NATIVE AMERICAN SWEAT LODGE
Hot Rock Sweat Lodge
©1997 Mikkel Aaland All Rights Reserved
A Crow sweatlodge.--Museum of the American Indian.
From Sweat, copyright Mikkel Aaland
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 woodlands.
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 sod.
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.
WOMB OF MOTHER EARTH
The Sioux, for example, 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 people."
WHEN SWEAT LODGE WAS HUMAN
The following story (my favorite) personifies the sweat lodge
as the powerful friend and leader of the "Animal People." Like
most tribes in colder climates, the Nez Perce Indians spent long
winters in tipis, earth and brush lodges and, of course, sweat
lodges. This was a time for legends and storytelling. Origin of
the Sweat Lodge is translated in "Legends Told by the old People,"
a Good Medicine book:
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
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 wings.
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
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
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.
PEYOTE AND SACRED MYTHS
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
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. Buffalo tails and eagle
wings were often used for whipping the body, much like the Finnish
vihta or the Russian vennik.
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