NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
History of Sweat Lodges
©2011 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
George Catlin's drawing of the Mandan's sweat lodge in 1845.
From Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland
In one form or another, the sweat bath pervaded cultures from
the Alaskan Eskimo south into the land of the Mayans. The purpose,
in most cases, went beyond getting the body clean. The sweat bath
provided a cure for illness, revitalization for aching muscles,
and a sense of racial identity. A Navajo who fought in World War
II told me he came back for a sweat bath "to rid himself of evil
accumulated during war."
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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. Fevers
are very rare, and in fact almost unknown amongst these people:
but in the few cases of fever which have been known, this treatment
has been applied, and without the fatal consequences which we
would naturally predict. This custom is similar amongst nearly
all of these Missouri Indians and amongst the Pawnees, Omahas,
and Punchas and other tribes."
In his book, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America
(1766-68), Captain J. Carver, observing Native American customs,
wrote: "Pains and weaknesses in the stomach and the breast are
sometimes the result of their long fasting and consumptions of
the excessive fatigue and violent exercises they expose themselves
to from infancy, before they have strength to support them. But
the disorder to which they are most subject is plueresy; for the
removal of which, they apply their grand remedy and preventative
against the generality of their complaints, sweating."
Nevertheless, the white man saw the sweat lodge, with its sacred
and religious implications, as a threat. Even after the Indians
were subdued, Christian missionaries and government officials
systematically denied use of the sweat lodge, interrupting a continuity
that lasted thousands of years. Enforcement depended upon how
great a threat they felt from a particular tribe.
The Sioux, who stubbornly fought white man's attempt to "civilize"
them, were punished by Indian police for simply entering the sweat
lodge. More docile tribes gave up sweat lodge rituals voluntarily.
In other regions, such as Mexico, sweat bathing continued without
interruption as long as certain elements offensive to the Spanish
conquerors were abandoned. In areas where influence of white culture
was less intense, a more tolerant attitude prevailed and sweat
bathing continued. This explains the integrity of my experience
with the Navajos, and why the Crows of Montana, who served as
scouts for the Army, have continued the practice without interruption
to this day. (A present day Crow ceremony is described by Reginald
and Gladys Laubin in The Indian Tipi. )
My experience with the Ogala Sun Dance ceremony grows from a cultural
revival now sweeping the Native American community. Wounded Knee,
Alcatraz, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover come to mind
as urgent manifestations of this need for identity. Many Indian
groups, such as the National Indian Unity, are reviving use of
the sweat lodge in their annual conferences.
Three basic forms of the sweat bath are indigenous to North America:
the hot rock method, used by the Navajos and Sioux; the direct fire chamber, heated by blazing logs; and a more sophisticated type relying
on a heating duct system believed to be of Mayan origin.
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