanka. The shedding
of blood symbolized the merging of the dancer's blood with tribesmen
who died in battle, and the mother in childbirth. Through eight
days of dancing, fasting and sweating, the dancers purify themselves
I watched spellbound all afternoon as four dancers were pierced
and released. At dusk, the dancers, wounded and exhausted, filed
from the circle. Since they were fasting no food awaited them,
but the sweat lodges had been heated for their third and final
purification bath of the day. We observers retreated to the campfire
for a meal of venison, beans and fried bread. A man named Charlie
passed me a steaming cup of black coffee and told me we must prepare
tobacco ties before entering the sweat lodge, one tie for each
prayer we wished to give. He led me to a tent which served as
a temporary medical shelter. Inside, a small group of people were
busy working with patches of brightly colored cloth and piles
of untreated tobacco. Charlie placed a pinch of tobacco in the
middle of the square cloth and folded the corners until it looked
like a small ghost. "Then take a piece of black thread," he told
me, "and wrap it around the neck of the cloth three times, finishing
up with a clove hitch. Space the prayer twists an inch apart--never
string less than four and never an odd number." As I took a chair
and began preparing my tobacco ties, a young fellow proudly told
me he'd been working all week on a string of 2OO prayer twists.
He was going to take on a Sioux name and become an eternal friend
of the Sioux nations. His naming ceremony was scheduled for the
last night of the Sun Dance.
Soon after I finished my prayer twists, a voice announced the
sweat lodges were free for anyone who wished to join the purification
ceremony. We walked past the sacred dancing grounds toward the
ring of sweat lodges where a fire blazed in the center. By the
time we arrived, the four non-Sioux sweat lodges were already
full. Each held six or seven participants and one Sioux leader.
(These lodges were much larger than the Navajo's.)
We stripped outside and entered through the west entrance, as
was the custom. On a log between two lodges, I joined a group
of men waiting their turn. The night's cold air bit sharply, making
the prospect of a hot sweat all the more enticing. I could hear
muffled prayers seeping through the heavy skin, canvas and cloth
covering the sweat lodge. Finally, six of us were led to the east
side of the circle.
Following instructions, we murmured a Sioux prayer which roughly
translates, "To all my relations," as we filed into the sweat
lodge. Moving east to west, past a depression in the center which
held the hot rocks, our seating followed the path of the sun.
Our Sioux leader sat down last on the east side near the door.
I sat opposite him and tied my prayer twists to a willow bough
above my head.
In the glow of the fire burning outside, the leader told us of
the Sun Dance and the special meaning of the sweat lodge. "It
is a very ancient and sacred part of Sioux life," he said. "The
sweat you are now taking is in honor of the Sun Dancers who dance,
fast and suffer for the good of us all. Your prayers tonight shall
be for their strength and good fortune."
"One of the men you saw being pierced today," he continued, "was
only fifteen years old. You saw how well he took the pain. He
will grow up to be a great warrior. Women don't need the piercing
ritual. Men understand what they are doing is comparable to what
women endure in childbirth."
A fire watcher entered carrying a hot rock on a shovel. He laid
it with others in the shallow depression. "The first rock is dedicated
to Wakan-Tanka, who is the center of everything." The fire watcher
brought in five more rocks, one by one. "One for each direction
of the earth. All the rocks together represent everything in the
universe. During the ceremony, the door will open and close four
times to symbolize the letting of light during the four ages."
Our leader sang a long Sioux prayer which Black Elk translated
in his book, The Sacred Pipe. He then splashed water on the glowing
rocks six times--for Grandfather, Father, Grandmother, Mother,
the Earth and one for the Sacred Pipe. Just when the hot steam
became uncomfortable, he called outside for the flap to be opened
and a blast of cold air refreshed us. The sacred pipe was filled
and handed in and the flap was closed. The Sioux puffed on the
pipe, gave a prayer to Wakan-Tanka and the Sun Dancers, and instructed
us to follow his example as the pipe was passed from east to west.
When my turn came I praised the dancers, took a puff and wiped
smoke over my body as instructed. "All my relations, all my relations."
I passed on the pipe. When it had made the full circle and was
back in the hands of the Sioux, he prayed for all of us, tossed
more water on the rocks and the door flap was thrown open.
Normally, we would have gone through the sweat at least twice
again, but the Sioux, a dancer who had led three other sweats
that evening, preferred not to continue. "You have all been purified,"
he said. "Leave the sweat lodge from the east, head west, and
as you exit say, 'All my relations.' You have smoked the sacred
pipe and have taken the sacred sweat. Good luck to you!"
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