In the heat and darkness,
you can come to know your Self
An Experience with
the Native American Sweat Lodge
By Christopher Nyerges
It was to be my very first traditional Dakota sweat, so I was eagerly anticipating the experience. I had done sweats dozens of times, but mine were mostly what I would call secular or health sweats. I would do them in the small lodge set up in my Los Angeles backyard, or in the temporary sweat lodges I had constructed in the Angeles National Forest and in the Rocky Mountains. This was different.
I was in Columbus, Ohio for a National Home Preparedness Expo and, fortuitously, my booth was near two men who made Native American crafts. I’d admired their tipi, their weapons, and their jewelry, and eventually they invited me to their weekly sweat which would be the following night. I quickly accepted.
Saturday night when the Expo was over, I drove with HuntsInRain in his small pickup truck in a pounding rainstorm. After 30 minutes or so, and a drive down a long country road in the dark, we got to the house and removed our clothes. In trunks, I followed Hunts-InRain and Roger down a dark dirt path to the sweat location. I could see the big fire as we approached — it was a huge fire pit, maybe five feet in diameter; on either side was a lodge, one for the men, one for the women.
The fireman/doorman and assistant to the lodge leader informed us that we had to wait just a bit since a prayer had started inside. We could hear the women singing behind us in the lodge opposite the fire. We waited several feet from the fire, just outside the ring that circled the big fire, near the entry to the men’s lodge. The rain came down hard and it was cold.
It got even colder when a wind picked up and it felt downright frigid as Roger, HuntsInRain, and I awaited entry, standing there in nothing but our shorts. Fortunately, every time a chill wind came, it came from the other side of the fire, and along with the wind was a blast of heat from the fire. That felt good. But then the wind would die down again, and the rain came down, we began to feel like popsicles.
I began to wonder what I was doing, standing nearly naked in the rain, in the dark, in the cold, looking at the storm.
Then I reminded myself that I’ve been in far worse situations with no prospect at all of a hot lodge to enter. Some 20 years earlier in WTI’s Survival Training School, we had one year of cold water and cold weather training, and we spent many Saturday afternoons learning to keep the body warm through posture, breathing, and exercise. One of our exercises had been to stand under the spray of cold water in just our shorts, and we were taught that if we stand in the deep horse kamae stance, and breathe, and even visualize, we could deal with the cold better and even stave off hypothermia. Talk about putting your beliefs to the test!
And so the memory kicked in. With my back to the fire, I assumed the horse stance, with my spine erect, legs shoulder distance apart, feet forward — not splayed, nose above navel, knees bent as deep as I could (it hurts after just a few minutes!). I breathed deeply through my nose, and exhaled through my mouth. I just stood there. In fact, just having that focus on the correct body posture and the deep inhalation and exhalation took my mind off the cold. A little, anyway. I did feel better, but it was still very cold.
Something was spoken in Dakota just beyond my earshot, and then Roger and HuntsInRain called me over to go in. I crawled through the flap into near-darkness and unseen hands helped to guide me to an empty spot. Roger and HuntsInRain followed.
The lodge was perhaps four and a half feet high and about 12 or 13 feet in diameter. Objects hung from the rafters — prayer ties and cloth materials in the four direction colors. There were perhaps 12 men in the lodge. The leader continued with the ceremony by greeting me and the other guest for the night. He asked about myself and my background, and when I said I was from Los Angeles, someone shouted from the darkness, “Welcome to America!” We all laughed.
Then the leader described what we were about to do. Once new “grandfathers” were brought in — the red hot rocks that were cooking in the big fire — we’d sing songs of prayers and thanks, and then we’d go around the circle and each man would say a prayer in his own way. Then, more “grandfathers” would be brought in, and more singing.
The assistant brought in red hot grandfathers on his long-handled pitchfork, and men inside, using deer antlers, rolled them into their proper positions in the middle area. The leader tapped the grandfathers that marked the four cardinal points, and sprinkled some herbs over the hot rocks — I believe it was cedar.
Then the flap was closed, and the leader said some prayers in Dakota and tossed some water on the grandfathers. He began a Dakota song, prefacing it with an explanation of what the words meant. Everyone followed along as best they could, some better than others. Some — like me — did their best to just keep up. It was loud, thundering, powerful singing, and the leader would toss water upon the grandfathers and they would hiss loudly and the lodge would become hotter and steamier. I believe he led us through three songs, all in Dakota, all very powerful as the vibration of our voices merged and it seemed we sang as one voice.
Then the leader began the prayer round, asking Wakan Tanka for strength and to heal certain friends and relatives in need. Each man took his turn, each saying his own prayer in his own way. Many asked for a prayer to a friend or relative who was sick, others asked for strength to deal with the pain of divorce or wayward children. The other men — the brothers — in the lodge would acknowledge each prayer with “ah-ho” or some variation.
Some men even asked not for their problems to be taken away but that they gain the strength to find the right solutions to the problems they faced. One man sobbed as he spoke his heartfelt prayer. In the black darkness, we felt each other’s prayers and there was no stigma or disgrace in such openness. In the darkness, each man dealt with their own pain in the heat, and the penetrating heat got even hotter every time the leader cast more water on the grandfathers. Each man spoke of the others as a brother, and they spoke of the humble willow lodge as “church.”
When I prayed, I thanked my most influential teacher, I prayed for my mother who had recently undergone surgery, and I thanked the other men —my brothers — for welcoming me into the lodge. Then a pipe was passed. Each man puffed on it — it was filled with tobacco — said “Mitauke-oyasin” and passed it to the next man. From what I could feel in the darkness — I never actually saw the pipe — it had a traditional chanupa design, probably made from catlinite, and it had a long stem at least two feet long, probably made from elder or ash.
By this time, I was extremely hot, dripping in sweat, and it was getting difficult to breathe. I felt a little light-headed, and I didn’t want to faint. So I did as I’ve done before, and leaned back and put my head to the ground to the outer edge of the lodge where the air is cooler and where you might have a hint of a hope for some oxygen to sneak through. I found such a tiny crevice, and I breathed deep and felt better. Yes, I could have just asked to go out, saying “Mitauke-oyasin” and the door would be opened and I’d exit. There’d be no dishonor. But I was determined to go the distance in my first traditional sweat.
In fact, one man did ask to exit. He hadn’t been feeling well, and said his back was “killing” him. The lodge flap was opened when he went out, and kept open, since some new grandfathers were about to be brought in. As evidence of the cleansing power of the sweat, this man performed several sessions of fairly loud and vigorous vomiting. The leader called out to him, encouraging him to let it all out that needs to get out, and then asking the assistant to tend to the man.
New grandfathers were brought in and put into place with the antlers. Cedar was sprinkled on some, and the flap was closed. The heat intensified once again. Then another round of singing began, and the leader would occasionally toss water on the grandfathers, causing much hissing and release of the intense heat. In the occasional pauses, we could hear the women singing in their lodge. I lost track of time after awhile, though by the time we got out, it was less than two hours total.
When we finally departed the lodge, it was cool and comfortable outside. The rain had stopped and it didn’t seem nearly as cold as it was when we started. We departed the lodge in a clockwise motion, and each of us would stand in a line as we came out, and shake hands and hug those who followed. It was great fellowship, and we then dressed and walked in the dark to the house.
Here a potluck meal had been prepared, and the women who had gotten back before the men, had already begun to prepare the dishes. But first, before anyone drank or ate — and I was extremely thirsty — a plate was served with a bit of every dish that had been prepared. This was then taken down to the “altar” between the sweat lodges, and none of us ate or drank until the person who took that plate returned. So it was maybe 20 minutes after we came out of the lodge before we drank, and I initially had no desire to eat. My body needed liquid, and I drank several soft drinks and fruit juice, and filled my glass with water many times. After a while, I had a most satisfying meal.
There was a corn and beef soup dish, a squash dish, a black bean dish, salad, fruit, potato chips, and several other home-made dishes. There was something very special about the food that made it nearly magical, and it seemed to me very elevating to slowly savour each bite. It wasn’t just the food — though the food was made fresh and by hand and very delicious. But it was the fellowship and the working together, and the sense of just having undergone a profound experience. Hunts-InRain encouraged me to get another bowl of the soup, saying that he always looks forward to these most delicious meals each week after the sweats.
A few prayers had been said, and participants sat on the floor or on couches, talking, sharing, laughing.
For me it had been the highlight of a trip to Ohio. I made new friends, and I learned something more about my self.
When I told my brother Thomas about my first “traditional” sweat, he told me about the many sweats he’d been to in South Dakota. “Sweating there is a regular part of life,” he told me. “It’s something people do all the time. It’s part of medicine. It’s part of religion. It’s part of life.”
For those who are able, I strongly recommend you seek out those who conduct traditional sweats, and participate in a few. Ideally, you should try to set up a small lodge where you live so you can participate in this healing activity regularly, not just on “special occasions”. For myself, the sweat has been a key to both physical and mental health. I look forward to it, and I tell others about it.
In some cases, it is not possible to have a sweat lodge in the backyard — such as in some urban locations.
What follows is the description for constructing your own backyard sweat lodge.
HOW TO CONSTRUCT
A SWEAT LODGE
Though this can be a simple process, it is also steeped in symbolism which helps to elevate the structure and activity beyond the mundane. We suggest you research some of this in books such as “The Indian Tipi” by Reginald and Gladys Laubin, published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
I will not attempt to share the many symbolic and esoteric aspects of the lodge. What follows is a simple description of how I have built backyard sweat lodges, as well as the temporary lodges I’ve built in various mountain locations.
I begin by determining how many people I must accommodate in the lodge, and then collecting an ample supply of long willow poles. I draw a circle in the dirt where the lodge will be built. Then, I stick the poles into the soil. At this stage, they are still just sticking straight up and they are aligned in a circle. The entrance to the loge will face east.
Next, I take opposite willow poles and bend them down to the desired height and then tie them. The height should be comfortable when sitting, but not too high since you’ll not feel all the heat. I like to make a dome-shaped willow structure no more than two feet higher than my head when cross-legged.
I continue to secure opposite poles, until I have the entire framework nearly done. Then I wrap the entire lodge with more willow poles, usually two or three rings of willow to help stabilize the entire structure. If you’ve actually done this or even been in a sweat lodge, you’ll realize how simple this is. You wrap the flexible willow poles horizontally around the lodge framework and tie the horizontal poles to the verticals at every point they cross.
Once the framework is secure and complete, you can cover it securely with whatever airtight and watertight materials you have. I have used old rugs, tarps, shower curtains, black plastic sheeting, and blankets. The key is to completely cover the willow framework so that there is no place where the heat and steam can escape. Larger materials are best. Also, since heat rises, you’ll want to take especial care that there are no gaps or openings in the top part of the lodge.
Now there is the task of heating the stones. You should start your fire for heating the stones at least two hours before you plan to do your sweat. Build up a good fire and then collect some suitable stones. People often say that you should never collect rocks from a river bed because of a potential danger of rocks exploding when they are heated. I have never experienced rocks actually exploding, but I have observed that if you use sandstone-type rocks, they will have a tendency to fracture and break apart by the time you’ve heated them and put water on them. Nevertheless, play it safe. Never collect wet rocks from a stream bed.
You don’t need to be a geologist to collect suitable rocks. Look for rocks that have a smooth texture, that are not gritty or sandy. If you know what lava rock looks like, then select those when you find them. After a bit of experience, you’ll develop a sense of which rocks work best.
Rocks should heat for about two hours — some folks heat them as long as four hours. They should be glowing red by the time you are ready to bring them into your sweat lodge. I typically use a long-handled shovel to retrieve from the fire, and then carry them directly into the sweat lodge and place them into a shallow hole inside the lodge. In small lodges I have built — “small” meaning that it would only fit three or four people — I have actually filled a metal 3-gallon bucket with hot rocks, and carried the bucket into the lodge.
This is certainly not traditional, but it meant I didn’t need to dig a hole for the rocks, and it meant that any rocks that shattered would remain safely in the bucket.
Once you have all the hot rocks inside the lodge, you go inside, and close whatever door flaps there are to close. Then, once inside, there are traditionally songs, passing of a pipe, prayers, and of course, pouring the water onto the rocks so that the inside becomes hot and steamy. Since I do not pretend to do “traditional” sweats in my backyard setting, I — more often than not — do the sweats alone. I enter the lodge typically because I do not feel well, or because I have a question or problem that is troubling me.
I may be naked or I may wear trunks, and I often have a kerchief to cover my nose and eyes due to the intense heat. I will usually put a little white sage on the hot rocks before I begin to add water. Then, in the darkness and heat, I allow my “higher mind” to come forth, and I attempt to be receptive to answers to my query. That is, I regard the sweat as therapy for both body and mind. I typically stay inside about 45 minutes, and then I rinse off with cold water from the garden hose.
When a friend visits who plans to join me, we will begin by simple prayers, giving thanks, or asking a serious questions. Our conversations will tend to be “deeper” than usual when in the sweat. These have always been unique times of friendship and comraderie, moments where there is that blend of intense physical heat as well as the darkness that drives your thoughts inward. It is a good experience, and I encourage everyone who pursues this to learn as much as possible about traditional ceremonial sweats. If possible, join in a traditional sweat and participate as a student so you learn as much as possible.
A good book on the subject of sweats and related topics is “Yuwipi: Vision & Experience in Oglala Ritual” by William K. Powers, University of Nebraska Press. There is also “The Sacred Pipe” by Joseph Epes Brown, published by the University of Oklahoma Press. Another book I have enjoyed reading, and which touches upon some of the ceremonial aspects, is “Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions” by John Fire Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, published by Simon and Schuster. Then there is “Mystic Warriors of the Plains”, a coffee-table size book with many illustrations. This is a wonderful book with an insight into the height of the Plains culture.
Nyerges is the author of “Enter the Forest”, “Urban Wilderness”, and “Guide to Wild Foods”. He has been leading Wild Food Outings and Survival Skills Outings since 1974. He and his wife conduct the School of Self-Reliance with ongoing classes. For more information, please contact the School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or check out www.self-reliance.net .
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