Sweat Lodge Etiquette
By Dancing Crane
Dogwood Council has been having more sweat lodge's lately, and friends of the Council have been asking about sweats, what they are, who is welcome and how they should behave and dress.
First, I want to say sweat lodge's are not for everyone. The ceremony brings you spiritually to the womb, of the Mother Earth and physically tests you with earth, air, fire and water. The physical tests are not for those with personal conditions that are exacerbated by confined space, heat, steam, and close proximity to others. The four rounds or doors of the sweat are often called "endurances" because you are asked to endure physical tests of your body. The endurance's purify the body and increase one's "spirit."
I have been "sweating" since Cliff Bain led a sweat lodge in 1973 or thereabouts. Cliff had gone up to provide assistance to the Lakota people in the Wounded Knee incident of that year. The elders told him to take the sweat back home. He did. It was informal, full of youthful vigor and the power of well-intentioned innocence. I have been sweating for a long time since that first sweat with Cliff, long enough to have developed some opinions, and what follows is my opinion.
My first sweat lodge was dark, crowded and hot. The sweat lodge was too low and one of its coverings had a zipper that burned my back. The earth was rough and prickly since it had not been cleaned and smoothed completely. I was lost in a very strange place and it seemed so were the others. Many of the songs and prayers were in an unfamiliar language. By the end of the fourth round we were no longer lost we had found each other through sharing our innermost feelings and having endured.
Since my first sweat lodge, l have sweated with leaders who are sundancers, sufi's, Rainbow People and ordinary people who were willing to take on the role of pouring water. These leaders were from Cherokee, Lakotas, Potowatimes, Dine, Arapaho, and Rainbow peoples. The strongest sacred sweat tradition is that of the Sundancers, no matter what people they are from.
Some sweat lodge traditions focus upon healing vapors. With certain herbs the vapors that come
off the stones are very healing. This type of sweat lodge is not a challenge for a healthy person. It is purifying, comfortable, and relaxing, and is designed for the physically ill and debilitated.
What many people call full blood sweats are designed to challenge and purify you physically, mentally, and spiritually. These sweats are usually led by Sundancers. They heal and strengthen the spirit, force the mind into relaxing and push the body to its limits. They teach the tests of survival! Most sweats measure somewhere between "healing vapors" and "full blood." For me there are two basic kinds of sweats: family and teaching. Teaching sweats are led by someone who is looked upon as a teacher of ceremony, usually an outsider with known expertise. A teaching sweat provides an environment for learning, and the attendants are not familiar with the leader or most of the other participants. The intent of the teaching sweat is to teach and to purify. 0n the other hand, at family sweats almost everyone knows each other and the primary intent is purification. There are also sweats whose specific purpose is to aid in healing or the vision quest.
I did not divide the type of sweats into traditional and new age because I believe that someone with more knowledge and experience than myself should discuss the differences between these two. But I will say the trouble some new agers encounter regarding sweats revolves around money. A traditional sweat leader does not seek money for ceremony, and frowns upon anyone who does a sweat or purification ceremony for money.
Furthermore, they will shun any student who performs a ceremony for money. Compensation should be given to those who bring us ceremony, but compensation needs to be freely given. Too many people who are in and of the dominant culture find it difficult to give, especially if there is no price. And when they ask for a price and you tell them it is a give-away from the heart, they look at you blankly and don't know how to respond.
The problem of compensation is small for family sweats. The family knows what each person has donated, and also knows the means and abilities of each person. More is expected from those able to give more, and those who can truly give from their hearts are rewarded by their own reputations.
The family knows the work that goes into tending, preparing and protecting the land, maintaining the coverings, gathering the wood, building and guarding the fire, keeping the door, "pouring the water," leading the prayers, and providing for the feast afterwards. If you don't help out, provide food, or otherwise contribute, you won't be asked back. If you cannot contribute physically, it is appropriate to give a gift to those who work hard for you. If you do not contribute, you owe a debt to all involved.
For teaching sweats compensation becomes a problem because the leader usually comes from afar. The distance traveled is a real expense. Helping the teacher feel at home here is a real expense. And all the physical effort mentioned in the above paragraph are real expenses for someone. We in the Council have dealt with the situation in a number of ways: the Council has provided compensation, we have put out a donation basket, and we have asked people to give gifts to the teachers.
The gift should be wrapped (a bandanna is good to use) and given with tobacco. The gift could be money and should be compensation for travel, and so on. It is best for all the gifts to be gathered up and presented as one. They should be given from the heart in a modest fashion so that there is no judgment of who gave too little and who gave too much. '
A gift should be given to the "teacher" for interpreting a vision, a special healing prayer, or otherwise communicating with spirits. Usually this is a spirit gift of tobacco and sometimes it is more.
In regard to the sweat itself, there are few norms of traditional etiquette. One enters the sweat lodge and moves in the lodge Sun-wise, to the left when you face the center of the lodge. Earth-wise is sometimes used for certain purposes, Upon entering and departing one states that "We are all related," Ni-Kso-Ko-Wa. Women in their "moon" (menstruating) do not attend. All attendees are "smudged." From the fire to the lodge is a "spirit path" that normally is not crossed, except by the door keeper or fire tender. Modest dress is expected at the sweat lodge.
Modest dress for women normally means a loose fitting cotton dress. Some women make a "sweat dress" out of towels. For others it is a "sweat" or swim suit. For men, shorts or swim suits are normal. Some men wear a breech cloth. At times people use either a large towel or other cloth as modest covering. For safety's sake no metal or large adornment should be worn.
The most important part of sweat lodge etiquette is silence. The silence I am talking about is personal. The lodge itself is loud, with the hissing of water on red hot rocks and the chant and prayers of others. Silence is needed to pay attention to the other attendees and to the leader. The leader will direct and guide the ceremony and convey speciaI instructions, which is very difficult to do without silence. One learns to "endure" by observing physically and spiritually how the others endure. Sometimes a word of help is needed to overcome one's physical stress or fear, but the word cannot be heard without silence. Observation and attention are activities of silence.
There are many simi1arities and differences among ceremonies of sweat leaders. The commonality is based upon the four elements, four directions, the four winds, the four ages and so on. It is wise to know the leader and the ceremony before you sweat. Each sweat is different, not just because the leaders are human but because the earth, air, fire and water are different with the seasons. If you are concerned about how a sweat will be led, ask if you can observe from the outside of the lodge. It is normal etiquette for a leader to let you do this. A great deal can be learned from outside the lodge which can enhance your participation in the ceremony in the lodge.
The sweat is a very old and powerful ceremony. It has been kept alive by Native Americans in spite of genocide and religious persecution. I want to thank all Sundancers, all teachers and all ordinary people who have protected and brought forward this ceremony. It is good etiquette to be thankful.
Grant Redhawk - AKA 'Two Feathers'
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