Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The sweat lodge is a contemporary religious ritual of ancient origin used by Native Americans throughout the Great Plains. Eastern Indian groups removed to the Plains by the U.S. government also engage in ceremonial sweating. Groups like the Cherokees and Chickasaws originally utilized permanent, domeshaped log houses with subterranean floors that were also used for sleeping in winter. This entry will focus on the original Plains groups, among whom the ceremony takes place in a small, circular domed structure constructed of pliable saplings (often willow) with a single entrance facing a specific cardinal direction. The frame of this impermanent structure is tightly covered, formerly with skins but today with blankets, tarps, and sometimes sheet plastic. A pit is dug in the lodge to receive stones that are heated in a fire outside the lodge. This fireplace and frequently a mounded altar constructed of earth excavated from the interior pit are aligned with the entrance of the lodge.

The ceremony consists in entering the lodge, filling the pit with hot stones that are reverenced as ancient and spiritual in nature, pouring water on the hot rocks, praying, singing, speaking from one's heart, closing and opening the door a set number of times, and emerging from the lodge. Important elements in the ceremony that vary in emphasis from group to group are communication with the spiritual realm, moral and/or physical purification, the humbling of oneself, healing of self and/or others through the physical and/or spiritual agency of the sweat, and voluntary suffering to achieve a specific need or to fulfill a pledge for requests already granted.

Variations in the ceremony and structure of the lodge are accounted for by three factors: historic era, cultural group, and specific ritual leader. Nevertheless, there is remarkable consistency in the core ritual and structure across time and among different Plains groups. Variations include the incorporation of a prayer pipe and a variety of symbolic objects such as a buffalo skull placed on the altar outside of the sweat lodge; the erection of a pole on which to tie offerings; the use of switches made of sage, willow, cherry, buffalo tail, or horse hair; song accompaniment with a drum and/or rattle; the sacred use of plants such as sage, cedar, or pine needles; the pouring of herbal infusions on the rocks; drinking water between rounds and sometimes pouring it on oneself; spiritual supplication through crying; spiritual talks, particularly by the leader and sometimes other participants; joking when the door is open; and bathing in a cold stream at the conclusion of the ceremony.

The sweat lodge can be a ceremony in itself but is also used in preparation for other ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, sacred bundle ceremonies, vision quests, and sometimes Native American Church meetings. Among some tribes, men and women sweat together, while in others they are segregated. There are ritual restrictions for women in menses.

The ritual is widely used for marking significant life events, consoling and encouraging, protecting the group from misfortune such as disease, succeeding in battle and hunting, predicting future events, and averting future disaster. Many traditional stories of the revival of the dead through the agency of the sweat lodge attest to the great power of this ceremony.

The ceremony has markedly increased in practice since the beginning of the twentieth century, not only by Indian people on the reservations but more recently in urban areas, correctional facilities, veterans groups, and substance abuse treatment facilities. The spiritual strengthening and social conviviality inherent in the sweat serve to unite family members, Indians from different tribes, and non-Indians, although the proper place and role of outsiders in the sweat lodge and in Indian ritual in general are controversial.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Native American Traditional Architecture.

Raymond A. Bucko Le Moyne College

Bruchac, Joseph. The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends. Freedom CA: Crossing Press, 1993.

Bucko, Raymond A., S.J. The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge: History and Contemporary Practice. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

Vecsey, Christopher. "The Genesis of Phillip Deere's Sweat Lodge." In Imagine Ourselves Richly: Mythic Narratives of North American Indians, edited by Christopher Vecsey. New York: Crossroad, 1988: 206–32.

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