The Cleansing Traditions of Native Americans
The Sacred Place
It's All About Communication
Communication means many things to many people. To some, it is about how you speak to each other. To others, it is about how you touch one another’s hands. And to many different cultures, it is about everything, including the physical environment around you. One such culture that is known for embracing of the physical environment into its language and the way it communicates is the Native American culture of North America. These people are known for being people of the earth, and for communicating with nature. When it comes to the language of the Native Americans, there isn’t just one form of communication used, there are many. They practice everything from sun and rain dances, to shamanism, to chanting. However, the most interesting and intense form of communication used by them is the ritual of the sweat lodge.
The Turkish Steam Bath vs. the Native American Steam Lodge
The use of a sweat lodge is a practiced worldwide among all native cultures. “Steam baths were popular in Ancient Greece and were later adopted by the Romans.” (E. Saner, News Bank) This long practiced ritual was mainly first meant by past cultures to cleanse the body of “impurities.” (E. Saner, News Bank) Along with Ancient Greece, Turkey and Russia used the sweat lodge as just that, a sweat lodge. (E. Saner, News Bank) But the Native Americans viewed the concept of the sweat lodge differently. It was more than just a steam bath to them. It was a sacred place where their people would come together to cleanse their souls and communicate with each other in a safe and relaxing place.
The relationship between the Native Americans and their sweat lodge can be described through proxemics, “the study of space and distance [and] the way people use the space around them as well as the distance they maintain from others.” (Hybels & Weaver p.142) The Native American sweat lodge is “usually a small dome-shaped structure, about 10ft wide, with a frame usually built from willow or ash saplings, covered with animal hides, canvas tarpaulins, or woolen blankets.” (E. Saner, News Bank). The small enclosed environment is a perfect setting for a small group of people, (“no more than 12”), to engage in a ritual in a personal distance arrangement. (E. Saner, News Bank) Personal distance is described as “the distance you maintain from another person when you are engaged in casual and personal conversations,” and the individuals are usually within “18 inches to 4 feet” from one another. (Hybels & Weaver p.143) Once inside the sweat lodge, the Native Americans’ goal is simple: through the use of intense heat coupled with steam, spiritual cleansing will be reached by “reflection and healing.” (E. Saner, News Bank) The language and communication used within the sweat lodge can vary depending upon the Native American tribe. Some tribes’ rituals “include drumming and offering prayers and songs, as well as sitting in silence.” (E. Saner, News Bank)
Why Native Americans Don't Talk About Ceremony
What We Know So Far...
In most cases, the ritual begins with the passing around of “the sacred chanupa, or peace pipe, in prayer” as a way of getting everyone to tells their real truths. (sweatlodge.html) Once the ritual begins, there is a method and even a word for each and every process. If during the cleansing a person realizes the heat is too much, all they need to do is say the words "Mitakuye Oyasin," or "All my relatives." (sweatlodge.html) In response, “the other participants will move away from the wall so that [he can] pass behind them as [he] leave(s) in a clockwise direction.” (sweatlodge.html) Once settled, the focus is shifted towards the fire pit at the center of the dome. Occasionally pouring hot water on the stones and fire to create the steam, everyone looks to the “luminance of the red hot stones,” and starts to call upon different spirits. (sweatlodge.html) This practice is often referred to as a chant. Native American chanting can involve dancing, drum playing, and singing. However, in a sweat lodge, the environment is mostly meant to be calm and relaxed, so usually the chanting involves monotone singing, accompanied by heavy drumming.
When the Native Americans are nearing the end of their ritual, they chose to say a prayer, similar to churchgoers. By this time, which is 24 hours later, the individuals have accomplished their goal of spiritual cleansing but only at the cost of mental and physical exhaustion. In saying a prayer, the leader of the group gives thanks to their God for everything around them. The process was about healing each other, inside and out. He ends the prayer by saying: “Teach us to heal ourselves, to heal each other and to heal the world. A ho! Love and peace.” (sweatlodge.html)
Never Forget Our True American History: The Native American Culture
- Hybels S. & Weaver R. (2007). Communicating Effectively. Boston: McGraw-Hill Publishing.
- “The Native American Sweat lodge
A Spiritual Tradition.” Retrieved November 14, 2010 from http://www.barefootsworld.net/sweatlodge.html
- Saner, E. (2009, October 22). The Guardian: G2: Spiritual cleansing: The tradition of the sweat lodge. Guardian, The (London, England.) Retrieved November 14, 2010
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© 2017 Kim Langford