What is a Medicine Lodge?

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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 08 September 2019
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A medicine lodge is a place of religious ceremony and sometimes physical healing. It is usually a space separated from normal daily life. The construction of a medicine lodge is typically a ceremonial activity, and the materials used are often treated with great respect and care. Some lodges are fully above the ground while others partially buried. The materials that form covering may consist of wood, stones, hides, cloth, or any other material, though this is usually specified by the tradition in which the ritual will be performed. A medicine lodge may also need to conform to other architectural constraints, such as facing a certain direction or engaging the surrounding landscape in a certain way.

While medicine lodges are a part of many Native American cultures, the word itself is used in English to refer to a wide variety of practices among diverse tribes, each with its own customs, etiquette, and purposes. When the term is used by English speakers, they are typically referring to a sweat lodge, which is a ceremonial sauna used for spiritual and corporeal gains.


Medicine lodges have been so fully conflated with sweat lodges that in English, the term is almost never used to mean anything else. Most tribal members have their own language and words for the specific edifice, and its rituals that are then generalized by the use of the word medicine lodge. What may appear to be a roughly equivalent practice across these cultures to an untrained eye may be seen as extremely dissimilar to the initiate, and it is therefore important to call the medicine lodge by its appropriate name if at all possible.

The actual traditions observed in a Native American medicine lodge often involve extreme heat, as in a sweat lodge. The restraints placed on clothing vary, some involving complete nudity, others involving light clothing. Genders may be separated, and traditions may differ between medicine houses of either gender. Sometimes, offerings are made or medicines are consumed, but in all cases the meaning of these gestures is much more important than the actual substances used.

A medicine lodge, in its sweat lodge incarnation, has also been co-opted by many New Age practitioners and natural healers. The rituals associated with these traditions may conform to those practiced by Native Americans. In these practices, the original idea of a medicine lodge may be combined with a variety of other spiritual traditions creating a new practice tailored to the spiritual or physical needs of the participants. Often times, other herbs and medicines associated with Native American are also used to heighten the experience and ritual. A medicine lodge that is not bound by tradition can be as conservative or creative as its participants make it.


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What's the meaning of "medicine lodge religion?"

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