The sweat lodge ceremony is one of the most
common ceremonies practiced by Native American people. Sweats may
be conducted as a preliminary to other activities, such as a fast.
Sweats may also be done for healing. The purpose behind all of
these, however, is simple spiritual cleansing. The lodge is
designed to provide a safe, sacred place where the participants
can concentrate on the spirits that are invited to the ceremony.
These spirits are brought in with the 'grandfathers', which are
the stones that are heated in the fire. Splashing water on the
grandfathers creates steam, and we then have all four elements present
in the lodge: earth below, air around, fire in the grandfathers
and water in the steam.
CONSTRUCTING THE LODGE
A private place is preferred for a sweat
lodge, to ensure that there will be no interruptions or
distractions. A natural area is best, as it enhances the
connection between the lodge and the Earth. A positive frame of
mind should be maintained at all times while constructing the
Typical sweat lodge frame
The lodge is constructed of flexible saplings,
and is made in a dome shape. For maximum flexibility, collect the
saplings right after a good rain. The lodge can be any size, but
larger lodges are harder to heat thoroughly - we make ours about 4
meters in diameter, and limit the number of people if
The butts of the saplings are embedded in the
ground, and bend towards each other from opposite sides of the
structure. They are secured by weaving them into the structure,
and by braiding the branches at the ends around the sapling
opposite. If anything else is required, we use a natural material,
such as spruce roots, cotton cloth or sisal twine.
In the center is a pit, into which the
grandfathers will be placed by the Firekeeper. The entrance is
made facing east, toward the sacred fire. The entire structure is
covered with layers of heavy but breathable fabric, like canvas -
we use military surplus tents. Be very thorough in ensuring that
no light leaks into the lodge.
THE SACRED FIRE
The Sacred Fire
A few meters to the east, we make
the sacred fire in which the grandfathers are heated. We first
create a small platform of pieces of firewood, on which the
grandfathers are carefully stacked in a pyramidal pile. Kindling
and more firewood are then stacked around the grandfathers,
building into a tepee shape that is sometimes called the Lodge of
the Sacred Fire. An opening is left facing the sweat lodge, and is
used for lighting the fire, after which it is quickly closed. By
the way, it is not the size of the fire that matters - it is our
prayers that heat the grandfathers. From personal experience, we
can vouch for that, having seen red-hot grandfathers coming from a
smallish fire made with wet wood. By preference, we will use birch
and maple for firewood.
The best type of stones for a
sweat are igneous. Above all, do NOT use sedimentary stones
that come from a wet area, as they will explode when heated. In
our area, we collect quartzite and basalt cobbles from the sea
shore, which are perfect for the task. The stones should be
somewhere between eight and fourteen inches in girth; larger ones
hold heat longer.
The grandfathers can be re-used,
if you desire, but we usually collect new grandfathers for each
sweat. When we collect, we make our intentions known, then we pay
attention: some stones will volunteer to be taken home, and others
will not. Of course, don't forget your offering!
There are many different sweat lodge
ceremonies, each with somewhat different proceedings. In
many cases the sweat will be done in four rounds, in other cases
it is done as a single round. The number of grandfathers varies
from one type to the next. In general, however, here's how it
The lodge is thoroughly smudged before
use, and cedar may be placed on the floor. The pit is cleared
of any grandfathers from the previous sweat.
The first grandfather represents the
Creator, and is brought into the lodge by itself. The Conductor then enters the lodge to greet and smudge the
NOTE: once the first grandfather has
entered the lodge, a sort of pathway or umbilical cord
exists between the sacred fire and the lodge, along which
spirits will enter the lodge; other than the Fire Keeper,
nobody should ever cross this line.
When told, the Fire Keeper then brings in
the remaining grandfathers for the round, one at a time,
placing them where the Conductor directs. The Conductor again
welcomes and smudges each one.
When all grandfathers have been brought
in, the participants may enter the lodge. Generally, men enter
first, and move clockwise around the pit to their positions in
the north. Women follow, and sit in the south. As each person
enters, they say "Msit No'kmaq" or "All my
When everyone has entered, and the water
container has been passed into the lodge, the Conductor will
call for the door to be closed. This may be the task of a
separate Door Keeper, but generally the Fire Keeper does this.
Each round of the sweat is dedicated to one of the
sacred directions, and the spirits and elements of that direction
are honoured in a prayer by the Conductor. Each participant may
then be offered a chance to pray or speak as well. The Conductor
splashes water on the grandfathers to create steam and fill
the lodge with heat; as we sweat, impurities are taken from
our bodies. The Conductor is also responsible for controlling
the energies within the lodge, and for keeping the
participants safe while they are spiritually open and
vulnerable. This can take quite a toll on the Conductor.
When the round is complete, the Conductor
will call for the door to open. Participants may be offered a
chance to leave the lodge to stretch, and water may be passed
around for a drink. Finally, when directed by the Conductor,
the Fire Keeper will bring in the next round of grandfathers,
and the process is repeated.
Depending on the Conductor, the sweat may or
may not be very hot. Since we frequently do sweats for beginners,
we tend to keep ours moderate, allowing participants to concentrate on the spirits and the ceremony
rather than on breathing and staying conscious. However,
sometimes the spirits have other ideas!
We also make it known
that anyone can leave the lodge at any time, simply by asking for
the door to be opened. Sometimes, people enter the lodge for the
wrong reasons, and if the spirits want that person to leave, we
will not keep him/her in. In other cases, the person may simply be
claustrophobic. However, they can still be part of the sweat lodge
by sitting outside the lodge and adding prayers and energy to the
When the sweat is over, the
participants emerge from the sweat lodge spiritually and
physically cleansed. Many feel that they are being reborn as they
emerge, since the lodge has a womb-like feeling. Generally
everyone gathers for a small feast afterwards, so
that the good feelings continue for a time, and a bond can be
formed between the participants.