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The Indian Sweat Lodge and Its Use

Racial Identity, Sweat Lodge, Vision Quest

Sweat Lodges were used from the Alaskan Eskimo to the Mayans in South America. The purpose in most cases went beyond just cleaning the body. The sweat bath provided a cure for various diseases. It revitalized aching muscles as well as a sense of racial identity. Many used it to rid themselves of the evil accumulated during a war.

It was first chronicled by the early settlers. In 1665, David DeVries of New York, observed that Indians were more clean and attractive after using the seat lodge. Captain J. Carver wrote that the sweat lodge helped purge the Indian of pleurisy. After being exposed to a very rigorous lifestyle, the sweat lodge would be used to help uplift the spirit and invigorate them to continue on.

The white man and missionaries saw the sweat lodge as a threat to the Christan religion. They felt that it was sacred and used by Indians to appeal to their god. They felt that this belief was sacrilegious to Christianity. The Sioux were punished by tribal police for just entering into a sweat lodge. some of the more docile tribes just voluntarily gave up the use of the lodge. The Navajos and the Crows continue its use even today. Many other groups are reviving the use of the sweat lodge,such as the National Indian Unity.

There are three types of sweat baths that are used by the Indigenous of North America.

The Hot Rock Method; This is the most popular method among the North American tribes. It is small and domed shape. It is usually made out of willows and covered with mud, blankets, or skin. A depression is dug near the door. This is to cradle rocks that are heated outside and carried in by a forked stick. It would then be sprinkled with water by a Buffalo horn to produce the steam. the flap on the door would be closed to keep the steam inside. Although very simple to be made, great details were used for religious purposes. The Sioux would say the center represented the womb of mother earth. The darkness inside was human ignorance. the hissing of the steam on the rocks was the creative force of the universe being activated.

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The Direct Fire Sweat Lodge; This method is used by the Alaska Eskimos and the Indians of the Southwest. It is a larger structure in which a fire is built in the center and kept burning all day. In the evening after gossip, talk, and dancing, the fire is increased to provide more heat. When the smoke became unbearable, they would simply lie closer to the ground for fresh air. Women would rarely use the sweat lodge as it was reserved mainly for the use of men.

The Temescal; This was first used by the Mayans about the same time as the Romans ruled. There are no known examples of this method but, it has been seen in the Mayan hieroglyphics. It is thought that they were made out of mud and brick and smaller than their regular buildings. It is assumed that they were for religious purposes. Brother Duran wrote in 1567 that a person could not stand up inside the Temescalli. It got so hot that an individual couldn’t stay in it very long.

The Cheyenne believed that the sweat box purified not only the body but, the mind as well. It was considered to cleanse the human spirit of all infirmities. They associated it with supernatural powers of the spirits. Only certain medicine men were allowed to construct the lodges as well as conduct the ceremonies. The medicine man and his wife would teach the ones who would eventually replace them of their duties. This way it was passed on from generation to generation.

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Typical use of a sweat lodge would be that of four rounds each lasting 30 to 45 minutes. At the end of each round, the door would be open and the individuals would step out. At this time the steam would be resupplied. During a round, members would pray and look for messages or visions from the spirit world. If the vision was not understood, it would be translated by the medicine man or an elder of the tribe. Most visions would be used to give direction to an individual. this would usually occur during the first round. The second round would be for courage, strength, and honesty as well as cleanliness. The third round would be for prayer and knowledge. the fourth and final round was for spiritual growth and healing.

The sweat lodge is not to be confused with a ceremony like a “Vision Quest.” A “Vision Quest” is a rite of passage similar to an initiation. To some it would appear to be one and the same. However, a “Vision Quest” is considered more sacred.

If you are ever invited to a sweat, you must cleanse yourself 24 hours before the start. This means no alcohol, smoking, and drugs. You should spend your time cleansing, praying, fasting, and meditating. To many it is considered something a lot more than just your typical sauna.