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NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
Joining Running Foot in a Navajo Sweat
NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
Direct Fire Sweat Lodge
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
The hot air bath of upper California depecited by Alexander Forbes
in the early 1880s.
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.
Hoopa is a small lumber community on the bank of the lower Trinity River.In early morning and evening when moisture condenses, a mist of mill smoke and dew veils the town. The Hoopa, Yuork, Karok, Wiyot and Tolowa lived comfortably in this area for centuries, fishing for salmon and eel, foraging wild acorns--and sweat bathing.
I visited Jimmy Jackson, a middle-aged Hoopa Indian and his 89-year-oldmother. He told me the sweat lodge has been rarely used since he was a kid."We only use the sweat lodge during the Jump Dance ceremony. I remember watching men of the tribe enter through an opening in the gabled roof that nearly reached the ground. They would go through a trap door in the roof and climb down a pole ladder into the pit. The fire was in the center, surrounded by a hearth of flat river stones. They would rest on ceda rboughs and wooden pillows and take turns stoking the fire. The best hunters and warriors had the privilege of gathering firewood and would compete to see who could carry the most wood. After the men had sweat, they would slide out through a hole on the north side, slippery like eels, and plunge into the river. There they would grab a heavy rock and see who could walk the furthest along the river bed."
Jimmy's mother said women rarely took sweat baths. "We might enter th lodge during a particular ceremony, like the death purification ritual,when the building wasn't being used as a sweat lodge."
Women respected the sweat lodge as a man's place where they could be by themselves. "We rarely saw our men at night, they spent so much time in the sweat lodge. You might say it worked as a birth control device."
Why were some tribes more inclined to use the direct fire method than others? Although they were geographically farflung, they had in common the leisure to enjoy communal companionship in a casual atmosphere. Eskimo men endured long dark winters in the glowing warmth of a sweat lodge while carving spears or knotting nets for the coming spring. Pacific Coast Indians, living in the land of plenty with an abundance of game, berries and nuts, had the leisure to be sociable. Pueblo men, with advanced farmingtechniques learned from the Aztecs, and with domesticated flocks of turkeys, herds of cattle, trained eagles, were assured of ample food andwere left with leisure too. They spent much time in the kiva, their ceremonial house, which often became a sweat lodge when enough wood was fed on the central fire.
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 inthe early 18th century.
Until recently, coastal Eskimos held a festival every autumn to honor the ribbon seal. Preparations lasted a month. During this time men lived in the kashim apart from the women. During the day the men danced, composed songs and planned their winter hunts. Come evening, they would stoke a big fireand create a fierce heat. They emerged, dripping with sweat, rolled themselves in the snow and doused themselves with icy water.
In 1899, Edward Nelson observed Eskimos of the Bering Straits and their very curious method of cleaning:
"In these buildings (kashim) sweat baths are taken by men and boys at intervals of a week or ten days during the winter. Every man has a small urine tub near his place, where this liquid is saved for use in bathing. A portion of the floor in the center of the room is made of planks so arranged that it can be taken up, exposing a pit beneath, in which a fire of drift logs is built. When the Smoke has passed off and the wood is reduced to a bed of coals, a cover is put over the smoke hole in the roof and the men sit naked about the room until they are in profuse perspiration; they then bathe in the urine, which combines with the oil on their bodies, and thus takes the place of soap, after which they go outside and pour water over their bodies until they become cool. While bathing they remain in the kashim with the temperature so high that their skin becomes shining red and appears to be almost at the point of blistering; then going outside they squat about in the snow perfectly nude, and seem to enjoy the contrasting temperature. On several occasions I saw them go from the sweat bath to holes in the ice on neighboring streams and squatting there, pour ice water over their backs and shoulders with a wooden dipper, apparently experiencing the greatest pleasure from the operation.
Nelson also observed a clever way of protecting the lungs from the causticsmoke:
"Owing to the intense heat generated in the fire pit, the bathers, who are always males, are obliged to use respirators to protect their lungs. These are made of fine shavings of willow or spruce bound into the form of an oblong pad formed to cover the mouth, the chin, and a portion of the cheeks. These pads are convex externally and concave within; crossing the concave side is a small wooden rod, either round or square, so that the wearer can grasp it in his teeth and thus hold the respirator in position."
The Indians in central and southern California built direct fire sweatlodges called temescals. (The Spaniards brought the word north with them from the Aztecs.) "In the center of the rancheria was the temescal," wrote George Redding in 1880 for the Californian, describing the life of the north Central Valley tribe, the Wintu. "It was constructed by digging a large circular basin-shaped hole in the ground, four or five feet deep. Large posts were sunk around the edge of this hole, about five feet apart, which extend upward to the top of the ground. In the center are planted four large tree trunks, with the original limbs on them, extending a few feet above the surface. From these four trees the roof supports are firmly fastened by withes to the branches at the center of the trees. The whole cover is then thatched with pine and willow brush, and covered with a layer of earth about a foot in thickness. The entrance is a long, low passage, and made by driving short, thin pine posts side by side, about three feet apart, covered in the same manner as the house proper."
Most California sweat lodges could be described as above, even the kivas ofthe Southwest had essentially the same design. However, the kivas differed only in that some were rectangular and lined inside with fine masonry. (I am told modern Pueblos are now using the hot rock method instead of a direct fire. Perhaps, this is a result of a cultural exchange that began centuries ago when the Apache and Navaho tribes migrated from the north and mingled with the Pueblo people.)
Although less spiritual attachment was placed on the direct fire sweatlodges vis-a-vis most hot rock sweats, they were still considered a powerful remedy for all ills. In California during early 1800s, Alexander Forbes wrote:
"The Indians, in their natural state, are very healthy, notwithstanding their filthy habits. It is very far otherwise in their domesticated state. Both with the wild and domesticated tribes, the hot-air bath, or temescal, is the soverign remedy for most of their diseases. This is administered in the following manner. A round hovel or oven of mud is built for the purpose. It has a small opening in the side to enter by, and a smaller one at the top for the escape of the smoke. Several persons enter this at the same time, quite naked, and make a fire close to the door, on the inside. They continue to add fresh wood to the fire as long as they can bear the heat. This soon throws them into a profuse perspiration over their whole frame. They wring their hair, (says Captain Beechey) and scrape their skin with a sharp piece of wood or iron hoop, in the same manner as coachhorses are sometimes treated when they come in heated, and they plunge into a river or pond of cold water, which they always take care shall be near the temescal."
Another description of California sweating comes from Stephen Powers in 1877:
" . . . their panacea was the sweat house. Mr. While relates that he once ventured an experiment in one of these sweating dungeons out of curiosity and in dispair (sic) over a neuralgia, for the healing of which he had suffered many things by many physicians and had spent all that he had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse. The first time he was well-nigh suffocated by the dense and bitter smudge made by the green wood. For two hours he lay with his face pressed close to the ground, with a wet handkerchief over his nostrils (the Indians purposely build the fire close to the door, so they cannot excape (sic) until it burns down) and it was a wonder to himself that he lived through it. But he was much benefited that he made a second trial of it, and was quite cured."