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What is a Sweat Lodge?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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A sweat lodge is a sauna built for ceremonial purposes. Sweat lodges can be seen in several Native American and First Nations cultures in North America, and some native cultures outside this region also engage in similar ceremonies. The specifics of the sweat lodge ceremony vary, depending on the tribe, with the procedures and ceremonies being passed down via oral tradition through the generations. In some cases, tribes have revived sweat lodge ceremonies after years of suppression, using a variety of evidence to reconstruct the ceremony as it might have been performed by their ancestors.

In some cases, a sweat lodge is held inside a permanent structure, while in others, a sweat lodge is built when it is needed. A variety of materials can be used to create the space, which is enclosed so that heat will build up inside. The space is heated with rocks which are heated in a fire outside the sweat lodge and then carefully moved inside. The hot rocks can radiate heat for a very long time, and they may be periodically placed back in the fire to recharge to bring the temperature in the space back up.

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Sweats, as the ceremonies in a sweat lodge are known, are commonly performed at night and in darkness. The orientation of the sweat lodge is important, and the ceremonial aspect of the procedure can begin days earlier with the construction of the lodge, the gathering of rocks and fuel, and rituals which are designed to express thanks. The sweat is run by someone who is designated as the leader, and may include chanting, drumming, singing, talking, or complete silence, depending on the leader, the tribe, and the will of the participants.

Offerings of plants, food, and other objects are often made inside the sweat. Participants in the sweat wear loose, comfortable clothing, and may be separated by gender in some tribes. Depending on the tribe, people may pray for each other, express thanks, and engage in other activities during the sweat. As the sweat progresses, participants can sometimes start to feel light headed from the heat and sweating, especially when water is ladled onto the rocks to raise the humidity, as is done in some sweats. People may also enter trance like states, experience visions, or reach a state of deep relaxation.

While the physical setting of a sweat is similar to that of a sauna, sweat lodges are not saunas. Rather than being done for health and relaxation, they are performed for the purpose of engaging in religious ritual. When people are invited as guests into a sweat, it is important that they observe the etiquette of the sweat; people who are not sure about how to act should ask ahead of time. Because the situations in a sweat can sometimes be dangerous to the health of participants, it is important for participants to know that they can leave at any time, although a ritual may need to be followed while leaving.

People who are not members of the tribe who have an opportunity to participate in a sweat should consider the opportunity carefully, asking about the etiquette of the sweat and the practices of the tribe. During the sweat, they should remember that they are guests, and special care should be taken to express thanks to the organizers of the sweat, the members of the tribe, and the leader of the sweat.

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