The Sweat Lodge Ceremony: A Native American Healing Tool

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Religion and Spirituality  |  House: Booksie Classic
A historical account of the Sweat Lodge ceremony and a modern perspective of the healing effects of the Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony.

Submitted: January 09, 2007

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Submitted: January 09, 2007

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History

Saunas and Sweat lodges have a long historical tradition in many parts of the world: most of Ireland, Finland, much of Europe, Russia, Africa, Japan, the Mediterranean and the Middle East each has had their own version of the Sweat lodge or sauna. In many of these places, the health benefits of sweat baths have long been known, and these benefits include cleansing the toxins out of your body, extreme heat kills bacteria’s and viruses. In conjunction with this physical revitalization, spiritual renewal and purification of the mind, soul and spirit are other important purposes resulting from regular sweat lodge use (D. Joseph Alderson).

Spiritual renewal and purification of body, mind, soul and spirit are the major purposes and benefits resulting from regular sweat lodge use (D. Joseph Alderson).

In one form or another, the sweat bath has been practiced in many Native North American Tribes, from the Inuit’ in the north, to the Navajo in the Midwest, the Sioux/Lakota’s/Cree’s in the plains, the Mickmaq’s in the East and all the way down south into the land of the Mayans (Bruchac). This sacred religious/healing ceremony has been in practice for thousands of years. The purpose usually went far beyond cleaning the body. The sweat bath (Sweat lodge) provided a cure for illness, revitalization for aching muscles, and a sense of identity for Natives participating in and reclaiming their culture. It heals the mind, the body, the emotions and the soul. Finally the Sweat lodge is a holy place where we can connect and communicate with Creator (God), the Spirit Helpers (comparable to the angels and others depending on your spiritual or religious practices) and our ancestors (our grandmothers and grandfathers and all the generations who came before us).

European settlers saw the Sweat lodge, with its sacred cultural and religious implications, as a threat. Even after Natives were forced onto reservations, Christian missionaries and government officials systematically denied the use of the Sweat lodge and other rituals, in an effort to eradicate practices that revitalized this millennium-old culture (Bruchac). In Canada we saw the government introduce an Act of Parliament in 1876, called the Indian Act, which was the first act that governed the Natives (also called First Nations of Canada) and outlawed all of the ceremonial practices. It summarily gave authority to the Christian religious bodies at the time to colonize the ‘savages,’ a derogatory name given to us, in order to make us good Christians. The residential schools were also invented around this time, where thousands of Native children were forcibly taken out of their communities and brought to large centralized schools for cultural assimilation. Enforcement depended upon how great a threat was felt from a particular tribe.

In doing so, the government of Canada attempted to destroy the culture of the First Nation people. We endured and our tribal rituals and way of living survived through the early 20th century.

With many European settlers and westward-moving adventurers chronicling first-hand accounts of the clandestine practices the sweat lodge ceremonies (remember they were outlawed), along with many other ceremonial rituals, a great number have survived colonization and therefore are able to be performed today. Now that First Nations peoples and their ceremonies have been protected under the 1985 Constitution of Canada, we are beginning to see a re-emergence of the practice of sweat lodge ceremonies, and interestingly now enjoy participation by many non-native peoples.

There are many different types of Sweat lodge structures and variations and meanings of the Sweat lodge depending on the Tribe whose ceremonies you are following. However, all of the sweat lodge ceremonies have a similar effect and some universal meanings to Native people; these are physical and spiritual healing, and a holy place for the offering of our prayers to the Creator.

Some Sweat lodges were made out of willow poles covered with birch bark or animal skins. Others were built down into the earth or on the side of a mountain, and sometimes they were made in a more solid way and therefore more permanent with rocks as a base and the walls built of wooden planks (Bruchac). Today the two most popular and widespread Sweat lodge structure and ceremonies are that of the Lakota People and the Plains Cree.


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