Today the Lakota Sioux tradition of group sweating is common throughout Native America. The basic structures of the sweat ceremony described here are typical across much of Native America today. Each community and each leader, however, has a particular style, and various elements are modified by each according to taste and needs. The principles behind the sweat lodge ceremony are purification of the spirit through prayer and sacrifice, and cleansing of the body through intense sweating, which eliminates toxins through the skin. Praying during the ritual is either silent or verbalized. It is understood that this is an act of reciprocity for the gifts one receives from the earth, or it could be taken as a form of supplication or prayer for one's needs, either spiritual or physical. Visionary experience is also an important aspect of the sweat ceremony. One learns to pray and seek visions, often through the guidance of the ceremonial leader, an experienced person honored in the community. In some Native American cultures, men and women sweat separately and in others they sweat together. Today the sweat ceremony has become very popular as a way of bringing Native American peoples back into the traditional ceremonies that have survived in spite of missionization by the churches and acculturation by the government.
The number of people participating is determined by the size of the sweat lodge itself. Usually anywhere from five to ten people may participate. The structure is usually eight to ten feet in diameter and is created by bending (usually) sixteen willow branches to form a five-foot dome with the ends of the branches buried in the ground. At the center of the lodge is a pit of three to four feet in diameter dug into the ground (usually with bare hands) in which heated rocks are placed. This framework is covered to contain the steam that will be created in the lodge. Once buffalo robes were used for this covering, though canvas, blankets, and rugs are more typical today. The opening faces the east where the sun rises. The earth that was dug from the center pit is used to create a path to the east and to build a small earthen altar. Farther over is the fire used for heating the rocks, often referred to as "Stone People," to a glowing red. The fire is tended by the fire keeper, who will also ladle the heated rocks into the lodge.
One enters the lodge in a sun-wise direction after having been given permission to enter by the leader of the sweat group. From the door in the east, one crawls around to the south, back toward the west, and as far toward the north and east as there is room left. Once everyone has entered the lodge, the leader offers tobacco at the pit in which the rocks will be placed. The leader fills the pipe, prays with it, and then it is passed around the circle for each to pray with. Sage is also lit and used to smudge, or cleanse, everything and everyone present. The tobacco and sage incense prepares the body and mind for a spiritual experience and purification. The leader then calls to the fire keeper to bring in the first rocks, or "Stone People." The first four stones are placed in the four directions, identified with the Four Winds, and then topped by two more stones representing the sky above and the earth below. A seventh stone is then placed on top, often representing an eagle or the Great Mystery, Wakantanka. Each stone is prayed over as it is placed at the proper spot in the pit. After this foundation is established, the remaining rocks—as many as the leader calls for—are placed in the pit. The leader then calls for a bucket of water and directs the fire keeper to close the entrance to the lodge.
Once the lodge is closed, the leader begins praying and ladling water onto the hot rocks. Led in song and prayer by the leader, the people pray and sing together in the darkness amidst the often intense heat. Prayers are said each time that water is poured on the rocks. There are four rounds, each one usually climaxing with a blast of steam, intense heat, and prayer, and finally the entrance of the lodge is opened to let some fresh air in and to provide relief. At this point the refrain "Mitakuye Oyasin!" ("All my relations") is often called out. After the fourth round, everyone leaves the lodge in a sun-wise direction and walks around the lodge, in a sun-wise direction as well. The participants depart to dress and prepare for a communal meal together. The experience of the sweat and the sharing of food and conversation afterward create a powerful sense of community.
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Walker, J. R. (b. 1849). Lakota Belief and Ritual. Edited by Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner. 1980.
Inez M. Talamantez