The sweat lodge is found among most—but not all—Indian cultures in North America. Today, participation in the sweats is often an affirmation of Indian heritage and culture for both reservation and urban Indians. For some people the sweat is done for purification, both physical and spiritual. For others it is a social and cultural experience. For a few, it is an experience of immense spiritual significance which connects the past with the present and the present with the future.
The actual structure of the sweat varies greatly from region to region and from tribe to tribe. In addition, different medicine people within the same cultural traditional may built their sweat lodges in a different manner. It is not possible to say that “All sweat lodges …”
In this article, I would like to describe the symbolism involved in the construction of a modern sweat lodge. It must be stressed that this symbolism is not universal. What is described below is simply one way of visualizing the sweat lodge.
One of the most common structural forms of the sweat lodge is based on the wigwam: a dwelling common among the Indian nations of the Northeast. Basically, the wigwam had a frame of bent saplings which resemble an inverted bowl. Over this frame some type of coverings are laid. In the Northeastern wigwam this covering was often birchbark or woven mats.
For many people the sweat lodge structure functions to keep the light out (or the dark in) and to keep the heat in. For other people, particularly those who are deeply involved with a tribal medicine path, the structure of the sweat lodge has great symbolic significance. While there are those who view the sweat lodge as a functional structure, there are others who see it as a living entity, a structural which is alive.
The basic construction of the sweat lodge involves placing saplings in the ground and then bending them over to form the form. Symbolically, it is important that these saplings be grounded in Mother Earth for this represents the role which Mother Earth plays in healing, in purification, in obtaining spiritual experiences. With the saplings grounded in the earth, the sweat lodge becomes a living entity.
The first two poles are placed in the north. North is the direction of dreams. Dreams are the special gift which were given to human beings at the time of creation and as a spiritual entity, the construction of the sweat lodge begins by symbolizing this gift. By placing the first two poles in the north, we also symbolically show that we understand the creation story behind the gift of dreams to human beings.
The western north pole represents old dreams, dreams fulfilled. The eastern north pole represents new dreams, dreams which are coming, dreams which have not been fulfilled. This pole may also represent those dreams which we do not yet understand.
The next two poles are placed in the south. It is from the manitous (spirits) that live in the south that we obtain words. Words are living things and live long after they have been spoken. In placing these two poles, we symbolically show that we are aware of the power of our words and we ask that we speak words which bring about healing and harmony, which bring happiness and health.
The western south pole represents words which have been spoken. The eastern south pole represents words which will be spoken.
The four poles—the two on the north and the two on the south—are bent over and attached to each other. This action symbolically represents the connection between dreams and words. It shows the need to talk about our dreams and in this way to help complete the dream and to discover its meaning.
The next two poles are placed in the west. The west is the direction of the setting sun and thus represents death. In many Indian traditions, death is not seen as something to be feared or as something which is unnatural. Death is a part of life. It is common to hear the expression “It is a good day to die” and many will add to this “as I have lived well.” Accepting death as natural means that one should try always to live well.
The symbolism of death in the construction of the sweat lodge is not just a symbol of the physical death of the body, but of the death or ending of traits, characteristics, and other aspects of human life. Those who come into the sweat lodge seeking change in their lives are seeking the death or ending of certain things in their lives.
The northern west pole represents dreams of death, dreams of the ancestors, dreams of the past. The southern west pole represents the words and wisdom of the ancestors.
The next two poles are placed in the east. The east is the direction of the rising sun and thus represents birth, rebirth, and new beginnings.
The northern east pole represents dreams and visions of new ventures. This pole represents those dreams which challenge us to attempt new things, to change the direction of our lives. The southern east pole represents the words which need to be spoken.
The four poles—the two poles on the west and the two poles on the east—are bent over and attached to each other. This act symbolizes continuity and harmony. It represents the continuous cycle of birth and rebirth, of reincarnation.
By the act of symbolically connecting the west and the east, the dreams of the ancestors are directly connected to the dreams of the future. The words of the ancestors are directly connected to the words which need to be spoken.
One pole is placed in the north, to the west of the first two poles. This pole represents moozo, the moose, and symbolizes our relationship with and our dependence upon the animal people. Traditionally, it was the animal people who sustained the human people and made life possible.
One pole is placed in the south, to the west of the second two poles. This pole represents adikmeg, the whitefish, and represents leadership. In many cultural traditions true leadership is not openly seen—there are no royal robes or crowns to symbolize who is the leader. Instead, leadership is based upon words—words of wisdom and true experience, words which bring about harmony and hold the people together, words which seek to restore balance rather than create dissention—and upon actions.
These two poles are bent over and attached to each other. This act symbolizes the importance of good leadership, of unseen leadership. It symbolizes the need for leadership which sustains and nourishes the people.
One pole is placed in the north, to the west of the first two poles. This pole represents mahkwa, the bear. It is the bear who provides the sweat lodge with protection, who makes sure that nothing evil is able to enter this sacred place. The symbolism of the bear also serves as a reminder of the great healing power of sleep.
One pole is placed in the south, to the west of the second two poles. This pole represent neegig, the otter. The otter represents the healing power of laughter and the need to enjoy life and to play. Some people, accustomed to the somber European traditions of religion, are sometimes startled to find that laughter and play are a part of the sweat lodge ceremony.
The two poles are bent over and attached to each other. In this way, the strength of the bear and the playfulness of the otter are connected. Both are needed in spiritual healing and spiritual growth.
One pole is placed in the north, to the west of the first moozo (moose) pole. This pole also represents moozo.
One pole is placed in the north, to the east of the first makwa (bear) pole. This pole is another symbolic representation of the bear.
The two poles—moose and bear—are bent over and attached to each other. With the act, the moose, symbolizing sustenance, is connected with bear, symbolizing strength.
One pole is placed in the south, to the west of the first adikmeg (whitefish) pole. This is another symbolic representation of whitefish.
One pole is placed in the south, to the east of the first neegig (otter) pole. This is another symbolic representation of otter.
The two poles—whitefish and otter—are bent over and attached to each other. With this act, whitefish, representing leadership, is symbolically connected with otter, representing playfulness. In other words, leaders need to be playful, they need to maintain their sense of humor, they need to laugh with the people.
There are now 16 poles, each anchored in Mother Earth and therefore symbolically alive, which arch over to enclose the sacred space.
The next step in completing the sweat lodge frame is to weave four horizontal rows of poles around the lodge to represent the four cycles of creation. For some ceremonial leaders it is important that each one of these rows form a complete circle.
In many cultural traditions, the door of the sweat lodge faces east, the direction of the rising sun, thus symbolizing the rebirth of the participants as they emerge from the lodge. In some traditions, the door faces west; among many Plateau cultures, the door faces downstream (the Plateau lodge is always located near running water).
The size of the door also varies from culture to culture. In some traditions, the doorway is kept low so that the participants must enter the lodge on their knees or on their stomachs, a reminder of their humility within the womb of Mother Earth.
In the symbolism of the lodge which I have been describing, the door covering is fastened not to the lodge, but to the earth. Two long ropes reach from the top of the door covering, over the lodge, and then are fastened to the earth (either by stakes in the ground or by tying them to living trees). This symbolizes the cycle of death (the west) and birth (the east).
Once the lodge is completely sealed and air tight collect the red-hot stones (using a pitchfork) and carry them into the lodge.
Introduce yourself to a Native American Elder and ask if he/she would be willing to include you in a sweat ceremony. Be extremely careful with the hot stones. I recommend only doing a sweat ceremony with an Elder (Step1). The best rocks are called "peridotite" (peridotite is a dense, coarse-grained igneous rock) or - buy your rocks from a place that makes or sells sauna kits.
The (extremely hot) stones are placed carefully into the hole in the center of the circle. As soon as everyone enters the lodge (clockwise), the door flaps are closed. The ceremony is performed in 4 cycles. The Elder sprinkles tobacco over the hot stones and the aroma fills the lodge.
At the beginning of each cycle water is poured over the rocks.
Cycle 1: The Elder offers prayers to the four directions, Grandfather/ God and Mother Earth.
Cycle 2: Prayers for the universe, the four-legged, the winged, the plants, the water spirits and all of mankind.
Cycle 3: Prayers for all taking part in the ceremony and their love circles.
Cylce 4: Prayers for the strength everyone needs to live each day, for peace in the world for all.
The elder then adds a piece of sage into the Pipe bowl and first offers the Pipe to the four directions, Grandfather/God and Mother Earth.