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Native American Culture - Sweat Lodges

The sweat lodge is an important cultural tradition for some Native American nations. Used for ceremonial purposes, it is a type of sauna that is valuable for both spiritual and physical purification, as well as used for social and cultural purposes.

Traditionally, a Native American sweat lodge uses heat to detoxify the body by forcing it to sweat out impurities and toxins, also stimulating circulation of blood, and even triggering spiritual insight and visions.

Sweat lodges are used to this day, particularly by the Plains Indians, including Chickasaw and Cherokee, as well as other tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Shoshone, Navajo, and Ute.

What is a Sweat Lodge?

A traditional sweat lodge is a domed structure built of pliable saplings (often willow), set low to the ground and with a single entrance. It is rounded and tightly covered – in the past skins were used but today blankets or another type of sheeting is used.

Rocks or stones are heated over an exterior fire. The hot rocks are placed into a dug-out pit at the center of the lodge.  As more rocks are brought into the lodge, it becomes hotter.

Native American Culture - Sweat Lodges

Crow Sweat Lodge (not dated)

A modern sweat lodge ceremony usually has up to 8-12 participants, though there can sometimes be more. The leader of the ceremony scatters sage or sweetgrass onto the rocks and pours water onto them to create steam and a humid environment conducive to sweating. This individual is also responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the other participants in the lodge during the ritual.

Some sweat lodge ceremonies begin with participants being smudged with sage prior to entering. The ceremony includes praying, singing, speaking from the heart, and making requests for insight or a release from pain and suffering.

During the sweat lodge:

  • Some tribes use the sacred pipe.
  • Some place a buffalo skull on an external altar.
  • Some tie offerings to a pole; these may include horsehair, buffalo tail, willow swatches, or sage.
  • Herbal infusions may be poured onto the hot rocks.
  • Some use drumming or rattles.
  • Many bathe in a nearby cold stream after the ceremony.

The sweat lodge was traditionally used by some tribes to prepare for other rituals, including vision quests and the Sun Dance. Most segregated men from women for the ceremony.

 Native American Culture - Sweat Lodges

Sweat Lodge at White River Apache Reservation c1924

Unlike many other traditional Native American practices, the sweat lodge ceremony has been practised more over the last century. It carries great power and is widely used today to mark significant life events and to seek protection from disease and other misfortunes.

Learn much more about Native American culture in our blog posts, or visit our store for authentic Native American blankets and jewelry from the pueblo tribes of the southwest.