Native American Sweat Lodge Construction and Ceremony—a Personal Account
I met my guy, Ken, a couple of years ago. He is part Blackfoot and identifies quite strongly with native culture, philosophy, and ceremonies. At the time we met he regularly attended sweats in a lodge on the property of one of his mentors. There was a sweat lodge ceremony at least once a month.
At first, I was a bit wary of the lodge, but over time, especially when I could see the emotional benefits he appeared to reap from attending, I began to join him occasionally.
For personal reasons, Ken's mentor decided to dismantle the lodge on his property. Ken asked for, and received, blessings from his Elders to put up a sweat lodge. We would again have a place to go and sweat.
Elder members of First Nations communities are traditionally respected, revered, and well looked after by the community. Younger members of the community go to the elders for advice and comfort.
Conducting a sweat lodge is an honor. One must be given blessings from their Elders in order to conduct, or lead, a sweat lodge ceremony.
People come into the sweat lodge to pray and share their issues and life circumstance. Confidentiality is key.
What is said in the sweat lodge stays in the sweat lodge.
Sweat Lodges have been around and used in Native American, and other cultures, for hundreds of years.
In one form or another, the sweat lodge ceremony and experience is rooted in cultures from the Alaskan Eskimo in the far north to down south into the land of the Mayans.
Its purpose, in most cases, went beyond getting the body clean. The sweat lodge served to cleanse the mind, body, spirit and soul.
Participating in a sweat lodge ceremony is a means of prayer to connect with your spirit and the spirits of the Grandfathers. Grandfathers is a term used by First Nations to refer to the spirits of their Native American ancestors.
The sweat lodge provides a place to pray, a cure for illness, a revitalization for aching muscles, and a sense of racial identity. It provides a safe and secure place, meant to resemble the womb of Mother Earth.
The inside of a sweat lodge ideally replicates the warmth, peace, and safety of the womb.
Sweat lodges are unique structures, mostly all dome shaped, Supple willow branches are used for the skeleton of the structure and a variety of rugs, furs and blankets are used to completely enclose the lodge to create blackout darkness inside when the door is closed. Every attempt is made to cover even the smallest ray of light to achieve complete dark.
Me, Helping With Construction
Sweat Lodge Construction
Sweat lodges vary in size depending upon the number of people that will be participating in the ceremony. The one we built is about seven or so feet across and four feet high in the center. Ten people can fit comfortably, sitting or standing in a circle. We built a lodge that accommodates up to ten people. Some lodges are built large enough to hold many more people. My partner has attended sweats with up to sixty people, sitting three deep and shoulder to shoulder, in circles around the fire.
We gathered willow sapling branches, about four dozen, an inch to an inch and a half in diameter and approximately 14 - 16 feet long. We flattened the ground and dug a shallow pit in the center to place the Grandfathers (hot rocks, I will explain) in, and we began to build the lodge. Dirt displaced by digging the pit inside the lodge is used to create an altar outside the door of the lodge. This is where participants can place items such as feathers, amulets, special objects, to receive blessings during the ceremony.
One end of a willow branch is placed in a six inch hole and secured in the ground. Another willow branch is placed the same way on the ground, directly across the pit from the first one. Ken bent the willows toward each other to form a dome shape. I held them in position and Ken secured them with twine. We moved on to the next two and the next two, until we had created a dome shaped base structure. We then took willow branches, bent and secured them horizontally to support the vertical willows and help secure and make the shell sturdy. There are seven horizontal rows of willow branches, each row representing one of the teachings of the seven directions. As each horizontal row of willow branches is put in place, we think about the significance of the seven directions and the seven teachings.
The Seven Directions
A brief description of each direction is as follows:
East - Color Red - Truth
South - Color Yellow - kindness
West - Color Black - Sharing
North - Color White - Caring
Sky - Color Blue - Strength
Earth - Color Green - Respect
Creator - Color Purple - Humility
To finish off the construction we took heavy carpets and blankets and secured them over the dome we had created with the willow branches. We got a piece of wood the width of the doorway Ken had created at the east side of the lodge. We attached four or five heavy blankets to the piece of wood and secured it in place over the entrance. Ideally, no light is supposed to get into the lodge from the outside during the ceremony.
The basic structure is now complete.
Fire For the Grandfathers
Have you participated in a Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony?
A Fire Pit and Grandfathers
A fire pit is dug and located thirty to forty feet away from the lodge, in a straight line from the east doorway of the lodge. The Grandfathers, or Spirits, come from the sky, following the path of smoke from the fire. The path from the fire to the lodge is referred to as the spiritual path. The Grandfathers, the Spirits that have come to hear out prayers and give us strength, follow the spiritual path into the lodge. Cedar boughs are often laid on this path. Once the fire is started and preparations for the ceremony are underway, with the exception of the conductor and the firekeeper, participants are not supposed to cross the path as this is seen as disrespectful to the Spirits.
Large rocks, ideally the size of a man's head, are used to represent the Grandfathers. Spirits that are prayed to during the ceremony are referred to as Grandfathers. Lava rocks are often used as they are capable of withstanding and absorbing intense heat from the fire. The Grandfathers, the number varies depending on personal preference of the conductor, usually twenty-eight, are placed in the bottom of the fire pit. Sufficient wood is then placed upright in the firepit, leaving small 'doorways' in each of the four directions to place dry moss or paper to get the fire started.
Many conductors have a designated fire keeper. The fire keeper lights the fire a few hours before the ceremony begins in order to heat the Grandfathers. The fire keeper is responsible for tending to the fire. He/she is also given the responsibility of bringing the Grandfathers in to the sweat lodge, one at a time, to begin the ceremony. The firekeeper and the conductor work together to bring the energies of the Grandfathers to the lodge in a good way.
A large pot of water is placed close to, or in, the fire to heat up the medicines used during the ceremony. These medicines are splashed on the Grandfathers during the ceremony. The medicines release steam and incredibly amazing aromas.
Cedar and sage are two medicines often used during a ceremony. There are many medicines, each with its own meaning and blessing. Cedar is used for kindness, sage for clearing away negative energy and to bring harmony.
How to Begin
When the conductor feels the Grandfathers are glowing hot enough, it is time for the ceremony to begin. Comfortable and loose clothing is worn in the lodge. Most women wear long cotton dresses, the men wear shorts or sweatpants. It is advisable to bring water into the lodge to stay hydrated.
The women enter the lodge first. We walk around the outside perimeter clockwise, to honor the natural order and energies of the Universe. After walking around the outside of the lodge the participant kneels down in the doorway, blesses the Grandfathers and enters the lodge keeping to the left, circling to the right, one at a time. When everyone is in, all the woman are on the right, all men on the left. The pot of medicines is brought in and placed by the pit inside the lodge to be splashed on the Grandfathers by the conductor during the ceremony.
The Ceremony Continues
Some people bring their drums into the lodge with them, if they are lucky enough to have one, to beat during the ceremony. Pictured above is my drum. It was made by one of Ken's good friends. Ken gave it to me when he received another one, made by the same friend. The drum itself is covered in Elk hide stretched tight on a round frame. The Thunderbird on my drum is an original work of art by Ken.
The conductor asks the firekeeper to begin bringing in the Grandfathers. The Grandfathers are brought in one at at time. The conductor asks one or more of the participants to sprinkle on dry medicines, cedar, sage or one of the many other medicines used, to bless each Grandfather as it is brought in to the lodge.
Seven Grandfathers are brought in by the firekeeper, one for each of the directions, east, south, west and north, one for the sky, one for the earth and one the Creator. When the firekeeper is done he enters the lodge (if invited by the conductor). The door is closed and the ceremony begins. Ideally, inside the lodge is pitch black aside from the Grandfathers that are glowing red in the center pit.
Most sweat lodge ceremonies have four rounds.
The first round is to honor and pray for the Grandfathers, Grandmothers and the Creator.
During the second round we pray for our brothers and sisters, two-legged, four-legged, finned and winged.
During the third round the participants pray for specific people, places and things. This is the round to pray for our brothers and sisters that are still suffering with addictions and heartache, to pray for people suffering due to natural disasters such as the recent catastophic earthquake in Japan, for animals that are displaced and threatened due to callous actions of man.
The fourth round is for the participants to pray for themselves, for help with their weaknesses,trials and tribulations.
The length of each round depends on how many people are participating. The first round is generally the gentlest in terms of heat. There are just seven Grandfathers. The conductor usually begins each round by beating his drum and singing. Participants join in or remain silent, depending on personal preference. When the song, or songs, are finished, the conductor passes the feather to the participant on his left. That person then proceeds to pray, aloud or in silence, again it depends on personal preference, giving thanks to the Creator and the Grandmothers and Grandfathers, for all that was, all that is, and all that will be.
When that person is done, they feel around in the darkness for the participant to their left, pass the feather to him/her and it is now that person's turn to pray. This continues until everyone has been given the opportunity to pray and share. As each person prays, the conductor splashes medicines from the pot onto the red hot Grandfathers. He splashes four times in honor of the four directions. If there are many people in the lodge and/or the lodge is really hot, the conductor will have everyone pray in simultaneously and in silence, to hasten the length of the round. When the end of the round is reached everyone says, "In the name of all my relations", the door is opened. There is a short interlude, ten or fifteen minutes so people can cool down. The firekeeper is then asked by the conductor to bring in seven more Grandfathers with a pitchfork, one at a time, and the next round begins. Each subsequent round is usually hotter than the last. There are fourteen Grandfathers during the second round, twenty one during the third, twenty eight during the fourth, and last, round.
Heat rises and when I feel challenged by the heat I will lay down and get my face as close to the ground as I possibly can. The heat experienced inside the lodge is unique to each person. I may feel like I can barely tolerate the heat meanwhile the person next to me may not feel any discomfort at all. If at any time during a round, a participant is overwhelmed by heat or emotion that is too much for them, all they need to say is, "In the name of all my relations." The conductor will immediately open the door to let the participant out of the lodge. The door is again closed and the round resumes.
Often participants will share deeply personal concerns and issues. Trust is very important and confidentiality is paramount.
The Lodge In Summer
Ending the Sweat Ceremony
Ken was taught to bring fresh berries to share at the end of the fourth round. After the door is opened, a bowl of fresh berries is passed around, with each person also offering some to the Grandfathers. At some ceremonies, participants bring food dishes and a feast is shared.
The ceremony is about balancing energies and honoring our Creator.
There is much more to a sweat lodge and ceremony than what I have written here. This is but a small snapshot.
The sweat lodge is a kind and gentle way to practise and pray for one's spiritual beliefs. It offers a positive sense of community and helps create bonds with people. It also helps one realise that they are supported in their journey to spiritual peace.