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NATIVE AMERICAN
Sweat Lodges

Sweat Lodge in Cherokee: (a'si)

DO THE CHEROKEE SWEAT?

Since I AM an Eastern Band Cherokee, I can tell you that Sweat lodges are not a "typical" practice for the Eastern Band of Cherokees although some members of the tribe choose to "sweat." Sweat lodges are more popular in other Native American cultures.

Sweat Lodges

While sometimes there is criticism of the white people stealing Native American spirituality, the truth is -- no one can steal spirituality. That would be completely impossible.

God gave us many ways to connect with one another from many cultures and we can use it to help heal others and ourselves, so honoring the importance of sharing is meaningful.

  • Faithkeepers
  • Fire Ceremony
  • Medicine Wheels
  • Talking Circles
  • MY FIRST SWEAT

    I'll never forget the first time I "sweat." I was out in Sedona, Arizona with my friend Henrietta a.k.a. "H" and Melissa a.k.a. "Bliss." We were having a blast meditating and transforming all week and experimenting with various holistic practices on our adventurous vacation.

    "H" thought it would be fab idea if we went on a "sweat" and being Native American, it was naturally right up my alley. Not having really researched sweat lodges, I was going through the entire sweat with my only measuring stick being a dry sauna at the gym. I was up for the challenge.

    Our instructions were to follow a man called "Ironpipe" who was leading the "sweat" and follow him to the lodge in the dark desert night.

    THE PURPOSE OF THE "SWEAT"

    The sweat lodge comes from the Native American and it is a purifying sacred ceremony. The purpose of a sweat lodge is to cleanse, purify, clear old non-serving energy, and to be reborn out of the dark circle of the lodge. The lodge represents the warm moist heat of the womb that we are renewed into the Light of the world.

    The cleansing process is not just a physical cleanse of "sweat," but also spiritually, emotionally, and mentally through this ritual process. The lodge is also serves as a place for worship, healing and for celebration of events or achievements. In Native America it is typically held before Sun Dance, Vision Quest, and other significant ceremonies. Some lodges hold sweats quarterly at equinoxes and solstices and at other special times of the year. Sweat lodges can also be part of retreats. Tribal Indians will usually participate in a "sweat" with family and friends for peace, renewal and social interaction.

    IS THERE A FEE?

    Most lodges are not open to the general public nor is a monetary fee charged to a participant.

    However, it is traditional practice to bring gifts of food, herbs such as sage, sweetgrass, lemongrass, cedar, or tobacco, to the sweat lodge keeper. After the sweat is complete, everyone shares the food that was given to the lodge keeper. Some may choose to give a love offering which helps to maintain the lodge.

    "H," "Bliss" and myself brought roasted chicken and corn on the cob.

    Sometimes an individual may offer gifts and ask that a private sweat lodge be held for their healing or honoring of a special event in their life. Most lodges will permit invited guests after you have participated in at least one lodge, so you may prepare your guest to respect the experience.

    PHYSICAL PREPARATION BEFORE A SWEAT

    To prepare for a sweat, fasting or light and conscious eating for 24 hours before the lodge is recommended. Eating heavily before a lodge may induce nausea, vomiting, fainting or cramping. Abstain from all toxic substances such as alcohol, caffeine, recreational drugs, and sugar before sweating to enhance purification. The sweat lodge is not recommended for menstruating women, people with serious illness such as high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes, nor is it a pleasant experience for anyone with claustrophobia or an aversion to heat.

    Always check with your physician before participating in a sweat, especially if you are under a doctor's care, have any health condition or are taking prescription drugs of any kind.

    APPROPRIATE DRESS

    In a mixed gender lodge the clothing should be loose. Some lodges permit swimsuits in a mixed gender atmosphere, but the actual rule for women is that she wears a long loose skirt. If a long loose skirt is not available, then a large beach towel is appropriate wrapped around the waste. In a single gender sweat, "birthday suits" are best.

    Since the sweat that "H," "Bliss" and myself participated in was a mix gender, we wore a tank top and wrapped a large beach towel around our waist.

    PREPARATION OF PRAYER TIES

    Before we wrapped in our towels, we spent some time making prayer ties. These are gifts that we were to offer at the end of the sweat.

    The prayer ties were tiny little pieces of cloth that we wrapped tobacco and tied to a string. Each tiny bundle was a separate color representing and honoring the sacred quaternary (4 sections) of the lodge, which is in the shape of a circle.

    THE ALTAR

    Outside the lodge is an altar, which is a mound of earth that was taken from the center pit in the lodge and piled outside of the door. Some altars are to the right of the door and some are about 10 feet in front of the door. A staff may be planted in the center. On the altar are a buffalo skull, a ceremonial pipe, other objects or herbs that are sacred to the Native American. The participants may add their own items they want blessed as the sweat takes place.

    THE HEART FIRE

    The Heart Fire is the where the rocks (also known as "grandfathers,") which were lava rocks, are kept that were brought into the lodge. The fire had already been heating the "grandfathers" for 3 -4 hours before we arrived and the wood that was covering the "grandfathers" was burning in the shape of a tipi. As the wood burned, more was added. The "grandfathers," were as large as a football and some were as small as a softball.

    After we were smudged with sage from the top of our head to the soles of the feet, we walked clockwise around the heart fire, which is called the Path of Life. Then we squatted down and crawled clockwise into the lodge, around the small pit in the ground inside the lodge that was made for the "grandfathers," as we carried our tiny stringed prayer ties.

    Between our seat and the earth, we sat on a rug.

    IS TALKING PERMITTED?

    Small talk is NOT permitted. "Ironpipe" who was the "water-pourer" was the main communicator as we responded to his cues.

    Tradition involves singing, chanting, praying aloud, story telling, and laughing if the Spirit moves you. An individual is also allowed to wail or cry, although no response is necessary. The purpose is to sweat and to suffer the heat or alchemical type of cooking necessary for the release of toxins and a transformational shift in consciousness.

    If you are not familiar with Native American hymns, then humming along is entirely appropriate or making up your own sounds as the Spirit moves you.

    WHAT DOES THE SWEAT LODGE LOOK LIKE?

    The sweat lodge is in the shape of an igloo and possibly tall enough to kneel in and rest your bottom on your heels. Although sitting "Indian style" is the appropriate posture.

    The lodge is made of tree limbs and covered with a tarp of several layers. It is a quite sturdy structure and generally sealed with rocks around the perimeter to keep in the heat.

    This particular lodge was large enough to fit 10 adults knee to knee.

    HOW ARE THE "GRANDFATHERS" BROUGHT IN?

    Honoring the sacred quaternary (4 sections) of the circle, there are four rounds or sessions. Each round lasts longer the previous round.

    The rocks are brought in according to size with a specific number of rocks being introduced according to the round. The rocks are brought in by the individual who was last to enter the lodge and nearest the door. He/she will generally use a pitchfork to handle the rocks and lay them just inside the door. The person seated next to the individual who retrieved the rocks will use a small pair of antlers to grip the rocks and place them into the pit inside the lodge.

    After the all the rocks are placed in the pit, the rock retriever re-enters the lodge and closes the flap.

    "Ironpipe" who was also the "water-pourer," used a large pot filled with water and a ladle to scoop water and pour over the rocks creating steam. The "water-pourer" would also give some ground herb to a woman in the lodge who is present to sprinkle on the rocks, which also create steam and the presence of the burning herb. During each round, the herb was different and "H," "Bliss" and I took turns sprinkling the herbs. It was beautiful watching the herbs dance on the rocks in the pitched darkness with quick flashes of twinkling light.

    At the next round, the same procedure is followed only more rocks are introduced.

    WHAT IS YOUR TOTEM?

    During the last round of the sweat, "Ironpipe" asked us to identify our totem and then he interpreted it. As each person took turns in a clockwise direction and stated one totem, when it came to be my turn I said, "rabbit, snake, butterfly."

    Those three words flew out of my mouth and being Native American and very familiar with Animal Medicine, I knew exactly what they meant even as "Ironpipe" interpreted their meaning.

    The rabbit represented my past where I had been standing in fear.

    The snake represented my present where I was shedding my old skin and transforming.

    The butterfly represented my future, where I would be making a complete transmutation in my personal and professional life.

    In hindsight, the butterfly had transmutated and my entire life did change completely both personally and professionally.

    MORE RITUAL OF THE SWEAT LODGE

    The door "may be" opened at the end of each round so participants may exit to cool off if needed. Drinking water may be passed around the circle and new rocks are brought into the center pit in the lodge from the fire outside.

    It is customary to attempt to stay in the lodge without leaving, even in between rounds. While the flap was open the relief of the heat was incredible although it was still scathing and blistering hot. It is also customary to try to go as long as possible without water.

    Now, this lasted three rounds for me, when I spoke up after the third round and asked for water. I absolutely thought I wouldn't have enough energy to even speak up I was so drained, sweaty, fatigued and weak. I also spoke up and asked to step outside after the third round and that's when others in the group asked for water and to leave the lodge for a brief cool down.

    Each round lasted approximately 15 minutes to 40 minutes.

    WHAT DO THE 4 SECTIONS OF THE CIRCLE REPRESENT?

    All four elements are represented during a sweat. The air (steam), earth, fire and water are respected during the sweat. Each round is dedicated to one of the four directions and winds of change beginning in the East. The door also faces East and the leader of the sweat (who was "Ironpipe) sits in the East.

    The participants may choose their places selectively or according to their personal focus in the lodge.

    The East is birth and new beginnings; this is where personal intentions or aims are set. The South is childhood and relationships; where we choose to pray for others. The West (the hottest spot) is a place of time, death, rebirth and healing; here is where negative influences are released and where healing for others and us is meditated. The North is the place of the ancestors. It is embracing the quiet, deep wisdom of the ages. Endurance and a gestation while preparing for rebirth are in this area. This is where we pray for our ancestors and descendants.

    While sweating, we ask for strength and guidance to endure our existence and to understand what it is we are being asked to do with our lives.

    AT THE END OF THE SWEAT

    At the end of the sweat we offered our prayer ties by tying them to the branches of the lodge above the area we were seated and left the lodge quietly.


    DISCLAIMER

    **This web site's goal is to provide you with information that may be useful in attaining optimal health. Nothing in it is meant as a prescription or as medical advice. You should check with your physician before implementing any changes in your exercise or lifestyle habits, especially if you have physical problems or are taking medications of any kind.